EQC wasn't equipped to deal with the middle classes

EQC's chief executive Ian Simpson underestimated the high standards of the middle class.
DAVID HALLETT/FAIRFAX NZ

EQC's chief executive Ian Simpson underestimated the high standards of the middle class.

OPINION: Where did the Earthquake Commission (EQC) go wrong?

You could fill a huge tome to answer that question but essentially the commission made one fatal mistake.

It didn't know who it was dealing with.

It failed to realise that a large number of damaged houses were actually in relatively well-off suburbs and owned by educated middle-class people.

Even if it realised that, it still failed to understand what middle class people are truly like and that no-one – no-one – should take the middle class lightly.

The middle class is often accused of being smug and intolerant but it is also the class that cleans up after the poor and the rich.

It is the real engine room of the economy and generally has worked for what it has achieved and acquired.

The middle class was not going to accept whatever it was told by poorly qualified assessors or so-called experts roped in by the commission to support its most "cost effective" solution.

It was not going to lie down when the going got tough and accept unfair settlements.

It was not going to smile and say well done when repairs were shoddy and substandard.

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It didn't like the children of top EQC managers being employed on massive salaries.

Middle class people complain, agitate, organise, petition, fight and go to court. They stick around to wait for answers. They have staying power. They use the media.

Middle class people push for things.

As the middle class grows in China, for example, the government knows it has to deal with people who want a greater say in their society and who are less likely to accept unfairness, secrecy, corruption and lack of accountability. Greater wealth and education have consequences for those in power.

News, it must be said, is often about tragic things happening to poor or disadvantaged people.

They are much more likely to have bad things happen to them and to want to talk about it.

Middle class crime, for instance, always get more attention because it is so rare.

The Canterbury earthquakes, however, brought hardship and disruption to people who normally see it happen to other people.

Suddenly, as reporters, we were interviewing people who had good jobs and successful lives. People who would not normally unburden themselves to reporters were happy to talk.

Those who felt badly treated were not shy about complaining to official bodies as well.

For instance, aggrieved house owners complained to the Institution of Professional Engineers (IPENZ) about EQC's top engineer Graeme Robinson.

Robinson successfully appealed adverse findings about his attitude and competence, but not before his alleged shortcomings were well aired in a hearing.

The complainants included a lawyer, an engineer, a medical doctor, a radiographer, a chiropractor, a university lecturer and an aircraft engineer.

Recent stories about EQC staff have featured complainants whose occupations included an air traffic controller, an engineer, an architect and a successful business couple.

Earthquake minister Gerry Brownlee also failed to read his audience.

He called them whingers and moaners and accused them of buggerising around on Facebook.

Of any person, Brownlee, a former woodwork teacher, should have realised these were his sort of people. Conservative, self-reliant, demanding of high standards and with a finely tuned sense of fairness.

Here's what EQC should have done, in my middle class view.

First they should have taken stock of their clientele and realised that half measures and treating people like idiots or liars was not going to work.

Then they should have realised insurance companies were best at assessments and loss adjusting and leave it to them. If these companies had to gear up that was their problem.

Then they should have done better triaging. A lot of houses in Christchurch were damaged but perfectly liveable and could have waited. Others were not so fortunate.

That would have taken the haste and panic out of the equation. People would have been happy to wait while those in need were taken care of.

The commission should have taken the time to research tricky issues like damage to foundations so that five years down the track it was not having to review thousands of cases.

It should have ensured Fletcher was more careful about who was accredited to do work and been generous to those firms known to do a good job to keep them in the repair business.

Monitoring the quality of repairs should have been EQC's top priority and firms guilty of substandard work should have had no second chances.

But most of all it should not have underestimated the middle class.

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 - Stuff

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