- Jeremy Agar
Mad On Radium
“The public are mad on radium” - the remark which provided Rebecca Priestley with her title - was the verdict of a Government scientist in 1914, when people were rushing to the Rotorua baths for a bracing dose of radiation therapy. Priestley says that sales of radon water peaked in 1916 at 8,500 glasses. At first, the dangers of radiation were not understood (pioneering scientist Marie Curie, who first extracted radium in 1902, being the best known victim). One reason for the enthusiasm was the 1895 discovery of X-rays, a major medical advance, so the early optimism is understandable. Priestley, a historian of science, outlines the development of policy that followed, tracing the changing attitudes over the next two generations, culminating in the 1987 nuclear-free legislation. It’s an intriguing journey.
As we all learned at school, Ernest Rutherford split the atom, but he figures here only in the background, having had no direct link to NZ science after he left for the UK. An assistant of Rutherford, Hans Geiger, invented a device, named after him, which detects the presence of uranium. One afternoon in 1955 two old geezers were prospecting at the side of the road in the Buller Gorge when their Geiger counter got over-excited. Uranium! And in large deposits! We were entering the nuclear age. Riches awaited. The Westport Mayor observed “a wave of optimism unknown in the district for more than 50 years”. In Christchurch the Press agreed. There was a “new liveliness in the main street of Westport during the brilliant weather while the ‘uranium boom’ was at its peak”. The country was going mad one more time.
It wasn’t to last. Although prospecting went on for 20 years, it turned out that there was not enough uranium to be economic. Other sites on the West Coast also came up empty. Priestley has unearthed a third aspect of atomic fever, a 1946 ad for Atomic Red lipstick. Put it on, girls, and you’ll be “devastating... all-conquering”. To be fair, this mood was global, a reaction which mixed relief that the Second World War was over and a sort of innocent apprehension about the act which ended it, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (now, in a lingering half-life, you’ll sometimes see “atomic” commercial enterprises, the mood having mellowed into a sort of nostalgia).
This immediate post-war period was crucial, setting the tone for what has followed. Priestley reminds us that while the women of NZ were applying their Atomic Red, the United Nations was establishing an Atomic Energy Commission. Only one country, the USA, had the bomb, the rationale for which had been the defeat of imperial Japan. It was in everyone’s interest to put the genie back in the bottle and screw the lid on tight. One country proposed that the United Nations should have the power to inspect for compliance and that the United States should surrender all its nuclear bombs and technology to the UN. In the light of everything that’s gone on since, it might astonish readers that the Baruch Plan came from America itself.
What Went Wrong?
We all know the answer to that. It was the Cold War. Priestley restricts herself here to pointing out that NZ suggested control over bombs be vested not in the Security Council, as proposed, but by the General Assembly of all member states. The fact that this was rejected suggests that the Baruch Plan might never have been serious. Why restrict power over a global concern to the few big players? Internal NZ political postures make for interesting reading, neither the Labour nor National parties being certain or consistent. Foreign policy had always tied itself to the UK but now, post-war, with American dominance, a previously default setting in support of British interests was no longer automatic. The UK wanted continued NZ compliance, and the National PM from 1949 to 1957, key years, was NZ-born Sid Holland, self-described as “a Britisher through and through”. Yet when the UK asked if it could test bombs on Kermadec Island, Holland said no. Priestley thinks, almost certainly correctly, that he was motivated by apprehension over public opinion.
The refusal was apparently unacceptable for British PM Anthony Eden, who let it be known that if no alternative place could be found for his bombs “he might be compelled to ask NZ to reconsider”. This formulation, coming across as contemptuous of NZ’s autonomy, is Priestley’s paraphrase. It would be instructive to know the exact language used. The tests went instead north to Christmas Island (now part of Kiribati), where the NZ Navy showed support by surveying the area for the UK. Such compromise and (what they’d call) pragmatism from mainstream politicians has marked most of what followed. Holland bought into deterrence theory, the assumption that bombs kept the peace, and Nationalists generally hoped that defence and foreign policy issues wouldn’t intrude on life.
