NZ POLITICS DAILY: Harsh scrutiny of authorities needed after earthquakes
Earthquakes are political, and we need to see political scrutiny applied to how authorities manage them.
Earthquakes aren’t caused by sinners – nearly all of us know that. But they are indeed political when it comes to how they are dealt with. Decisions are made historically about where things are built in the natural environment, regulations are implemented to make sure everything is safe, and disaster response systems are developed and then operated by authorities. After the recovery phrase, the rebuild involves incredibly political and ideological decisions that need to be made.
All of these governing functions require intense scrutiny to be applied to them. That’s how we can have confidence that authorities are doing an adequate job. At this stage – in the four days since the Kaikoura earthquakes – there has been uneven scrutiny applied.
A weak focus on Government crisis management
There is always the danger in times of national emergency that a politics-free zone descends upon the nation. In this climate, a lack of scrutiny is applied to decision making. Opposition parties go quiet and bi-partisan, the media toes the party line and, instead, the main story becomes one of photo opportunities for a strong government reacting to a crisis.
John Armstrong writes about these issue in his new role as a TVNZ online political commentator – see his excellent column, Government knows how to play a disaster.
Armstrong explains how the opposition parties are hamstrung by a seemingly non-political and non-partisan situation: “If Opposition politicians are critical of something that the Government has or has not done to start fixing things, they risk being accused of exploiting people's misery for political profit. On top of that, the public expects politicians to take a bipartisan stance during national emergencies. That is the high ground. Andrew Little has wisely chosen to occupy - at least for the time being. But he can only serve as an echo-chamber for the Government for so long. In the Government's case, the supposed politics-free zone is a charade. By definition, action taken by a government has a political component or political motive. No-one inside the Government would ever admit it, but dealing with the after-effects of a natural disaster of the current proportions allows National to reinforce its leadership and competence credentials without looking self-serving. The Prime Minister has got this down to a fine art.”
The National Government has previously had a reputation for strong crisis management, as Fran O'Sullivan points out: “Typically, both Key and English are coping well; they have considerable political street cred when it comes to crisis management. Key's confidence-building abilities are obvious. He has had plenty of experience fronting the disasters that have plagued New Zealand since his prime ministership began: the global financial crisis; the Canterbury earthquake, the Pike River mine disaster and the subsequent Christchurch earthquake” – see: Quakes pose an unpalatable question.
While it may be going too far to describe it as electorally lucky for National to have had so many disasters on its watch, they can provide a useful opportunity for governments to prove themselves and pull the country together in harmony. This experience is discussed by Tracy Watkins: “Talk about rolling with the punches. John Key and this government know their way round disaster response like the back of their hand. The Christchurch earthquakes - not one, but two, either one of which alone would have been a heavy blow to a country barely recovered from the global financial crisis. Then there was Pike River, and the Rena grounding. So when Finance Minister Bill English told journalists on Tuesday it would be a long time before we see "normal" back in North Canterbury and Kaikoura, he was speaking from long and personal experience. In the eight years since the Key government got into power, New Zealand's share of disasters has been disproportionate to most” – see: A warning to expect the worst.
So, the mood at the moment is rather non-political, with other issues pushed off the agenda for a while, and it’s not clear how long this false harmony will last, before divisions and arguments return. This is discussed today by Richard Harman in his column, Government planning to give itself sweeping powers to cope with the earthquake rebuild.
Harman says: “It is only starting to sink into MPs minds that once again, they face a major catastrophe and like Christchurch it will tend to divert political attention away from other issues. At this stage, the Opposition parties are supporting the Government, but one senior and long experienced National MP wondered how long that would last; indeed, he wondered whether it should last. Sooner or later politics will start again.”
This week, the National Business Review has polled its readers about the Government’s post-quake response, with a surprisingly large number expressing discontent: “Asked if this week’s earthquakes exposed gaps in New Zealand’s disaster-recovery plans, some 52% of NBR readers say no, the government has it covered. The remaining 48% says the quakes have been another much-needed wake-up call for the government” – see Jason Walls’ Opinions vary on government's post-quake response.
And experts agree with the doubters. According to Brendon Bradley, a professor in earthquake engineering at the University of Canterbury, the latest quakes show that “the country has still been caught somewhat flat-footed” – see RNZ Checkpoint’s New Zealand needs to better prepare for quakes.
