Gutting of city will increase divide

Last updated 11:50 04/04/2012

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OPINION: Australian Ian Maxwell, who frequently visits Christchurch, presents an outsider's view of our post-earthquake condition.



So what's going on in Christchurch?

It seemed like a nice little town; the gateway to the South Island of New Zealand, with a thriving tourist industry.

Then Christchurch gets hit by a series of earthquakes that have not only destroyed much of its architectural heritage, they also seem to have unleashed some sort of localised social dysfunction.

Over the years, like most people who have visited Christchurch, I was charmed by the city. It seemed like a relaxed place with plenty of nice old buildings.

But, to appreciate the built environment, you had to ignore the numerous post-50s buildings that had clearly been built for cost and not beauty; a harbinger of things to come.

The local tourist industry was very busy promoting the place as the "English city of the south", complete with punting on the Avon River. It was a bit of a stretch but, in the interest of a good time, most people bought it.

However, before the earthquakes, a night out in the central city was all it took to realise that not all was well. There was clearly great social divide between the haves and have-nots, certainly a New Zealand-wide problem, but noticeably bad in Christchurch.

And there were racial divides. Drunk and aggressive behaviour was often in your face. The place was strangely out of control, with the police seeming to have a very rubbery grip on things.

A visit to the suburban malls highlighted that many of the residents spent their lives entirely in the suburbs of this tiny city, in some sort of consumer frenzy. Either the 3km trip into town was too difficult, or the malls too attractive, or the city too scary - we know not what.

The very strange thing about Christchurch, and maybe New Zealand on the whole, is the apparent total focus on money above all other things that one can focus on in life.

A great example is the dairy industry: former sheep pastures are now being converted entirely into dairy farms in the service of Fonterra and the Chinese need for protein. In the process they are irrigating and polluting their agricultural land and waterways with almost no controls to speak of.

How on earth could the South Island run out of water? But it is a real risk the way things are going. The export dollar rules above all else.

I wonder whether the many years of isolation before 1980s, with relative (for the West) austerity has left the population poorly prepared for the consumer madness that is now gripping them. Like natives unexposed to smallpox, the Kiwis seem to totally lack inoculation to the disease that is modern marketing.

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Kiwis in general seem to be very focused on the dollars; and the houses, cars and lifestyle than can be realised with the dollars. They are prepared to both sell and pollute their country for short-term gain. And there seems to be scant public debate about, or political control of the "problem", primarily because it is not recognised as one.

Politically the Kiwis have problems too. With no senate to control the legislative process, the mob in control can make major changes without much hindrance. And the MMP system ensures that the masses probably get too much say as to who gets elected - that is a strange statement but it is comforting in Australia to know that our entrenched two-party system guarantees that our leading politicians are, at the very least, professionals.

The New Zealand political system seems to lack the necessary checks and balances as to who gets into Parliament, and what they do when they get in. It also favours change at each election, but again this is a problem since public policy has to be carefully developed over a longer timescale than the period between elections.

New Zealand also seems way too happy to forge ahead into policy directions untested elsewhere. And the whim of the masses, directed by the media, can be instantly enacted in the parliamentary process.

So back to Christchurch.

Since the earthquakes, some interest groups have coalesced in a process that will largely result in the removal of the built heritage of the city. The Government is trying to rebuild the city at lowest cost since it is funding part of the bill. Building owners are trying to take the insurance money and run; they can do this most effectively by having their buildings knocked down.

A large fraction of the population, in shock over what has happened, have been conned into thinking the heritage buildings are at fault and can't be fixed, or ever made safe; a scapegoat has been made.

Yet another fraction of the population, having suffered years of relative economic poverty, sees this as an opportunity to strike back against the elite establishment.

Add it all up and there is a large fraction of the population for whom the prevailing mood is to just pull it all down and move on. And overriding all of this is the serious desire to rebuild the city at the lowest possible cost. The assumption therein is that any money left over is more likely to end up in the pockets of those supporting such a view.

Just recently the Government and Anglican Church have colluded in agreeing to pull down the symbol of the city - Christ Church Cathedral. This would be an unthinkable act anywhere in the world, except New Zealand.

I am sitting in a cafe in Berlin while I write this and across the road is slender sliver of an 18th-century building standing like a sentinel, in a car park of no note whatsoever.

Everything that could be saved has been saved. Beyond that, buildings that weren't saved have been rebuilt completely.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Germans buy the rubble of the Christ Church Cathedral and rebuild that somewhere too. A quick look at the blogs associated with the up-and-coming destruction of the cathedral highlights how polarised the population is.

This will only get worse once the building has come down.

What sane government would willingly allow the symbol of a city to be unnecessarily removed, when it is pretty clear that it can be repaired, even if such a repair will take time and money? Historically cathedrals take centuries to build, so there is no cause for haste.

They claim it has to come down for safety reasons (the Government and its agencies); financial reasons (the church); revenge reasons (the underprivileged who see the church as a symbol of the elite); religious reasons (the pagans and atheists); and expediency (the tired and weary looking to cleanse their souls with self-flagellation).

But I sense the haste and secrecy of it all means they are all feeling a little guilty about it. More than a little guilty, actually.

So when they are done, and every building of note is gone, what will they have? Well, of course, the city will not be able to promote its heritage as a tourist attraction. Maybe they are confident that the natural environment of the South Island is the real attraction for visitors, and also that the tourists will have to come through Christchurch Airport in any case. They just might not linger so long in Christchurch before their road trips.

For locals, the social conservatives will rue the lost heritage and sense of belonging. But I know people who live in Christchurch who never even visit the central city - these people won't care one iota. So some people will be quite depressed and others won't be affected at all. The latter seem not to have any sense of empathy for the former and that's not very nice, is it?

Looking at the process from a distance, the whole affair is highlighting both the collective emotional immaturity of the Kiwis and the moribund state of the economy, which apparently cannot generate enough money for the necessary infrastructure investment, a theme right across New Zealand but writ very openly in post-earthquake Christchurch.

There is no understanding that this response to the earthquake of just pulling everything down will end up creating even larger social divides, greater even than existed before. Healing is simply not on the agenda.

In any case, here in Australia we can expect a migration of some very able Kiwis from Christchurch. And unlike Piggy Muldoon's famous quote on IQ and migration, one can only hazard a guess that Australia will be the beneficiary of the process.

*Ian Maxwell was born and raised in Australia, has a PhD in chemistry and is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He married a Cantabrian.

- The Press

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