Labour had the odd MP who spoke up against nukes, and in the 1957 election (not 1958, as Priestley writes) the Party campaigned on opposing all future testing. Keith Holyoake, Holland’s successor as National PM (1960-72), liked to keep quiet. Priestley says that he was “privately opposed” to nukes, but does not say how she knows Holyoake’s private thoughts. In her analysis of Holland she cites Wellington political scientist Barry Gustafson, who has written a biography of Holyoake in which he makes a similar assessment, so that’s probably her source. But in an account which intends (unsuccessfully) to avoid political judgements, should readers be asked to accept this, sight unseen? Shouldn’t we know her sources and be able to assess her reasoning? Again, in another context, we’re told that, while publicly going all the way with the USA, Holyoake privately warned the Yanks of adverse NZ public opinion if they tested in the Pacific. Evidence? Whatever was conveyed, the chance that a few deluded peaceniks in NZ - as they were doubtless described - would have had the tiniest influence on the State Department is risible. Any Holyoake comment risked nothing.
Laziness Of Opinion Leaders
A silent sub-text of the book is the laziness of NZ’s opinion leaders, who have rarely bothered to challenge the conventional wisdom. Holyoake’s carefully crafted image of bonhomie is a good example. We could continue to accept it at face value, and pass on to a new generation a consensus that his version of how he bravely told the Yanks where his principled government stood is sufficient proof in itself that nothing more need be known. But it’s recently come to our wider public knowledge that Holyoake consented to run for leader of the National Party only after having been bribed with the gift of a farm (Press, 26/2/13, “Corruption Exists By the Shovel Load”, Chris Trotter, http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/columnists/chris-trotter/8350614/Corruption-exists-by-the-shovel-load). Perhaps, some time over the last half century, in our tight little country, where everyone is said to know everyone, our historians could have looked at who paid for it and what they’ve received in return.
In contrast, in the context of the Cold War, deeply frozen in the late ‘40s, it is heartening to read that NZ’s first Hiroshima Day march took place in 1947 in Christchurch. That’s evidence of real moral courage, independent thinking and selfless patriotism, qualities not always to the fore in Parliament. Walter Nash, Labour PM from 1957 to 1960, reneged on his Party’s promise to oppose British nuclear testing, agreeing to fulfil National’s commitment. Priestley suggests that Nash, who had emigrated from the UK, was overcome by a loyalty to his roots. This would have been an influence, but not a determining one. More fundamentally, as his equivocating over the 1951 waterfront lockout had shown, Nash was a conservative Cold War warrior. In 1959, to further its credentials with the colonial masters, the Nash government concluded a secret agreement for the UK to fund the Buller search for uranium.
Nash’s predecessor and mentor, Peter Fraser, Labour PM from 1940 to 1949, had set the pattern. As global public opinion was mobilising against the war mongers, Fraser was content to denounce the 1950 Stockholm Peace Appeal as “just another Soviet weapon”, and in characteristic National condescension, Holland thought the peace movement was “sincere” but duped by “Communist propaganda”. Sid just knew that a “great deal of scientific information” had established that there was no risk to public health from nukes. If Nash was gutless, his Minister of Scientific and Industrial Research was comical. Carried exuberantly forward on a tsunami of nuclearism, Phil Holloway told NZ that nuclear science was opening up “miraculous possibilities”. These included the ability to convert 1,000 tons of sawdust a year into poultry food.
Holloway had been captured by then-orthodox opinion, bureaucracy and academia being overwhelmingly in favour of nuclear energy. Two examples from Priestley: a physics prof at Victoria University let it be known that nuclear science was “the crowning achievement” of modern knowledge; and a physics lecturer at Auckland expected that there would be ten nuclear power stations by 1975 to 1980. Throughout, the Electricity Department was nagging away for nuke plants, always over-emphasising future demand and ignoring alternative sources of energy. The preferred sites were north of Auckland, and a peninsula on the eastern coast of Kaipara Harbour would have hosted NZ’s first nuclear power plant.
As an informed consensus was forming over the risks of radiation from French nuclear tests in the Pacific, the National Radiation Laboratory was saying that they were no danger to public health. Three questions: (1) How do you argue with scientists, specialists in their field? (2) Was science motivating the scientists? (3) Is the response of the National Radiation Laboratory part of the reason why an irrational refusal to accept the scientific method is such a strong strain among NZ intellectuals? My answers: (1) Its’ opinion should be the best available opinion. (2) It was unreliable because the scientists were letting their naturally conservative personalities subdue their scientific rigour. (3) Probably.
