Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Three Years On...The Politics of Disaster  

Public lecture 
for NZ politics and Policy, 
University of Canterbury, NZ 
3 Sept, 2013
By Dr Bronwyn Hayward
Senior Lecturer 
School of Political and Social Sciences

My  thanks to students of the University of Canterbury, colleagues and the community of Christchurch, New Zealand-this discussion is developed in Ecology and Society (forthcoming), Relational Architectural Ecologies (2013), A Changing Environment for Human Security (2013), Children, Citizenship & Environment (2012) and in NZ Politics and Policy 2014 (forthcoming)
*And see also the Manifesto for democracy . 

The Politics of Disaster 

I begin this discussion acknowledging that here in Christchurch, New Zealand we have been standing on very shaky ground. It feels good to use the past tense.  Now the immediate uncertainty has eased we are beginning to feel we can  'trust the ground we walk on 'again.  We're still living with disruption, snarled traffic, damaged homes, all part of the daily reminder we live on a dynamic planet.  But the initial overwhelming shock and grief which accompanied the dramatic events that began on September 4, 2010 in Canterbury, has passed. 

Yet there are still many new challenges to face and in these two lectures I'd like to reflect on the experiences of our community and call for expanding our political imagination about both the possibility for a democratic recovery and the potential and limits of community resilience.

Turning first to the issues of democracy-  tomorrow marks 3 years since the first quake, but its fair to say that it is probably 12.51pm on February 22nd 2011, that is the date that looms largest for most Christchurch people. Then Ruaumoko, the Māori god of earthquakes unleashed his most devastating energy killing 185 people, ‘munting’ or severely damaging the homes of many of our friends or neighbours, and destroying iconic buildings.

Our own university moved into tents for 10 weeks, literally putting the concept of camping bck into campus!

That February 2011 earthquake event was one of a complex series of earthquakes which racked Christchurch after the first a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in the Canterbury region occurred on 4 September 2010, 40 kilometres east of the city. In the nine months after that  earthquake, residents experienced an average of one aftershock over magnitude 5 every 10 days.
In total, the community experienced 59 earthquakes at magnitude 5 or more in the two years between September 2010 and 2012. Each event renewed our collective grief and exhaustion.
New Zealand’s former head of the Reserve Bank, Alan Bollard once described the Christchurch earthquakes as "one of the biggest natural disasters in relative terms to befall an OECD country since World War II”. In many ways, residents of Christchurch, like those in Japan currently struggling with their own devastating cascade of disasters, don’t need to rethink or redefine democracy or resilience, we are simply living these debates- however as philosopher Hannah Arendt  reminds us, it is also important that we take time to 'think what it is we do'.

I'd like to argue that we can "think differently" to use the phrase made popular by one of the Gapfiller projects below, (a shared library of second hand books which began after the quakes). We can reclaim a more active, more compassionate and more critical perspective on democracy and resilience. Drawing on our communities experiences, I argue that the future for Christchurch could be more inclusive, more creative and more socially just 

Three reflections on Disasters and Democracy: Klein, Solnit and Honig

When disasters threaten a community, whether it’s a series of slow cumulative, almost imperceptible daily changes like a change in climate or a sudden cataclysmic event like an earthquake, these challenges test more than our physical resilience. They tear at the fabric of our economies, our democracies and our citizenship. However disaster also brings opportunity for new insight and a chance to rethink basic principles – including democracy.

In Strong Democracy, Benjamin Barber reminded us that making decisions democratically is rarely easy, it requires us to think :

" What shall we do when something has to be done that affects us all, we wish to be reasonable, yet we disagree on means and ends and are without independent grounds to make the choice?”" (Barber 1984)

In the experience of the earthquake, and the confusion that followed,  New Zealand was confronted by precisely this problem. At times  recovery has seemed an overwhelming task so it is not surprising, but it is deeply disappointing, that many well meaning people argued there was no time for democracy, or that decisions were so serious and far reaching that they needed to be taken by informed elites, not by the community as a whole.
After an initially euphoric start in which 1000's of people turned out to 'share an idea' for the central city rebuild, central government stepped in, sidelining the city council and developing its own "100 day plan" based around precincts and anchor projects (including for example a stadium and convention centre). 

