Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ was first published in 2007 and has since gone on to become a No.1 best seller and made into a feature length documentary. The book explores how a seemingly unpopular strain of economic thought in the early 1970’s has become the dominant force in shaping government’s, business and the global economy of today.

So what has this got to do with the earthquakes in Christchurch?

Klein’s extensive study leads us to understanding a great deal more about the U.S response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It takes us well beyond the notion that if it was a different government, with a different leader, things would have been better. Klein instead tells us the global economic system, which demands public assets to be privatised, where government influence is seen as an interference to corporate interest and that even disaster responses should be conducted by private contractors, is the only response that liberal democracy’s now know or care for. She describes this phenomena as ‘the rise of disaster capitalism’.

When we look at the chapter that deals explicitly with Hurricane Katrina we begin to see a very familiar picture;

“The images from New Orleans showed that this was the general belief – that disasters are a kind of time out from cut-throat capitalism, when we all pull together and the state switches into higher gear – had already been abandoned, and with no public debate.” p.408

Following the 7.1 Earthquake that hit Christchurch on the 4th September Unite Union was the first to put out a press release expressing grave concerns for the city’s workers. People were being forced to work or lose their holiday pay while the government dithered over what to say. Hours of press releases and footage told us all about the effects on the Central Business District and local private business, but nothing had been said about the workers. Under the spotlight the Tory Government came through with an economic package to tied people over for the short term.

However while small business owners were able to support their workers, thanks to the government package, the onus was on large businesses to look after their workers privately – this failed miserably.

Unite Union announced a Tour of Shame to highlight the businesses it was aware of that were failing to support their staff during the initial period of September’s quake. Fast food chains also received the brunt of the worker’s union frustrations – with at least one store electing to walk out and return home to loved ones.

Meanwhile people were busy digging silt from their homes, patching up broken chimneys and doing their best to cope with the trauma of the event. Lack of information and public influence on decisions being made became the chief concern among many residents.

Thanks to 1970’s Rogernomics and the birth of the privatisation era, public funding for basic services has been sold to the highest bidders – “The state…has lost its ability to perform its core functions without the help of contractors”p.417 – stalling response time and cutting people out of the decision making process.

“The contractor’s [had an] aversion to hiring local people who might have seen the reconstruction of New Orleans not only as a job but as part of healing and re empowering their communities. Washington could have easily made it a condition of every Katrina contract that companies hire local people at decent wages to help them put their lives back together” p.412

Where are all the builders and trades people that we need to rebuild the city? Why is it that only in recent weeks – 3 months since February’s quake and 9 months since September – that the local polytechnic begins programmes specifically designed to equip new and experienced trades people with the skills necessary for the job? Even the opposition party have begun to air their concern.

Fletcher’s has advertised far and wide to encourage builders and subcontractors to the city. However they came under fire late last year due to their low pay and frustrations from the length of time it took to make any decisions. Many builders that arrived in the early stages from towns and cities across the country have since left – others have opted to find better pay and conditions overseas in Australia and elsewhere. Other contractors that could be getting stuck into repairs and construction have instead chosen to work for the EQC as building inspectors. Why? Because there’s more money in it, especially for out of town firms who receive further accommodation supplements.

“… government once again played the role of a cash machine equipped for both withdrawals and deposits. Corporations withdrew funds through massive contracts, then repaid the government not with reliable work but with campaign contributions and/or loyal foot soldiers for the next elections.” p.412

Fletcher’s wins the contract to rebuild homes across the city and to ensure that everyone on the urgent list has suitable heating in time for winter. We now know that half on the urgent list do not have heating in their homes and repairs have been hampered by lack of builders and the painfully slow EQC inspections. Small jobs have been given priority, the large jobs have simply been put onto the ever growing waiting list. Fletcher’s board of directors include CEO’s of Fronterra, Westpac Bank, Fisher and Paykel, Foodstuff’s, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, Vector and Insurance Australia Group, ANZ National Bank…the list goes on…public money is being steadily directed into private hands.

While this is going on the insurance companies have been incredibly quiet about the entire affair. The silence speaks volumes. Families are stuck in homes that are potential death traps with nowhere to go while they wait for the Government to decide their fate. The few that could afford to get out have, while the majority have had no choice but to endure powerless nights, raw sewerage in their homes, freezing temperatures and throat burning dust.

Insurance giant, AMI was forced to admit it couldn’t pay out the Christchurch residents affected. New Zealand tax payers have been forced to pay $1 billion to bail them out. At a time when people across the World have been digging deep to put spare cash to the recovery fund, we are whacked with the bill of the incompetence of private business.

The fact that it is 9 months on and we still know nothing of which suburbs are going to be lost forever and the admission from EQ Recovery Minister Brownlee that they’ve known for months, suggests that the government and insurance firms have been busy getting all of their ducks together before any major announcements are made. We now know who’s interests take priority and who comes a distant second.

Where to from here?

We have learned from hard experience that getting things done can be achieved by many putting in what they can. Streets have been cleared of silt, broken homes have been patched up and neighbours have gone the extra mile to help one another in need. Trades people, civil defence, aid agencies and community groups have all been incredible. If we had waited, like we have been told to do, by the mind numbing community briefings that the government have put on across the city, we would still be knee deep in filth from September’s and February’s quakes.

In times of crises the very best in human nature rises to the challenge – we have seen numerous community groups and grass roots networks spring up throughout the city. Brownlee and CERA have be awarded unlimited power and can bypass any law or local authority but even with this unprecedented influence it pails in comparison to the power and potential of the people of Christchurch.

Tidal Change –

Since Monday June 13th, when the city endured yet another round of severe aftershocks people are finally beginning to vocalise their disappointment in the Government’s response – the message has been loud and clear – wait, keep out of the way, we know what we’re doing – debris from September’s quake still remains untouched on the streets, builders have responded to the call for assistance and have since left, private insurers have been bailed out while entire communities have been left in the dark as their futures lay in the balance. The government is suddenly finding itself out of step with the people.

We are now about to witness the latest act from the corporate sponsored earthquake response. Addington Action has been one of the most successful community groups to spring up during the crises. Spurred on from February’s quake people in the community took affirmative action. They took stock of resources, took note of who needed what and have worked hard to ensure the information was passed on to the agencies and individuals who could help on a daily basis (proving the point that direct community involvement can significantly speed up recovery process).

The group have since grown and have gathered a vast amount of knowledge about what the neighbourhood and surrounding area’s need. The EQR, the ‘on hand’ branch of the EQC – whose role it is to patch up homes and ensure people don’t freeze this winter have had a pivotal role in this success. However the rules have just changed without any consultation. Overnight it has been decided that uninsured properties will not be granted assistance. The ramifications of this decision may prove to be life or death for some of the most vulnerable sections of our community. It is unclear who made the decision however it is safe to assume that money is the biggest factor in this latest move.

The mistake we made since September was to assume that business and suited politicians are the best equipped people to deal with natural disasters – Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, but it does go some way to explain the official response we have so far witnessed. The government and decision makers have deliberately segmented the communities response. We are encouraged to deal with issues individually and are left hoping that are phone messages are responded to – think back to the community briefings where we were told to line up and deal with our issues “separately”, what a missed opportunity for the community to get organised! Groups that have created a collective response and have shown real promise are now being gagged and trodden on.

…The solutions are where they have always been – among the people.

(Page numbers and quotations are taken from the Penguin Books 2008 edition – Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine)

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