Remarkable Shift In Wind
In retrospect the shift in the wind over the next decade was remarkable. Beyond its professional backers, opinion was hardening against nukes as more evidence became available; the health and environment movements grew in influence; the need for renewable energy became more insistent, and governing elites were increasingly distrusted. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents helped, as of course did the government of France’s terrorism. But as important as these events and social trends might have been, Priestley argues that they were not decisive. She makes a good case for seeing higher than earlier estimates of costs and lower estimates of future electricity demand as the key reasons for a cooling attitude, more so within National than Labour. While Labour was still pushing for nuclear power, National was advocating the Cook Strait cable that we now have.
Compared to the present outfit, the Holyoake Nationalists were indeed moderate, prepared to trim their sails to prevailing winds, even supporting some symbolic anti-war measures. This course was reversed by Muldoon (1975-1984), who thought that peace advocates were “woolly-minded”, while he was “realistic”. The puerile insults were back and normal disservice had resumed. Until David Lange was boxed in by the luck of circumstances and found it expedient to come out against all nukes, both main parties had shied away from a direct challenge to foreign power. In a shrewd observation, Priestley notes that on one day in 1976 Wellington’s Dominion carried front page stories on the inevitability of nuclear power and on an upcoming visit by a nuclear-powered US warship. On page three it carried the less important news that Parliament had voted down a proposal to declare NZ nuclear-free and to prohibit nuclear weapons and reactors. Never mind that the politicians were rejecting a petition signed by 330,000. The editor might have relegated the story as the vote was not in doubt.
One man’s career could serve as a sort of representative of officialdom’s twisting inconsistencies. Ernest Marsden joined Rutherford’s team in Manchester in 1909 as a 20-year old student and remained close to the centre of nuclear policy in NZ, the UK and the US for the rest of his working life. Priestley notes how he veered from automatic support for nuclearism, based on an initial excitement about research, to a partial opposition when he knew too much science. It seems also that for Marsden it was OK to be upset about the Pacific, but not OK to ruffle the Mother Country. Ways to help out British nukes kept coming back. That none of the projects was enacted was more through fluky timing than deliberate decision.
The Ministry of Civil Defence was set up in 1959, primarily as a response to nuclearism. In the event of war, the Ministry thought, the most likely targets were Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. This is unlikely. For an attacker, assumed to be Russia, NZ would be significant only as it was connected to a British or American war strategy. This should have been obvious to the deep thinkers even back then, but it took Canta, the student newspaper at Canterbury University, to point out that the plausible local target would be the airport because of its role in helping out the US Air Force.
Officialdom, then, was wrong about everything, about nuclear power and nuclear war, overstating the need for the former, understating the risks of the latter, and understanding the politics of neither. When the subject is nuclear energy, are we talking science or economics, or are we talking war policy or foreign policy? In their confusion, the elites haven’t been alone. The debate in NZ has been almost exclusively about health and the environment, so that political aspects of nuclearism have usually been ignored or misconstrued.
Author Misleading On Foreign Policy
When it comes to foreign policy, Priestley is herself misleading, accepting at face value as objective facts the prejudices of her secondary sources. She’s anxious to get to her point, which is domestic science policy, but, in her haste, she seems again to be relying on a single (Cold War American) historian. We read, for instance, that “the arms race continued ... The 1957 Sputnik raised the spectre of intercontinental nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons launched from space”. This was because ‘[t]he Soviet President [sic] wanted the West to be fearful of the Communist superpower... Khrushchev openly, repeatedly and bloodcurdingly, threatened the West with nuclear annihilation”.
He didn’t actually. It’s more that Khrushchev expressed himself in extravagant metaphors and banged his shoes on the table in the United Nations. Behind the tantrums, there existed a moderate reformer who had better things to spend his money on than missiles. But anyway the whole “debate” was based on a shaky premise. Better dead than red, the US advocates of a first-strike against the former USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) used to say. The less fervent would reply that it was better red than dead. If matters had been as Priestley reports, then that would have been humanity’s choice. It would have been WW2 all over again, when the logic was we get Hitler or Hitler gets us. Fight or flight. For the Holyoakes of the world this dilemma was welcome as it enabled him to say, as he did in 1962, that the big surge in US nuclear weaponry at the time was an unfortunate necessity. The Russians made them do it, Kiwi Keith sighed. We don’t, alas, live in a perfect world. Priestley endorses this, and if the choice were between getting wiped out by the commies or making a few more bombs to deter them, who wouldn’t?
