Tell the people who controls elusive rebuild

CHRIS TROTTER
Last updated 10:18 17/04/2012

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Chris Trotter

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OPINION: If politics is mostly about perception, then, looking at Christchurch, this Government's in big trouble, because perception-wise, its handling of the rebuilding of New Zealand's second city hasn't only gone from bad to worse, but is sending Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee Gerry Brownlee postcards.

The reality of the situation may be very different from people's perceptions - it usually is - but the fact that Cantabrians are having immense difficulty translating the reality of their everyday lives into anything remotely resembling the Government's spin is a problem.

If disaster management isn't grounded in telling disaster victims the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then it isn't management - it's mismanagement.

That's the problem this Government's faces: a lot of people living in Christchurch appear to have stopped believing that they are being told even a fraction of the truth, and once truth walks out the door, can trust be far behind?

Is it possible to rebuild a great city without truth or trust? Is the Government conducting an experiment?

What are these bad perceptions?

The worst perception, the one from which so many other bad perceptions flow, is that the politicians were either never in charge or, at some early stage, lost control of the rebuild - that somewhere, shielded from the media and invisible to the public, are the individuals and institutions really calling the shots on Christchurch's future.

If you were to ask Cantabrians who these people or institutions were, most would give you a simple, three-word answer: the insurance companies.

Two-thirds of the cost of the Christchurch rebuild is expected to come from the insurance and reinsurance industry. That's what the Government has said, publicly and repeatedly.

They are certainly not keen to extend their responsibilities very far beyond those associated with the Earthquake Commission.

The reconstruction of Christchurch is intended to be a market-driven affair. State intervention, beyond what has already been signalled, is not on the Government's agenda.

Big mistake.

By letting the big insurance companies know that the pace and scope of the Christchurch rebuild are in their hands, the Government has effectively walked away from the table - or that, at least, is the perception.

It's why everything is seen to be moving at such a glacial pace.

The insurers and reinsurers naturally want to minimise their exposure. They know that if they wait, the pressure on the reconstruction agencies will grow, and, before long, concessions will start to flow.

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In this context, what possible incentive could the insurance industry have for speeding things up? The longer it delays, the more concessions will flow its way. The more concessions that flow its way, the more money it will save.

It's hardly rocket science, but it is grossly unfair, because the money saved by the insurance industry is money that would otherwise have gone into the pockets of Cantabrians.

It is the money they would have used to move on, to strike down new roots in new parts of Christchurch, to get the builders actually building.

Without that money, rebuilding becomes impossible, and so people are forced to seek temporary accommodation, along with everybody else.

Tradespeople and their families, moving en masse to Christchurch to rebuild devastated homes and infrastructure, are forced to compete with thousands of Cantabrians who cannot live in their red-stickered homes, yet lack the resources to rebuild them.

Add to this, the demands of university students and the normal flow of young people from the family nest to independent living, and suddenly, you've got a major rental housing crisis.

Except that you haven't, according to Brownlee.

The Mayor, Bob Parker, disagrees, but his objections count for very little these days. The Christchurch City Council, the only democratically elected representative body still operating in the city, is about to lose all say over the future shape of the central business district. In place of an elected mayor and councillors, Cantabrians will see responsibility for reconstituting Christchurch's shattered heart handed over to an appointed tsar.

"Yes, let's give a big, warm, Canterbury welcome to the man who gave Auckland its super-city. Ladies and gentlemen - Mr Mark Ford!"

It's hard to imagine an appointment more likely to strengthen the perception that the last people to be asked anything, told anything or given anything are the people of Christchurch.

Their Government has relinquished its responsibilities to foreign financial giants, their regional and city councils have already been, or are about to be, politically emasculated, and their daily lives have been reduced to mere administrative Lego in the hands of overpaid, overpowered, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. At least, such are Cantabrians' perceptions.

If the reality is something different, then, respectfully, Brownlee, Parker, Sutton and Ford: tell the people of Christchurch what it is.

- The Press

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