By Murray Horton in Christchurch. Murray Horton has been a political activist and writer since 1969. He is the Organiser for the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA, www.cafca.org.nz) and the Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC, www.converge.org.nz/abc).
Having endured the 2010/11 seismic reign of terror in Christchurch, I, like all Cantabrians, have my share of war stories.
Such as having been upstairs in the CTV Building on the morning of February 22, 2011 – two hours after he shook my hand and went back into that building, the 25 year-old reporter who had interviewed me was dead. He told me he’d worked there for a week.
His name is now one of those on the city’s Earthquake Memorial.
But the lessons to be learnt from the country’s greatest natural disaster in its recorded history are not only of the personal kind.
There are a lot of lessons for all other New Zealanders too, such as – don’t think it can’t happen to you (as we did). It can and probably will, so learn from what happened in Christchurch.
Things such as that a 25-year-old criminally negligent building that should never have been consented will kill 115 people decades later (a corporate manslaughter law is long overdue in this country).
There’s all the lessons to do with EQC and insurance companies (although I personally had no problems with either).
There is the fact that Christchurch is still being governed under emergency laws until 2021. There is the never-ending saga of the rebuild.
And, looming very large, there is the opportunistic use of disaster capitalism (or “shock doctrine” as Naomi Klein branded it in her book of that title).
Put simply, it means that the powers that be – central Government, local government, Big Business, political ideologues – take advantage of the people of a city (New Orleans in the case of Klein’s book being in a state of collective shock at the literal upheaval that has struck them and, while they are distracted, kick them while they’re down by ramming through an economic and/or political agenda.
Christchurch had already been subjected to the Government’s mailed fist in the months before the quakes started, when it sacked elected members of the regional council (Environment Canterbury) and replaced them with unelected Commissioners in order to ram through irrigation water rights for dairy farming, an industry increasingly owned by agribusiness.
This constitutes the single biggest land conversion process in NZ’s recorded history. Full democracy is not scheduled to be restored to ECan until the 2019 local body elections.
This stuff really kicked into gear in the immediate aftermath of the quakes.
There was the incredibly stressful and fiercely resisted Christchurch school “restructuring” programme, which constituted Hekia Parata’s “gift” to the city.
Right now, the Canterbury District Health Board (which is undergoing the biggest public hospital building project in NZ’s history) is in the crosshairs of both Treasury and the Ministry of Health for not being able to “live within its budget”. Stay posted for any Government attempt to get rid of elected members from that Board.
But the classic example of Christchurch disaster capitalism was the Government stampeding the City Council into a panic about debt and therefore the urgent need to sell public assets.
What was the debt? The Government twisted the arm of the 2010-13 Council (which was voted out, almost in its entirety, in 2013) into signing a multi-billion dollar Cost Share Agreement for the quake rebuild and then let cowered local body politicians, in thrall to There Is No Alternative, run round like headless chooks looking for public assets to sell.
And Christchurch has a lot of them – it wasn’t called The People’s Republic of Christchurch for nothing.
The 2013-16 Council dutifully set about its task. But the people of Christchurch had by now climbed out of the rubble, dusted ourselves off and were ready to fight for what is ours.
Christchurch is the one city where the Keep Our Assets campaign did not die once the Key government had flogged off the State-owned power generators. We kept the name and the campaign (I am the Convenor of Keep Our Assets Canterbury – KOA).
It’s a long story but, to simplify it, the Council put City Care up for sale in 2015, as the first in a planned series of sales.
KOA said that the debt claim was bunk and that the figures for the debt were manufactured. We consistently said that the decision to sell assets was a perfect illustration of Government-led disaster capitalism.
We opposed the whole assets sale policy.
And we very actively opposed the specific proposal to sell City Care, campaigning tirelessly on the streets and in the Council Chamber throughout 2015 and 2016 and into 2017, under the slogan of “Save City Care”.
KOA’s campaign included running John Minto as our Christchurch Mayoral candidate in 2016 – he got 13,000 votes.
And we won. The Council announced, in 2016, that it would not sell City Care. The battle wasn’t over yet. But, in June 2017, the new Council voted to restore City Care to its strategic assets list (meaning that it can’t be sold without public consultation).
Suddenly the Council accepted that, actually, there are alternatives to managing debt (real or imaginary) that don’t involve flogging off assets. Chalk that one up to the good guys.
But it must be noted, with bitter regret, that the City Council – New Zealand’s second biggest landlord, behind only the State – has very recently allowed itself to be hoodwinked/bullied by the Government into giving up total ownership and control of its very large portfolio of social housing, which is now in the hands of a housing trust (in which the Council is just a partner).
This is a major asset which has been partially removed from ownership by the people of Christchurch.
Swings and roundabouts.