But although he wrote this as recently as 2005, John Lewis Gaddis, Priestley’s source for this once common interpretation, was mired back in the Cold War. More reliable scholarship has shown that President Kennedy was lying. His side had a big lead in weaponry, and the Russkies did not at the time have the capacity to threaten the US mainland (the Cuban Missile Crisis needs to be seen in this context. A panicking Khrushchev was both trying to deter a US invasion of Cuba and to compensate for Russia’s inability to do so). Moscow’s weapons of mass destruction did not exist.
Or take this sentence about a British plant being built in 1954, when the Soviets had been even further behind in the “race”: “The primary - and secret - purpose of the Calder Hall nuclear reactor, and many of the reactors that followed, was to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The generation of electricity, a secondary purpose of the reactors, was a way to help fund the weapons programme”. That’s all she says on the matter, leaving unanswered such essential questions as to why the Brits would lie. Why would they build a plant with a secret purpose, which was not really to generate electricity at all? Why not come clean about the weapons? Why were the weapons needed? Why couldn’t the British electorate know how much of their taxes were going on nukes?
Or another NZ example. In 1956, Priestley reports, the US offered us a reactor at half price. But although she refers to this gesture several times, she doesn’t ask why the Yanks would be so generous. Do they often offer customers leading edge technology at half price? Do they ever? So why just then? Having decided against the nuclear power option, Holyoake turned down the deal, causing the Secretary of External Affairs to express his view that it “may be difficult for the United States authorities to understand ... causing some embarrassment in our relations with the Americans”. The toadies at Foreign Affairs have always tugged the forelock, but even for them this is surely excessive cringe. That’s because their motivation was entirely military. They would have been hoping that one day NZ might become an American aircraft carrier.
It’s Dangerous Not To Know Your History
In the bad old days a nuclear sub docked at Auckland and Wellington and the press fell in love with her beauty and power. Priestley doesn’t mention a precise parallel from our recent past. When President Clinton visited NZ in 1999, the media fawned at and ogled Bill and his entourage, especially his sleek bodyguards. It was a national embarrassment. This might be the most telling of all the atomic follies. Faced with foreign power, NZ’s elites prostrated themselves in almost identical language as they had in 1960. The consensus of conventional opinion about “Mad On Radium” has been that Priestley’s findings are surprising. These mainstream reviewers give the impression that they regard 1987’s law as the emblem of an established national impetus, and that the purity of its aspiration accurately reflected a national tradition. Reviewers apparently didn’t expect to find that clean, green NZ had not always been into peace. This serves to confirm that it’s dangerous not to know your history.
Because the opposite is closer to the real record. Grassroots opinion being first derided or patronised or ignored and, much later, becoming the conventional wisdom, has been the pattern rather than the exception. Over the past half century, the period of most New Zealanders’ living memories, the other big issues that combined foreign and domestic politics were the Vietnam War and the Springbok tour. In both cases public opinion trumped a primitive official morality. And with perhaps the biggest domestic example of the pattern, popular protest halted the destruction of Lake Manapouri, again saving the energy planners from themselves. A difference with politics around the Cold War is that the Soviet Union quietly collapsed before a similar revisionism had developed. Other issues have occupied commentators, so that there’s been little interest in examining old prejudices. In its covering of the development of science policy, the book merits the praise it’s garnered. It’s excellent on the what? It’s the why? part that’s problematic. This is not to say that Priestley is a Cold Warrior. On the contrary, she assumes the merits of being nuclear-free. But unless critics expose the false assumptions that had always misinformed defence and energy planners, the verdict of public opinion will remain unsafe.