Scrutiny of authorities: a failure of communications
Despite the politics-free zone being in effect, there are already a number of strongly-put challenges to authority being made in relationship to many aspects of the earthquakes, and this seems to be happening faster than after the Christchurch disasters.
For the best questions being asked about how prepared authorities were for dealing with Monday’s quakes, see today’s column by Toby Manhire: Wave goodbye to your tsunami alert.
He says “the big lesson is that Wellington is nowhere near well enough prepared. The spate of building closures yesterday suggests the exuberant rush to return to ‘normal’ in the city was overhasty.” But his bigger target is the “deep flaws in New Zealand's tsunami warning process.”
Manhire details the absurdity of how Civil Defence, then politicians, then the media were able to utterly confuse the public over the question of whether those in coastal areas needed to move to higher ground. Here’s his conclusion: “While there can be no doubting the pressure individuals must have been under, this was a stress test of the system, and the system failed. Thank goodness the tsunami wasn't a monster after all. What the hell happened? At the time of writing Civil Defence had not replied to questions. It seems a pretty straightforward case of dysfunction to me.”
Newspaper editorials agree. The Herald has said that “There has been valid criticism that information about the tsunami risks was confused. Different civil defence jurisdictions responded unevenly” and “information provided was erratic and uneven” – see: Tsunami advice must be improved. The newspaper says this is not good enough, and such situations “require clear and well-understood responses to protect lives. There can be no room for confusion or second-guessing.”
The Dominion Post is even more forthright in its editorial, The earthquake has shown up big gaps in our safety systems. It says: “The earthquake is exposing more and more problems in our safety systems. Some of these shortcomings are large and will take a lot of fixing. But some are indefensible and must be fixed immediately.”
The editorial is especially critical of levels of resourcing for Geonet, and the way Civil Defence operated: “Civil defence leaders need to get this sorted out, as well as the issue of sounding sirens. Here again, there seemed to be inconsistency and muddle. We were lucky to have the chance of a drill without fatalities, but civil defence must do better next time.”
But the Government is promising reform – see: Civil Defence overhaul 'inevitable' after tsunami warning confusion: Govt.
So do we need a much more sophisticated early warning system, such as in Japan? Maybe not, according to GeoNet’s Caroline Little: "We definitely could have one. But the cost of them is absolutely amazing - Japan has spent a billion dollars on their earthquake early warning system” – see Rachel Clayton’s Should New Zealand have an earthquake warning.
For a further discussion of problems with New Zealand’s warning systems, see Martin van Beynen’s Alarm over sirens' failure.
Are we worrying too much? According to Chris Buckley, a former professor of geology at California State University, in this case “officialdom overreacted”, and in general, "We are way over-playing the size and the role of tsunamis. And this is happening in a lot of other places too, because unfortunately we are in a period of science where, to get funding, you have to scare the hell out of the public” – see: Lois Williams’ There was never a risk of a tsunami, says seismologist.
Scrutiny of authorities: Wellington buildings and the return to the CBD
Scrutiny is now turning to how authorities could have allowed so many Wellington buildings to be built and inhabited when they’re now clearly exposed as dangerous. Even the boss of Statistics NZ, Liz MacPherson, has been forthright in publicly asking questions about how her department’s building could possibly be built with such flaws. For more on this, and why the Statistics building collapse shouldn’t have happened, see the Herald’s Why did modern Wellington buildings fail in Kaikoura quake?
The Dominion Post suggests that public confidence in government building standards is now in danger – see the editorial, Serious questions after Wellington's double blow.
This issue has the Christchurch Press asking whether authorities have actually learnt the lessons of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, adding “how many Canterbury Television-type buildings are out there. The current state of some Wellington buildings suggests the checks haven't been thorough enough and the engineering not good enough” – see: NZ Earthquake: Were we prepared enough?
The editorial soberly concludes: “The latest earthquake is another wake-up call. The unfortunate thing is we have heard that before.” In this regard, it’s also worth reading Martin van Beynen’s Ten easy lessons from Christchurch for Kaikoura.
And serious questions are being asked about whether the green light was given too early by authorities for the post-quake return into Wellington’s CBD. To listen to Wellington’s new mayor, Justin Lester, have Kathryn Ryan apply some heat to the city council’s decisions listen to her interview with him here: Was capital's CBD declared safe too quickly after 7.8? The “testy interview” is also covered in the article, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester defends decision to reopen CBD amid evacuations.