The elected regional government (ECAN) had similarly been sidelined before the earthquakes, on the grounds that water planning for new dairy industries was so serious that elected representatives had to be replaced by government officials who could do the job more effectively. After the earthquakes, this arrangement was extended for a further 5 years despite significant  public protest.
The locally elected city council has also been marginalized  in decision making by a newly created central government department, CERA or the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority headed by a single Minister in sole charge of the region's recovery. This arrangement has  been criticized for the far reaching, almost unrestrained powers of the Minister, under the Earthquake Recovery Act. Others question the centralized government department culture of CERA, which is inappropriate for a local community which needs more face to face support and service delivery.

The limitations of this command and control response have been well rehearsed- lawyers expressed concern about the sweeping constitutional reforms (see here), colleagues in political science have voiced concern about the changes to the regional council (see earlier post), and concern has been raised in mainstream news editorials and by others including  Fiona Farrell, and in social media. (See also Hayward 2012
I describe this situation as an example of a FEARS model of authoritarian decision making. In this model citizen agency (or the ability to imagine and effect desired change) is frustrated as the community is excluded from environments it values, and decision making becomes authoritarian. In this model justice is defined in retributive ways as we search for people to blame, (e.g. it’s all the Minister's fault). In the process, our democratic imagination is silenced. 

In recent weeks however concerns from all sides of the political spectrum have begun to question Christchurch's present decision making. The centrally controlled decision making response to the quakes was flawed from the start-but the city council itself had also developed a culture of closed door,  managerial decision making long before the earthquakes which is also highly problematic, and makes it even harder to achieve effective public decision making at present. Moreover as Dame Anne Salmond, (New Zealander of the year)  argues,  many of these problems are not confined  to Christchurch,  democracy is also being eroded in New Zealand as a nation.

Alternative, democratic approaches to disaster

An authoritarian response, including sweeping suspension of local democracy and exclusion of the public is not the only way to respond to a disaster, let alone the most appropriate.  In a changing climate, as urban communities are increasingly exposed to more severe weather events:   floods, heat waves, and coastal erosion for example, disasters will be experienced more often -it is therefore incumbent on us, to consider how can we maintain and sustain democracy in dynamic and changing world.

Three contemporary writers have shared reflections about alternative ways to think about what happens to democracy through disaster.

The first is Naomi Klein - In her controversial work Shock Doctrine she has argued that governments have frequently seized on disasters, (real or manufactured), to promote unpopular far reaching economic policies of neoliberalism which introduce new market principles into public life. Under normal circumstances, Klein argues, these principles may be rejected or at least hotly contested as policy options but in cases where a community is distracted, tired and overwhelmed these controversial policies can be rushed through. Her book by the same title has been made into a film.You do not need to agree with her entire case, to acknowledge for example that in New Zealand  the Labour Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas used tactics he termed  policy 'blitzkrieg' to rush unpopular economic policy through New Zealand parliament following a fiscal crisis in 1984.

Moreover while Christchurch is hardly a shock doctrine, urgency was used to justify sweeping aside locally elected bodies, and cordoning, rezoning and bull dozing large areas of residential and commercial land. 

Furthermore, elected school boards of trustees were also marginalized following the earthquakes, in a process of mergers, and closure of schools and proposals for  charter schools (see previous posts).

I will not revisit the decisive and unfortunate charter schools concept here (see early submissions to the NZ select committee),  but the case of school reforms is disturbing. Much research on children coping with disasters stresses the importance of minimizing disruption to education- its one of the most helpful things any government can do for its children in a disaster,  after basic healthcare, and shelter. So I admit, the failure of  NZ Ministry of Education officials to understand how serious the Christchurch disaster situation was and instead to use the moment to move quickly to merge and close schools  simply shocked me at the time, and still shocks me. If buildings were unsafe that was one matter, but wider education reforms could have waited and been achieved in 5 years time, with considered reflection, without exacerbating community anxiety in a crisis.

Recent research conducted by CERA has revealed increased stress, domestic violence and abuse problems at a 'three year point', post quake. In this light  it is also deeply troubling that many vulnerable, low income communities in particular who need help face school disruption now, at the very time when schools are the front line of support for many families and teens.