Workers In The Margins
Primary produce and extractive industries was the mainstay of the New Zealand economy from the start of the colonial era, and most scholarly interest, and often national politics, has tended to focus on the big trade unions associated with them, like those representing watersiders and freezing workers. Such work is seasonal and, more than most occupations, those who export food are buffeted by international forces beyond their control. Despite this, they tended to be the aristocracy of the labour force, protected to an extent by their numbers and by their central place in the economy. At the margins, even more contingent, are low wage workers in temporary, part-time or casualised jobs. Frequently they’re underemployed. In this eloquent account, Cybele Locke demonstrates how important these margins are as an aspect of our national life
Unions in the strategic economic occupations atop the labour hierarchy, on the wharves and in the woolsheds, happened to be male, above a middle tier of private sector clerical - and thus female - workers. At the bottom, life has become increasingly marginal, especially since the 1970s. Locke’s summary as to why this has happened is excellent. Responding to over-production and falling profits, corporations went offshore. Another factor was new technology which made production more specialised, less labour intensive and more flexible. It was the start of “free trading” globalisation, the culmination of which we’re now painfully aware. Jobs are becoming ever more temporary as outsourcing and casualisation attacks remaining security. As a result of all these trends, the contingent workforce is overwhelmingly young and old.
Maori women; typically engaged in clerical work or social services, typically the last hired and first fired, are the one big marginal demographic. In and out of fitful jobs, Maori women became involved in the unemployed and beneficiaries’ movements. Most of Locke’s book looks at the history of these women. During the 1950s, a time of economic growth, the demand for workers had been largely met by encouraging Maori, then mostly rural, to move from the country into town. In a society that assumed that all women were married, wages were high enough for the man of the household to pull in enough to support the family, though for working class Maori, establishing themselves in new suburbs, married women often became machinists or worked in the social services of the Welfare State.
By the 1960s this labour supply was full, prompting the demand for Pasifika immigration just as the price of wool collapsed, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), and the price of oil soared. The era of a steady industrial job, so recently seeming assured, was ending, and with it, the great NZ dream of egalitarianism. By the 1980s and 1990s the share of NZ’s wealth going to the richest 5% was up by 25% and for the richest 10% it was up by 16%. Unemployment peaked at 11% in 1992, with Maori and Pasifika joblessness at 26% and 29% respectively. Unemployment amongst Pakeha, who tended to be in a wider range of occupations less directly exposed to the whims of global money elites, was then at 8%.
As we all know only too well, the 1984-90 Lange government’s reaction to growing unemployment and increasing inequality was Rogernomics, the first obvious effect of which was to further increase the rate of joblessness and inequality. The incoming Labour government held a conference on the economy. In retrospect, it’s plain that the agenda was to introduce neo-liberal concepts. At the time, though, Labour’s habitual allies had no notion of what to expect, so the immediate response of Len Smith, from the Federation of Labour, was perceptive: “I have my doubts regarding your capacity to strip away the abstract statistics and see the people that make them up.... We are talking about the rights of people to a reasonable standard of living. We are talking about the rights of people to dignity; to equal participation in education, vocation and recreation. For many we are talking about something even more fundamental. We are talking about survival”.
The Rogernomes have never wanted to see the people that make up the statistics, but in 1984 it would have been hard for the Smiths of New Zealand to apprehend the ruthlessness and nastiness about to unfold. Jane Stevens, from Te Roopu, an alliance that had just been formed of 28 unemployed and beneficiaries’ groups, had an inkling. She told the delegates that the people she represented, the marginal and the excluded, were being offered nothing: “Either they work their guts out and live in poverty, or they rot on the dole and live in poverty”. Stevens called for improved benefits; Labour cut them.
Faced with a Parliament united in its fawning over the new disorder, a credulous media and an economically illiterate public opinion, it was never going to be easy to resist. From the start, popular opposition was split and confused. Always there has been a tendency to divide along the lines of the self-styled “moderates” and “realists”, who seek some amelioration within what looks like a hegemonic State, and “radicals”, who want a direct confrontation. The basic dilemma - still a feature of NZ politics - has been over whether to ally and work within with the Labour Party. In the charged circumstances of the Lange years, both sides to this permanent debate became polarised. On the one hand were the opportunists and the converts who deserted the union movement to become neo-liberal hacks. They’re not Locke’s concern here. She’s more interested in the various factions among the marginalised. At a time when the labour movement was being attacked by a united employers’ class, the last thing it needed was division, but that’s what it got. Stress brought on sectarianism.
