On yesterday’s quakes in Christchurch

In the short term, as CERA chief Roger Sutton claimed yesterday, the collapse of some 50 already-damaged buildings in the Christchurch CBD red zone will speed up the rebuilding process. In similarly upbeat vein at yesterday’s post Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister John Key said that yesterday’s quakes will make it easier – not harder – to decide which areas of the city can be rebuilt, and which cannot. His Cabinet colleague Gerry Brownlee said much the same:

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee says the latest shakes will not delay the rebuild effort and may help authorities make stronger decisions about areas which were of some concern following February’s quake, but were difficult to ascertain their status.

Brownlee and Key did not mention a timeframe – yet the public announcement on which parts of the city can be rebuilt and which will need to be abandoned must be only weeks away, at most.

In the medium term though, yesterday was all bad news, psychologically and practically. Yesterday’s shocks can only put back the clock on the wider task of rebuilding Christchurch. The city’s basic infrastructure – water, wastewater, sewage – has taken a further hammering. To state the bleedingly obvious, major rebuilding can hardly commence when the city is still being racked by earthquakes of yesterday’s magnitude. As a result, yesterday’s quakes will delay the revival of the city’s economy and the job creation associated with the rebuild. The sense that the rebuild will start in earnest early in the New Year may need to be revisited.

There are national implications. There were a lot of heroic assumptions about economic growth contained in this year’s Budget, and the rebuild of Christchurch featured prominently in those calculations. Other major decisions – say, by the Reserve Bank on lifting interest rates at year’s end – have also been related to the likely advent of the Christchurch revival.

What is needed now from the Prime Minister is clarity about the timeframe for the Christchurch rebuild. The time for platitudes like yesterday’s efforts by Key – eg “The people of Christchurch should know that all New Zealanders are thinking of them and will continue to support and stand by them at this very difficult time” etc etc – has passed. Especially when “standing by them” actually means leaving Christchurch people to sink or swim, by scrapping the wage support scheme,.and putting nothing in its place.

In September, the year-long accommodation supplements will start to run out for many. What is Key planning do then (if anything) to help people who will be as much as six months to a year ( or more) away from significant repairs to their homes, and/or a complete rebuild? Thousands of Christchurch people will shortly have to face the full blast of (a) servicing their mortgage (b) while paying for alternative accommodation while (c) being without an income stream from a job while (d) they haggle with EQC and their insurance companies for relief. How exactly does the Key government propose to stand by them? Especially given that as time goes by, the government’s initial response – the wage subsidy scheme – looks to have been mere tokenism, and nothing more.


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