2. Yet a 'shock doctrine' scenario of rushed decisions sheds only partial light on what happened to local democracy in Christchurch. Author Rebecca Solnit's Paradise built in Hell, also speaks of the way many communities are able to find solidarity and spontaneously express empathy and act cooperatively in disaster situations. Her  work and Nigel Clark's study of community collaboration in a dynamic planet also resonates aspects of Christchurch's experience.

In Christchurch, the Student volunteer Army which many Canterbury students took part in, is a stand out example of the spontaneous way community collaboration can happen after a disaster.

University student SamJohnston and a small core group of others,  first organised 1-4000 students in September 2010 at the time of 7.1 magnitude quake . Building on what they learned in that experience, it took students only a week after the February aftershocks before they were communicating with  24,000 people. It wasn’t just face book and twitter that enabled this astonishing, youthful coordinated effort. There were a raft of pre-existing conditions that enabled young Christchurch citizens and many communities like them to act in new ways. One of the first common features of these successful citizenship initiatives is that they built on existing organisations and networks, improving their communication and relationships within,  between  and across different groups in the city.

The legacy of the spontaneous community co-ordination and regeneration is everywhere, in the new thinking of Gap Filler, and the recreation of public space through, for example: Greening the Rubble and new start up businesses of Life in Vacant spaces, or the experimental new economic models of Garden City 2.0 or the shared transition economies of Lyttleton. 

These experiences echo the work of a third writer, Bonnie Honig whose thoughtful study in 2009 Emergency politics, reminds us that if “ political emergencies” pose a threat to democratic life – we must pause and consider how should we respond democratically. 

Honig asks, must our only responses be to centralize top down decision making,  countering the growing power of the executive only by legal challenge? Or can we begin to rethink democracy as a series of daily emergencies, in which, as she argues, our task is less about focusing on disaster as an exceptional moment when we do everything differently and more about maintaining democracy as  a daily task: founding and re-founding  democratic vision, ideals and practice in everyday life.

Summary -next steps and why icon projects are not the answer

Unfortunately because we’ve carried a command and control form of decision making on, I argue in Christchurch we are actually now eroding our  recovery in two key ways.

First we are eroding future leadership talent- we need to plan for how the we will return the city and the region to elected, accountable local decision making which effectively manages CERA and the city as they merge their functions in the next two years.  At present there is almost no function left for a city council, we have one Minister required to make all the decisions and that is simply not healthy or helpful.

Secondly the idea of focusing our community recovery around a central city rebuild anchored by  icon projects will prove problematic. Around the world we see how big icon buildings and stadiums, have often become lightening rods for tension in urban communities where squeezed middle income communities experiencing growing inequality feel huge resentment about projects that are seen as costly and/or favouring the needs of an elite or  its ‘cronies’.

 I think sadly we can expect the icon projects to be more of a source of tension than inspiration -so for this reason its essential that decision making returns to local accountable and elected leadership where decision making is transparent and open to scrutiny and debate.

Studies by Mark Pelling at Kings College London, with Kathy Dil for Chatham House also show that after a disaster, despite much discontent, power tends to be reinforced in some elite groups

I’d like to hope that doesn’t 
happen here, I’d like to think that as a city we can do things differently. We could recover together and become a more multicultural, more egalitarian, caring and more innovative city. I hope we can.



  1. It's possible, but it's not looking rosy at the moment. I'm hoping robust council elections could help. But so far information seems scrappy, and it's hard to know how most candidates feel about key decisions for our future- the 'cornerstone' white elephants for example. What could be less democratic than placing a massive - and likely largely empty - convention centre in the heart of the city? It explicitly says: we don't want citizens here; the city's heart is promised to tourists and conference-goers. Dreadful urban planning as well.
    So how will our next council approach this? Hope for a vigorous debate!

  2. Thanks Rob- yes I agree "what we do next" is crucial- Planning a return to transparent, locally accountable, elected government which brings together the roles of CERA and CCC to take the city forward is key. The debates we have yet to have are about opening the books so we can see the state of the finances for the city, and being open to new economic thinking about long term local investment for local community employment and how government can support communities. I expect this also means reflecting on how we might regulate insurance, planning and provision of housing- these debates are all crucial and part of exciting new thinking along with all the new transitional architecture, social employment and investment and re-creation of public space happening on the ground in Christchurch