Demagogues, Separatists & Corporatists
The crisis in the economy having expressed itself by sharpening social divisions broadly, but coincidentally, based on race, sex and age, the time was ripe for demagogues. Internationally, and not just in NZ, feminism and anti-racism were beginning to define Leftist politics, but Rogernomics meant that the new style entered an economic debate for which few were prepared. On the one hand, the traditionalists, typically old men, miners or wharfies from Scotland or Wales, saw all in terms of class; on the other hand, young activists emphasised gender and ethnicity. Those who regarded symptoms of alienation and oppression as being essentially related - those who might have united the factions by providing a unifying analysis - were increasingly squeezed out of the discussion by easy emotive slogans.
Donna Awatere and Ripeka Evans were briefly prominent in the media. Evans said she was modelling herself on the women in the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This led her to identify the interests of Maori women as standing apart from other persons because “New Zealand is one of the most sexist societies in the world - a society so sexist that Maori women are no longer good enough for Maori men, where Maori women only get the scraps after Pakeha women have finished choosing their jobs”. For a time the inexperienced and the confused; faced with an unwanted pregnancy or redundancy, might respond to this sort of rhetoric, seemingly based on personal issues, but it wouldn’t have disturbed David Lange or Roger Douglas (in a not unusual transformation, Evans was to move from discussing when it was necessary to “take the blood” of white people to becoming a management consultant within the Wellington bureaucracy. Awatere went on to become an ACT MP, a transformation that some might consider surprising, and a jailed fraudster).
Locke looks also at a (male) Maori call for separate Maori trade unions, the claim being that Maori men had been sold out by the more cautious Establishment unions (“corporatist” in Locke’s terminology). This formulation proposed that the work people did and their response to low wages or being put on the dole was caused not by a common circumstance but by their racial background. But if a Maori and a Pakeha worked together on the chain, they might prefer an ethic of solidarity to one premised on a separatist ideology. They might not be inspired by the thought that all Pakeha union officials were villainous.
An outfit describing themselves as anarchists wanted to join the resistance movement as a stand-alone entity where others had put aside their various identities. They couldn’t see what the whinging about jobs was about and “questioned the whole meaning of work in society and why people should have to engage in paid work if they did not want to”. Perhaps not many of the “anarchists” were parents. They might have been the most sectarian of all. More responsible was the Auckland Peoples Centre, set up in 1990 largely through the efforts of Sue Bradford, subsequently an MP. With those with jobs and those without jobs often seeing themselves as at odds, the Centre served both low wage employees and the unemployed. In itself this was helpful. The Centre, which offered free legal and budget advice, a free medical centre, and even free haircuts, encouraged the bartering of goods. Within two years there were 1,700 member families. Bradford saw the Centre as being a way to help “people empowering themselves through community development and providing their own services”.
Several other towns had similar enterprises, but, with a constantly shifting and “diverse” clientele (Locke’s word) and a permanent lack of money, they could never feel themselves sustainable. Locke identifies other tensions within the marginal world. Some provincial centres backed away from the militancy they associated with Auckland and Wellington. By the time National replaced Labour in government there was nowhere to hide, and in the now explicitly anti-union mood the Employment Contracts Act was passed.
For a sense of the times, Locke quotes Quentin Jukes, from the Wellington Unemployed Rights Centre: “I’d been so strongly counter-culture; the whole ethos was a deep cynicism of every bloody thing - they’re all pricks, baldies and suits - so the idea of working with church people, bureaucrats, doctors, dentists ... was incredibly difficult. There was also this sense that everyone else deserved to be paid and treated properly, have good working conditions, except us - because we were worthless”.
The one big problem was the supine response of the “corporatist” unions. As Maxine Gay, from the former Clerical Workers Union put it, the “Council of Trade Unions accepted globalisation and a market economy as a fait accompli... and so therefore the role and function of unions was to be the social partner with Government and business and try and put a human face on a market economy, and that tripartism became the primary tool with which to do that..... Markets are inherently anti-people, anti-democratic and it’s a contradiction to put a human face on a market and it’s a defeatist approach for us. We are deeply committed to a non-racial, non-sexist, non-hierarchical Aotearoa”.