The Dominion Post is also disgruntled on this issue: “In earthquake-prone Wellington, people needed to know that they could return to safe workplaces. So speed has to be tempered by caution. It now looks as though Wellington mayor Justin Lester acted too quickly in announcing that the central business district was safe” – see: The dangers of haste in the shaky isles.
The newspaper strongly disagrees with the city council’s advice for city workers to check with their employers on whether it was safe to return to work, and it raises questions about other assumptions: “It is clearly not enough for each building owner or employer to make sure that their own building is safe. They also need to know the neighbours are safe too. This they cannot be expected to do. At this point they are dependent on the findings of the authorities. They are dependent on collective knowledge and action. Nobody expects the local authority to know everything. This earthquake has shown that old assumptions about safety are probably wrong. In particular, it seems, modern buildings are less safe in an earthquake than we thought. This has made the job of politicians even tougher than before. But the call to return to work on Tuesday also seems premature given that rainstorms were due.”
But it’s not just government authorities being challenged over communication and transparency, as landlords have been found to be deficient too – see Hamish Rutherford’s CentrePort owes Wellington answers about the risk of its buildings.
Scrutiny required on other political issues
There are plenty of other political aspects of the quakes and future rebuilding that require intense scrutiny over the coming year. For example, National’s intention to bypass the RMA to allow local authorities to push through development in Kaikoura could yet be controversial – see Claire Trevett’s Prime Minister John Key promises fast-track help for Kaikoura businesses.
The amount of money required for rebuilding will also have significant economic, environmental, and political ramifications – see Dan Satherley’s Kaikoura earthquake: 'Some realignment' to SH1 needed – Bridges, Richard Harman’s The earthquake: Bridges says no problem with money for the rebuild, and the Press editorial: Rebuilding SH1 for tomorrow, not yesteryear.
And then there’s the increasingly loud call to move some of the capital out of Wellington. This is best covered in Tracy Neal’s Quake prompts new calls to move some govt services out of Wellington. But also see Anthony Robins’ blog post, Move the capital?
Finally, there’s been the sideshow about Brian Tamaki’s “gayquake” comments. Although there have been plenty of interesting responses – see, for example, Lloyd Burr’s MPs disgusted by 'sick' Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki and Natalie Akoorie’s Petition to stop Destiny Church having tax-free status gaining support - possibly the most appropriate response is provided by Josh Fagan – see: The most effective response to Brian Tamaki's backward views.
Martin van Beynen (Stuff): Ten easy lessons from Christchurch for Kaikoura
Richard Harman (Politik): Government planning to give itself sweeping powers to cope with the earthquake rebuild
Nicholas Jones (Herald): Civil Defence: Earthquake response moving towards recovery
Tracy Neal (RNZ): Quake prompts new calls to move some govt services out of Wellington
Anthony Robins (Standard): Move the capital?
Lois Williams (RNZ): There was never a risk of a tsunami, says seismologist
Toby Manhire (Herald): Wave goodbye to your tsunami alert
Dominion Post Editorial: The dangers of haste in the shaky isles
Rachel Thomas (Stuff): Design codes will be 'redefined' after 7.8 quake, construction expert says
Winston Peters (RadioLive): Government departments must return to provincial New Zealand
John Edens and Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): NZ earthquake: Bob Parker speaks out as Wellington waits
Isaac Davison (Herald): Tourism firms welcome $7.5m relief package
Chris Morris (ODT): Business confidence shaken
Brittany Keogh (Herald): Scores of workers booted out of offices
Barry Soper (Herald): Surrounded by cordons in Wellington
Matt Stewart (Stuff): Concerns raised after Beehive's disaster response bunker takes in floodwater
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Comparing a transport company to a broadcaster!
Isaac Davison (Herald): Govt announces investigation into Wellington building failures
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): Civil Defence overhaul 'inevitable' after tsunami warning confusion: Govt
Collette Devlin (Stuff): Government to investigate earthquake performance of Wellington buildings
Rachel Clayton (Stuff):Should New Zealand have an earthquake warning
Jason Walls (NBR): Opinions vary on government's post-quake response
Matt Rilkoff (Stuff): A good shake is a weight off my mind
Earthquake and Brian Tamaki
Andrew Gunn (Stuff): Words of warning from the bloviating Brylcreemed bishop
Madeleine Chapman (The Spinoff): The definitive history of Brian Tamaki’s horse-obsessed Twitter page
Hamish McNeilly (Stuff):Bishop of Dunedin on Brian Tamaki: 'He's telling porkies'
Lloyd Burr (Newshub): MPs disgusted by 'sick' Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki
Josh Fagan (Stuff): The most effective response to Brian Tamaki's backward views
Brian Edwards: Brian Tamaki – Saint or Sinner?
