Life's a risky business so you can't play safe

A friend stayed the other night and we got to talking, on the second anniversary of the Canterbury quakes, about some of the less immediate but profound fallout from this national tragedy. And how that fallout was predicated upon our tolerance of "risk".

Think about it this way, he said. Every year, several hundred people die on our roads. We could reduce that number immediately by making everybody drive the safest proven cars - C-series Mercedes, for example. Further, we could reduce the speed limit and raise the driving age.

By imposing unrealistic, antisocial and unpalatable conditions, we could significantly reduce one of this country's biggest perennial killers.

Without wishing to diminish the tragedy and anguish brought to a city and its inhabitants by the terrible earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, and the death of 185 people, these events have heightened, in some cases, to an absurd extent, our national sensitivity to chance. We have become deleteriously "risk averse".

My friend, who has had a high- end career in civil engineering and project management, often of major public building complexes, thinks it's bonkers. There is risk in everything we do. It is striking the right balance that is the trick, and the legacy of the Canterbury quakes may have been to put the chance register right out of kilter.

By the time it resettles, for example, we may have lost the great bulk of our unreinforced masonry buildings across all our towns and cities, and along with them, the majority of our built heritage - despite the fact that the single largest contributor to the toll, the CTV building, belongs to the modern era.

I'm no expert in insurance, reinsurance, underwriting and building regulation, but I take his point. And the more general one that we need to inject a little sanity into the debate over risk assessment and liability.

Should we really abandon our stone and masonry churches all over the country because there is some minuscule possibility that one day, there could be a significant seismic event which might, in certain circumstances, endanger lives? The smart money might be inclined to look at the science and suggest that those churchgoers, unless they were driving C-Series Mercedes within an urban 50kmh zone, were much more likely to be killed on their way to the service.

While the insurance industry and governments have a considerable role to play in this conundrum, personal choice and individual responsibility have a part, too. Just as they do in a variety of lifestyle choices. One shouldn't have to be told, for instance, that drinking 10 litres of Coca-Cola a day could be injurious to your health. Or that smoking causes cancer.

On the latter, I'm with Tariana Turia. Even if one accepts that people should be free to gauge the health risks of their own actions, the consequences of smoking and associated impost on the public purse, are punitive.

If Turia achieves little else in her little remaining time in Parliament, her championing of the legislation to push for plain packaging on cigarettes and loose tobacco will be a fitting achievement on which to sign off. Further, there is little political risk attached to an initiative that restricts seductive advertising of a product that is highly addictive and leads to a variety of fatal diseases.

The same cannot be said for the hole that Prime Minister John Key and his Government seem to be getting into over the pokies-for- convention-centre issue. The auditor-general's report has been widely canvassed as providing the Government with a "get-out-of- jail-free" card. But, as we all know, that conclusion cannot be used to either justify or excuse the shonky processes, underscored in the report, that underpinned a SkyCity deal preferentially spruiked by the Government.

Last week in Parliament, buoyed no doubt by the ostensible conclusion, Key was still digging. Far from hitting paydirt, he simply raised further eyebrows about his personal involvement in the deal when he categorically stated, and later retracted, that SkyCity had offered to buy TVNZ land in Auckland, when in fact, they had done no such thing. Did he get a little ahead of himself?

Beyond the all-important probity in process, what's really at stake here, what's in the balance? A tourism-boosting convention centre against a proliferation of poker machines known to be the source of misery for vulnerable individuals?

Notwithstanding the requirement that people take responsibility and assess the financial and social risks of their own addictions, nor Gambling John's predisposition to cut high- stakes deals, it is a potentially risky political proposition.

Fairfax Media