If the rules are written by the team representing hierarchy, and they supply the ref, you’re going to lose. For autonomous unions to have survived the neo-liberal onslaught has been an achievement. From the internal battles more sophisticated unions have emerged. One of them, Unite, was “established as a community-based union to represent low wage workers, especially part-time and low wage workers, the unemployed and beneficiaries”. It’s a good name, and it’s still providing leadership. Locke sees her account as relating “histories of resistance, resilience and recovery”. Topics such as hers often engender either dry academic prose or partisan polemics, but Locke is serious without being tedious. While there’s no doubting the research and scholarship on display here - or the sympathies of the author - “Workers In The Margins” is a lively read; informed and fair, spirited and objective.
The Christchurch Fiasco
185 died in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, most of the victims having been in the CTV building. As measured on the Richter scale, the first quake, in September 2010, was worse, so it was a near miracle that it killed no-one. This was only partly because it occurred in the wee small hours when few were in the city centre. The February quake was shallower and closer and more destructive, and not just because of its force. Many Christchurch residents had assumed that the worst was over. For a second big shock to be even worse than the original biggie was wearing on the mind. And, as events have unfolded, minds are still stressed, bodies are still tired, and pockets are stretched. Sarah Miles has produced an excellent explanation of how locals, amongst whom a dominant mood is confusion, see matters. Her focus on the complexities of insurance wrangles is one that enables the reader to comprehend the inter-related issues of the aftermath. In Miles’ persuasive view, the basic obstacles in the way of recovery are to be found in the way insurance works and in the way national politics works.
Insurers & Reinsurers Sit And Wait
Because of the huge sums involved in the wake of disasters, insurance companies themselves need to be insured by reinsurers, big foreign transnationals, and they’ve been baulking. That’s understandable. In a good year they might have nothing to have to pay out, but in a bad year they might be assessed for billions. We, the general public, have always suspected this, but we don’t know the facts and the big corporations won’t be in a hurry to tell us. A common complaint of shaken building owners has been that premiums have shot up. Miles cites an authority on reinsurance who estimates that premiums have increased by from 80% to 150%. Reinsurers have carried 2/3 of losses in NZ since 2010. What’s more (though Miles does not discuss these related financial implications) compliance costs of bringing buildings up to current standards are much higher. That’s two big obvious issues hindering the recovery that especially affect businesses.
A leaked internal memo from within Alliance, a US insurance giant, once revealed an alligator motif with a caption that advised adjusters to “sit and wait”. It’s normal practice internationally for insurance companies to invest premiums to earn a return. That’s their main activity and their source of profit, and they have an unspoken mandate from their shareholders to pay out as little as possible. Miles suggests that’s the fundamental reason for the delays that have frustrated Christchurch. The longer they keep clients’ premiums, the more interest insurance companies retain. In Christchurch, where insurers needed to recruit staff, there was a parallel incentive for assessors to keep estimates low in order to keep onside with the boss and get more work.
The Earthquake Commission (EQC), the Government insurance scheme, covers the first $100,000 of repair costs. Private insurance kicks in for any higher amounts. Miles says that there have been cases of private insurers wanting to be paid from EQC payouts - even approaching banks for information about people’s accounts - before they have started work. They are also prone to knock on the door with bikkies in one hand and a Project Management Agreement (PMA) in the other hand. The bikkies are to show they’re going to be good mates; the PMA is a trick to get a contract struck between the builder and policy holder, leaving no possibility of redress back to the insurer if the work is faulty.
Since writing her book Miles has been a conduit for peoples’ questions and complaints, and she’ll have heard as many stories as anyone. In March 2013, when a Dallington (eastern suburbs red zone) couple took their insurers to court over what was being seen as a test case, she wrote a letter to the Press with a sensible solution that’s in her book. Better than leaving individuals to fight it out with Big Insurance would be a Government mediation system. Miles has been an advocate for people.
Authorities Culpable At All Levels
If insurers have been at times dodgy, the Government, which should be acting as everyone’s champion, hasn’t always helped: “Perhaps one of the problems is that centralised nations such as NZ have fewer decision-takers and they are placed at a higher level in the response hierarchy. They have a tendency to interfere with the free flow of information and decision-making processes. They are slow to act, wanting to take control of all decisions and, yes, they sometimes have external agendas”.
At the best of times NZ has what former Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer dubbed an “elected dictatorship”, which means that the Government’s assumption of special powers under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) merits close scrutiny. It prompted 27 constitutional law experts to criticise the approach in principle as a “dangerous precedent”. Miles thinks that the situation is made worse by the Government’s habit of “inventing its own recipe for recovery without any heed to international experience”.
