In light of the many natural disasters that befall societies around the world the question arises ‘do governments have a long-term responsibility to ensure the well-being and rapid recovery of their citizens post disaster?’ One might imagine that “Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the People.” (Benjamin Disraeli). But is this what actually takes place? I think back to Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, the Thailand tsunami of 2004, Japanese Tahoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-2012 and most recently Hurricane Sandy. What did we get and what can we expect of our governments? It is true that during times of crisis governments the world over, do provide some assistance, usually financial, to communities devastated by natural disasters, at least in the immediate aftermath. This assistance takes on a myriad of forms, including: temporary medical care, food, clothing and shelter; grants and low-cost loans to help residential and commercial property owners to rebuild; and money to local governments to rebuild their buildings and infrastructures.
The New Zealand Government has also provided some of these things (e.g. emergency support assistance). Yet it is also the case that the actual amount of assistance provided post disaster is likely to be less than what is generally perceived. Nonetheless, the usual perception is that of generous government assistance.
The question arises-should this Government assistance be confined to short-term aid and coordination of emergency services immediately post disaster or should it also encompass financial assistance to help property owners, businesses and local governments to rebuild damaged and disrupted lives and property in the years that follow major disaster? And where bottlenecks exist in the recovery process, such as private insurance dishonesty and breach of contract, does the government have a responsibility to step in where failure is clear?
There are those who believe that like Milton Friedman in his book “Capitalism and Freedom” that “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”, he went on to say “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”. Certainly in Christchurch there are many who feel that this is what is currently being played out here. In fact some would go so far as to say that our political and business elites are waging war on our citizens and have left the post recovery phase ‘to the market’. Big business and big government, meanwhile, continue unchecked in their theft from the people. The politicians are now viciously partisan and seemingly contemptuous of their constituencies and for the most part, citizens are seen as not much more than consumers or labor units in the marketplace. Many feel as though that have lost any perceived notions of any control they might once have had. It is obvious that despite their calls for assistance in matters pertaining to accommodation, insurance, city development etc. there is a deafening silence. They discover to their surprise that suddenly charter schools are on the agenda for their shattered city and that their government will pay only 50 per cent of value in red-zoned land, and that the central city will be built with minimal public consultation, overseen by a de-facto government department in the form the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA).
Note that the key to success for the Thai people after the tsunami in 2004 was that people negotiated their land rights from a “position of occupation”.
Naomi Klein in her book “The Shock Doctrine (p.16) ” expressed it succinctly when she said “… disaster responses are so fully privatized that they are themselves the new market; there is no need to wait until after the war[/disaster] for the boom- the medium is the message.”
We are certainly seeing this play out in Christchurch. Decisions appear from the blue – no consultation, no democratic process – just a fait-a-compli. Benevolent democracy seems a long lost distant dream. And worse, what is said to be journalism seems to allow the government and corporate business to promote their agendas without thorough investigation of underlying motivations – the wider media has become complicit. Why are these issues not being reported beyond Christchurch.
Our society is becoming more and more a society divided – a society of the haves and the have nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. It is no longer the place my parents once referred to as ‘the land of milk and honey’.
In my opinion we are not far off losing our government of the people for the people, if we have not already lost it and because New Zealanders have largely failed to recognise their increasingly marginalized role in our society, they are now at risk of losing their voices all together. Surely the Government, as the protectorate of the people, is the natural body we could expect to play a role both in emergency response and longer term assistance to communities reeling from disaster. In respect of the issues of real importance to our society- issues such as education, environment, infrastructure, economic security- the governing politicians for the most part seem deaf, dumb and blind or they are willingly and deliberately re-engineering our society by stealth.