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): No churches should be tax free, not just Destiny
Natalie Akoorie (Herald): Minister who survived 2011 earthquake denounces Brian Tamaki's homophobic sermon
Emma Hart (Public address): Giving It the Bish
Geoffrey Miller and Mark Blackham (NBR): John Key New Zealand’s only bulwark against ‘Trump effect’
Matthew Hooton (NBR): Who is best to deal with Donald Trump? (paywalled)
Rodney Hide (NBR): Democracy means not being right or wrong (paywalled)
Nick Grant (NBR): Sentiment regarding President Trump remains remarkably stable (paywalled)
Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): How the Left will win: an action plan
Chris Trotter (Bowalley Road): Political Fault Lines
Chris Trotter (Bowalley Road): Looking On The Bright Side Of President Trump
Peter Lyons (Herald): Brexit, Trumpism symbols of skewed economy
Laura Millls (Greymouth Star): Nick Smith tells Pike River supporters: 'We will seal mine'
Simon Wong (Newshub): 'We tried hard' to re-enter Pike River – Smith
Nicholas Jones (Herald): Unions applaud end of 'bulk funding' - as attention turns to replacement for deciles
Dan Satherley (Newshub): Govt cans school 'global funding' proposal
Nicholas Jones (Herald): Classroom shake-up on cards
Adele Redmond, Mary-Jo Tohill (Stuff): Lincoln University axes 51 jobs, considers asset sales
Vernon Small (Stuff): Donald Trump's free trade trash talk taken down a notch on new website
Claire Trevett (Herald): PM John Key heads to Apec with USA or bust message on TPP
Gordon Campbell (Scoop):On trade, Trump and Steve Bannon
Charles Finny (NBR): Give Trump a break on trade policy – it may be better than you think (paywalled)
Colin James: Green is the new blue. Can blue be the new green?
Isobel Ewing (Newshub): Government offering secondhand land for oil and gas exploration
Matt Burrows, Brooke Hobson (Newshub): ECan votes against deep sea oil drilling
Kate Simcock (Taranaki Daily News): Greenpeace: Ending the age of fossil fuels is a moral choice
Jason Walls (NBR):Rural New Zealand and Greenpeace square off, again
Ophelia Buckleton (Herald): Health Survey: Young Kiwis can't afford to see their doctor
Jeremy Lin (WSWS): New Zealand’s suicide toll highlights social crisis
John Drinnan (Herald): What's wrong with City of Sails?
Adam Poulopoulos, Joel Maxwell (Dom Post): Councillors revolt against deputy mayor a fortnight after his appointment
Ellen Falconer (RNZ): Artist refuses 'brown' award at VMAs, Broods win top awards
Ellen Falconer (RNZ): Refusing award, Aaradhna stays true to 'Brown Girl'
Isaac Davison (Herald): Latest stats on foreign home buyers revealed
Benedict Collins (RNZ): Foreign home-buyer information 'inaccurate' – LINZ
Jess Berentson-Shaw (Morgan Foundation): The Case for A Basic Income for Families with Children in New Zealand
Thomas Gregory (The Spinoff): Why is New Zealand laying out the welcome mat for these merchants of carnage?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Can Andrew Szusterman save MediaWorks at 7pm?
Marty Sharpe (Stuff): Charges against Hastings District Council after Havelock North gastro investigation
John Minto (Daily Blog): A high five for the protestors!
Bernie Diver (Dom Post): The defence industry helps in NZ and abroad
Denise Roche (Spinoff): The Greens: We’re not dog-whistling on immigration, but we need to do more about the upsurge
Phil Taylor (Herald): Lecreatia Seales widower welcomes Labour MP Louisa Wall euthanasia bill
Geoffrey Palmer (Stuff): New Zealand is one of three countries without a written constitution: time for change
Ruth Holmes (Herald): Post-truth ... Oxford's word for a tumultuous year of politics
Michelle Duff (Stuff): Chief Censor says his office's work is now more important than ever
Brian Fallow (Herald): Price rises - who wins and who loses
Northern Advocate: Drug laws to be debated at Northland hui