The Government has fronted with all the resources that only it can muster, and its argument that the rebuild needs strong direction makes sense. But it’s also true that international experience with recovery from disasters is that locally inspired, grassroots measures work best. Miles refers to a “bedlam” of “community-based” versus “authoritarian” conflicts that have bedevilled Christchurch. She sees the Christchurch City Council, caught between residents and the Government, as being CERA’s “ball and chain”.
Miles would ease this tension by enabling independent Crown agencies, rather than Government departments, to run the cutter. In the meantime, in Christchurch, the Government should drop its fatuous faith in “the market” and take control of the insurers: “Should Government, in the interests of protecting its citizens, have influence over and power of direction to insurers to carry out policy promises within reasonable timeframes? There are now very strong arguments that it should, for nothing is clearer that in the current situation normal political management is not enough!”.
At all levels the authorities have been culpable. Way back it was known that the swampy suburbs near the mouth of the Avon River were dicey sites but pressure from developers prevailed and Bexley was subdivided near the Estuary. It’s now a red zone. As recently as 2008, after Bexley was well established, the Council reported that the city “lies on the edge of a technically seismically active region. Consequently, earthquakes are likely to occur at a magnitude that will have major impacts on the City... The most susceptible areas to liquefaction are those with water saturated, loose, well soiled silt, and sand”
It’s been frequently noted that Christchurch has become “two cities”: the east, which happens to be poorer, where whole streets are still devastated and empty; and the west and north, richer, which have been largely unaffected. This is a source of local tension, especially given the Government’s haste to prioritise big ticket items. Locals ask why Key and Brownlee have mandated a vast convention centre one block from Cathedral Square, which at a projected 20,000 square metres will be three times larger than the previous one. Items like this; and the covered 35,000 seat rugby stadium planned to go up next to the downtown core, seem more an imposition of National Party ideology than a response to residents.
Much of the plan is popular. It’s responded to a consensus wish for more green spaces and non-motorised transport; it’s putting in a new more compact central business district. The general feeling is that, when it all happens (“when” being the operative word) Christchurch’s downtown will be better than the old one. But the suspicion of “shock doctrine” lingers.* It’s well documented globally that neo-liberal extremists, always on the hunt for a way to subvert moderate capitalist societies, have exploited the opportunities afforded by natural disasters and financial crises to force feed a diet of deregulation and “free trade”. It happened here after the balance of payments crisis in 1984. The Key government might be too pragmatic in its methods to be as overt as some overseas regimes, but a Prime Minister as fond of a deal as is Key isn’t going to look any gift horses in the mouth. *See my review of “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, in Watchdog 117, April 2008, http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/17/06.htm.
Public Insurance The Answer
Despite all the many difficulties, we’re probably doing at least as well as any country would have in the circumstances. As Miles points out, New Zealand has the highest ratio of insured to economic losses in the world. The financial woes, bad as they are, would have been worse for more citizens in other comparable disaster zones, where central government insurance schemes like the EQC do not exist. Christchurch has been one of the biggest insurance events in world history; and the upheaval of February 2011 was one of the sharpest to ever strike an urban area. Had it not been for some previous socially responsible forebears, it might all have been so much worse.
Miles concludes by suggesting how in future it could be so much better. She writes: “By far the best reinsurance option for catastrophic risk mitigation is a sovereign government. It has a deep credit capacity, with the ability to borrow by issuing debt far more readily than can private insurers or reinsurers. It can raise resources quickly through its ability to tax”. Public insurance would be cheaper as it doesn’t have to add on for profits. It would have no motive to delay or begrudge payments. A State system, where all have the same motivations and the potential for equal access to resources and information, would be more efficient, more certain, simpler and fairer.
Martin Doyle says he can’t draw, but his cartoons have a certain charm nonetheless. He’s been a regular commentator in Wellington, largely in Salient, the Victoria student newspaper. This collection, subtitled “100 Political Cartoons 2008-2012”, is available at Unity Books, Auckland, Wheeler's Books, and Total Library Solutions, all three of which offer online ordering. His ongoing political cartoons can be followed on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Martin-Doyle/607865899238901?ref=hl.