Week in review: when politics meets tragedy

A man looks at a message wall near the Grenfell Tower block in London.
PAUL HACKETT

A man looks at a message wall near the Grenfell Tower block in London.

OPINION

Philip Matthews on a week when politics hit home.

The fire of London

Less than a week after an election in which the result shocked everyone, including a Labour Party that felt like it had won and Conservatives who felt like they had lost, a devastating apartment fire in London further revealed stark political differences. Within hours, the fire in Grenfell Tower was seen as a metaphor for austerity and social divisions. The cladding on the tower was known to be a fire risk, sprinklers have not been mandatory and fire services have been cut. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot​ put it, "what they call red tape often consists of essential public protections that defend our lives, our futures and the rest of the living world". A London that was defiant after a terror attack now seems sad, angry and in desperate need of serious answers. This makes it even more amazing that Prime Minister Theresa May would not meet Grenfell survivors for "security reasons". 

Taking a breather

We like to boil big political moments down to easy colloquialisms. The fourth Labour Government had "a cup of tea" when it put the brakes on economic reform in the 1980s. The current Labour opposition is suggesting we "take a breather" over immigration. But the policy launch is timely and, as a Fairfax editorial put it, "Net immigration is at unprecedented  levels and is causing serious economic trouble. It is helping stoke the fires of house prices. It is helping clog the already-clogged roads of Auckland. It is putting a strain on schools, transport services, even on the decaying water pipes. Nobody disputes that these problems are real or that they will cost a fortune to fix." It is neither racist nor xenophobic to start asking if we need to take a breather, put our feet up and, in a less pleasant political metaphor, turn off the tap. 

Cathedral stalemate

The Anglican church has been taking a long breather, ever since it was stymied by heritage activists who want to see the historic Christ Church Cathedral repaired and rebuilt, rather than demolished and replaced. A poll it commissioned may tell us why. More than half of Christchurch residents favour restoration but when told about the costs, public support dropped from 58 per cent to 43 per cent with a greater number favouring a new build. "I keep coming across a 50-50 split. That makes it very difficult," as Bishop Victoria Matthews put it. The word "divisive" gets thrown around a lot these days but in Christchurch, this issue is literally that.

Square stalemate

Meanwhile, the ongoing delays in resolving the cathedral problem are part of the context for another setback in central Christchurch. Regenerate Christchurch's plan for Cathedral Square was expected this month but it has been delayed and no new timeframe has emerged. Regenerate Christchurch is also having a cup of tea and a breather. It seems that developers are waiting on Regenerate and Regenerate is waiting on news from developers. How long can this stalemate run while the Square goes on looking shabby and forlorn? The only thing happening in the Square these days is the emergence of an impressive new library. Otherwise, tumbleweeds.

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