Christchurch fuses shorter in wake of quakes

Earthquake-ravaged Christchurch is getting angry.

Experts say antisocial behaviour, aggression and violence are all escalating.

People who have never been in trouble with the law before are appearing before the courts, with some turning to anger management classes.

Protesters have taken to the streets about 30 times since the September 2010 earthquake, railing against a loss of democracy, council salaries, school closures and the powers of earthquake agencies.

Heritage campaigners fighting to save Cranmer Courts were ordered from a fiery Christchurch City Council meeting during the week, and more than 2000 people opposed to the education shake-up packed Hagley Park last month.

Police say family violence is also starting to climb, and the Family Court says couples are divorcing by the "bucketload".

The number of official complaints in the city has skyrocketed, with 443 people calling in the ombudsmen over Earthquake Commission issues during the financial year, and personal conflict complaints about the behaviour of Housing New Zealand Corporation tenants have almost doubled, from 579 in the 2010-11 financial year, to 1063 in the past year.

The city's welfare agencies have fielded unprecedented demand at foodbanks, night shelters and drug and alcohol services, and even the dogs are more aggressive, with a 10 per cent rise in attacks.

One academic called the mood "a spike in public temperature", while criminal legal aid lawyer Allister Davis reported a "noticeable" increase in violence in the past 18 months. "People are becoming more angry and turning to liquor, and once liquor is involved, anything can happen."

Davis has practised law in Christchurch for 24 years and said many of those coming through the legal system now, had never been to court before.

"I deal with angry people all the time but fuses are shorter now. People are a lot more difficult to deal with, they don't take advice when they should, they react badly, and the matters I am dealing with are a lot more serious," he said. "People are getting tireder. They have gone through the fight or flight phase, and now they are getting angry. They are angry at everyone - including me."

Stopping Violence Services clinical director Jo Westbury said attendance at anger management programmes was up about 60 per cent, and climbing. Many new clients were middle-aged businessmen who had never had violence issues in the past, but who were concerned they could become abusive without help, she said.

"A lot of the men feel they have held it together but as time has progressed and the stress continues, they realise they can't hold it together any longer."

From April to December 2009, there were about 26 private adult clients a week. Last year that had climbed to 41, and in the past few months to an average of 47.

Canterbury University political scientist Bronwyn Hayward, who has lived in the city for 47 years, said she had never seen so much "stress, frustration, anger, silent suffering and sadness".

Heightened stress was typical post-disaster, she said, but the Government's "command and control" approach had led to a lack of democracy and made things worse. The council had been sidelined by the Government - unelected Environment Canterbury commissioners now in power until 2016 - and the sudden education announcement had left residents "disenfranchised and powerless".

Hayward said it was "arrogant and unhelpful" for the Government to "press on relentlessly", and, unless it listened to the public, it could make social suffering worse. "You can rebuild a city, but that doesn't mean you will recover a community. People don't want problems solved for them, they want to be part of problem-solving." But she said the quakes were only partly to blame, because the hardship caused had exposed existing "problems in our social and economic life".

She said there was a "huge risk" Christchurch's frustrations would come across as whingeing, when the city had just "picked a scab off the political landscape".

"The quakes have been a tipping point for people to look at our economy and society deeply, but no-one else has really had that tipping point."

Canterbury University psychology head Neville Blampied said the rise in antisocial behaviour was predictable. The city had been exposed to acute and chronic stress and had become "more irritable". The stress wore out coping mechanisms, and could lead to depression, irritation, anger, drinking and self-medicating.

"People are not behaving the way they would normally, and it's not just a few, it's everyone. We are all in this together and I think the surprising thing is actually how well behaved Christchurch is."

Sunday Star Times