Political Quake Behind Christchurch Rebuild

- Fiona Farrell

There have been two kinds of quake in this city. The first was geological. The Earth shook, as it has shaken many times before. In different eras, this would have caused no more than some shock to the people living on the surface. They would simply have decamped, moved away from the wet places and the rock falls and set up home somewhere more solid. End of story. But in 2011, an earthquake has another dimension: it is a social and political event. We can adapt to the geological quake, but this other dimension is a completely different and more challenging matter.

In Haiti when a quake hit, a socially negligent government abandoned its people to chaos. In Japan, a highly organised system mended the mess left in Kobe within two years. The Christchurch quake is happening within a particular political setting. There is still a lot of that wonderful traditional community energy about, but this energy is being expressed within a wider political framework, led by a Government ideologically committed to not interfering in the workings of private business. Brownlee has said so explicitly in a media interview: “It’s now over to the insurers”.

So, the future of the city lies not with democratically elected government, but with private insurance companies: big transnational companies like State and Tower and EQC (the Earthquake Commission), which is at base not some benevolent government department like the old Ministry of Works, with blokes in cardies testing every rivet, but a Government entity that in 2009 entered into a contract with an international company, Gallagher Bassett Services, whose head office is a shiny tower on Two Pierce Place, Illinois. Gallagher Bassett became involved between the September and February quakes. Its Brisbane office has been helping to handle Christchurch’s crisis.

A company focus in Australia had been on managing workplace injury claims and before 2010 their intention was to expand that side of the business in New Zealand. They already had, as one of their managers said, a “strong spiritual if not physical presence” here, and many large employers keen to use their services (before 2009 they had, for instance, managed claims after the power black out in Auckland in 1998). Their Website promises to “quickly identify a problem and put a solution in place”. It is their personnel who answer the phone when you ring EQC to find out why you have had no reply to your enquiries. Another Queensland company, Verifact, was contracted to supply some of the assessors who began turning up our doorsteps after last September. Founded by Dan Cowley, former Wallaby and detective, Verifact’s services include testing claims for Australian workplace injuries. In Christchurch, their ex-cops with Aussie accents arrived, ticked the boxes, glanced under the floorboards to check the piles, told you your claim would be processed within a matter of weeks and departed in a flurry of mates-across-the-Tasman goodwill.

The city is in the big clammy paws of insurance companies and all the consultations, the vision groups, the creative planning meetings to determine the future shape of Our City are sideshows. The main event is determined by a Government that consistently agrees to be powerless before the demands of international business. In this system, New Zealanders are not citizens with rights but assets to be traded round a table. We make a profit or a loss for the shareholders in a company. Our wellbeing is not their primary focus.

The much maligned Nanny State, the Welfare State, had as its focus our individual well being. But not any more. Not in John Key’s New Zealand. That is why he can head off to India to have his photo taken with his wife at the Taj Mahal while people have grass growing in the living room and children have to be bathed in plastic barrels. He can exist in a kind of presidential isolation, his presence not really necessary, unless required for a flattering photograph.

The real force driving this city’s recovery is business negotiation. Private rather than public figures are dictating the pace of recovery. Their faces are not familiar from the television. Their voices are not heard answering hard questions on Morning Report. This is a 2011, free market, market-driven earthquake. People were shaken by the geological quake but many of the stories to emerge from it have been heroic. They have provided images for the media we have found awe inspiring: people dragged from buildings, people risking their own lives to help others. The other quake however, this political one, is simply sordid and painful, an endless tussle with private business.

And maybe it could be different. Disasters happen in a context. When the world markets crashed back in 1929, there was chaos in this country for six years. A conservative Government permitted suffering rather than intervene. It let the market decide. But in 1935, a different ideology was set in motion: things changed. People were able to attend a doctor, go to school, earn an income, live in a leakproof state home, lead a decent life. This quake is no different. It’s a disaster. But it’s how we react to disaster that makes the difference.

Fiona Farrell is a novelist and poet. In 2007 she won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. She has been a CAFCA member for more than a decade. Ed.

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