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New Zealand earthquake exposes a government that is upping military spending while neglecting environmental safety
Alex Cole
issue 25
January 2017

November 2016 turned out more momentous than New Zealanders expected. Anti-war campaigners converged on Auckland to protest against international naval exercises celebrating the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary. Ships arrived from 15 countries, and the activists’ focus was the USS Sampson, the first U.S. warship to visit New Zealand in 33 years. New government regulations prevented protest boats from getting near the visiting naval vessels. However this didn’t stop protesters from blockading a weapons expo and shutting it down. But the forces of nature intervened, and things became more complicated.

This ten-storey office building in Wellington had to be demolished after the quake. Photo: Adrianna Weber, Radio NZ.

The militarists had achieved a publicity coup two days earlier, on 14 November, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the upper South Island. The quake wiped out the railway and narrow highways around the small coastal town of Kaikoura, leaving hundreds of tourists stranded and thousands of locals without water or communications. The governments of the U.S., Canada and Australia diverted their visiting naval vessels from Auckland to Kaikoura to help with disaster relief. Thus it was that the crew USS Sampson came to be lauded as “an ambassador for the friendly relationship between NZ and the United States,” as the New Zealand Defence Minister told its sailors. Two New Zealand naval vessels were also deployed to Kaikoura, along with numerous military and civilian aircraft.

Not a disaster relief service. In June, the National Party government had announced it will spend NZ$20 billion over 15 years on military upgrades. London-based Jane’s Information Group estimates the NZ Defence budget for 2016/17 at NZ$3.7 billion, an 8.8% increase over the previous year. The government’s proposals for new hardware include new naval vessels. This policy seems to align New Zealand with the U.S. and Australia’s sabre-rattling against China in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea. Also proposed are new short-range naval craft, the government claiming they can patrol against “illegal fishing” (code for fishing by foreign vessels).

The TV images of sailors at Kaikoura were blatant propaganda for expanding the military. But the military (and its most expensive hardware) is set up for war, not disaster relief! Warships are mostly designed for guns and armour plating, not for carrying people and supplies. And military bases are distributed around the country according to training and deployment priorities, not disaster risks. For example, the navy is heavily concentrated in Auckland, in the upper North Island. The earthquake struck Kaikoura in the upper South Island on 14 November, two minutes after midnight. The naval ship with the largest helicopter deck, the HMNZS Canterbury, did not reach Kaikoura until at least two days and seven hours later. By this time, at least 200 people had been evacuated by helicopters, some belonging to the air force but others to the tourism industry.

Earthquake-prone workplaces. Two people died in the quake, but the death toll would have been a great deal higher if it had not struck in the middle of the night. The quake not only damaged rural properties around Kaikoura but also numerous modern multi-storey buildings in the capital city of Wellington, in the lower North Island. Wellington is home to half-a-million people and has a dense inner city, including the head offices of government departments and large firms. At least six Wellington buildings were damaged so badly that they are being demolished. One of them is a 10-storey office building. The emergency cordon around the demolition zone shut down scores of businesses and forced apartment residents out of their homes. An estimated 10% of Wellington office space was put out of action by the quake. A suburban cinema and an inner city cinema carpark will also be knocked down. It is easy to imagine the risk to human lives if the quake had struck in the afternoon or early evening.

A quake during office hours would have also taken a heavy toll. Perhaps the most appalling result of this one is that two recently-built government department headquarters sustained heavy damage. Defence House (2007) and Statistics House (2005) have both been declared uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Statistics House was the workplace for about 500 people. The quake caused ceilings and service ducts to fall, as well as structural damage.

There is a no excuse for office workers’ lives to be put at risk by quake-prone buildings. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake, with its death toll of 185, should have been a wake-up call for all large buildings to be thoroughly assessed for earthquake resilience. And Wellington is also known for its quakes. Small quakes often disrupt sessions of Parliament. The 1855 quake was so strong that it raised the northwestern section of the Wellington Harbour by 2-3 metres.

The technology to build quake-resistant buildings does exist. Te Papa Museum in Wellington sits on 135 base isolators made of rubber and metal. Te Papa was undamaged by the quake. Staff were able to assess the collections on the day of the quake, and the museum was reopened to the public two days later. This is despite Te Papa being built on reclaimed land. Te Papa was constructed slowly and expensively from 1994 to 1998. The construction budget was criticised at the time, but Te Papa has now shown that, if built to strict specifications, quake-resistant buildings are possible.

Disasters are not class-neutral. Governments and mainstream media like to present disasters as politically neutral, as events which affect all classes in society and which actually bring everyone together to help each other in a time of need. TV coverage brings us images of strangers sharing food and stories in emergency shelters.

However, disasters do not affect all sectors of society equally. This can be seen in the various responses to the quake damage in Wellington. The Chamber of Commerce, which represents business owners, is steering discussion away from improved building regulation. Chief Executive John Milford says that it is incumbent on individual businesses to “lift their game” in earthquake preparedness. However, it is hard for small businesses to “lift their game” when the only premises available to rent are in sub-standard buildings. In 2013, two years after the Christchurch quake, the Wellington Chamber of Commerce lobbied against increasing the number of buildings on the official earthquake prone list. At present, some older buildings can be assessed as 66% below new construction standards and yet still avoid the list. The Wellington City Council requires that, within a rather vague timeframe, these buildings be upgraded or demolished, an expense which the Chamber of Commerce wants to minimise for building owners.

The central government’s earthquake assistance program also draws a perverse response from the Wellington Chamber of Commerce. Members are praised for not applying for state assistance after the November quake. But many businesses have not been eligible for assistance, especially in Wellington. Three days after the quake, the government made the Earthquake Support Subsidy available for quake-affected businesses in Kaikoura so they could continue paying their staff. Wellington businesses were not offered the subsidy until two weeks after the quake, and only after campaigning from unions and opposition parties. The subsidy has plenty of exceptions, and many businesses are not eligible.

Many employees have lost their weekly income, especially in the hospitality and retail sectors, where contracts are casualised and many workers are undocumented. The Unite Union has estimated that tens of thousands of casual workers in Wellington have been thrown out of work. Wellington Citizens Advice Bureau manager Mary O’Regan reports that there are many calls for help from laid-off workers—and even from workers in government departments, which usually “have quite a few people who are employed by temp agencies.”

Working people need to be aware that a capitalist government’s role in a disaster is far from benevolent. The National government used the Christchurch earthquake as an excuse to close schools and foist more unelected officials on the city. And even the heavy death toll from that earthquake has not prompted the government to ensure earthquake-safe cities and workplaces. Even after a severe natural disaster, the government has not gone out of its way to help workers, including those in the public sector. Democracy, safe buildings, and income and job security—all of these things need to be fought for by working people.