Back to school in happy town

well-being-index-2001-globalwhat-is-HWB_04How are you feeling?

If you’re in Christchurch, CERA thinks you’re doing really well. A media release cheerily announced that ‘Wellbeing Survey reveals positive outlook‘.

Conducted for CERA by Nielsen Research from August to October, 2012, “2,381 residents completed questionnaires [of whom] 1,156 were from Christchurch, 618 from the Selwyn district and 607 from the Waimakariri district“.

Drill down a bit further – beyond the media release – and the ‘take away’ is not quite so rosy:

Residents of Christchurch rate their quality of life less positively than residents of Selwyn and Waimakariri districts.

Higher proportions of Christchurch residents have experienced a strong negative impact on their everyday lives as a result of the earthquakes.

Nearly three-quarters of greater Christchurch residents rate their quality of life positively, and 7% believe it to be poor. However more than half believe that their quality of life has deteriorated since the earthquakes.

97% of residents have experienced stress at least some time in the past year. Nearly a quarter indicate they have been living with this type of stress for most or all of the time over the past year.

Drill down even further and things start to get very revealing.

From the ‘Executive Summary’:

While 34% feel confident that, overall, the agencies involved have made decisions that have been in the best interests of greater Christchurch, 37% express a lack of confidence while 29% remained non-committal.

[In fact, for Christchurch City residents the figures are 32% confident, 38% lack confidence and 30% ‘non-committal’ – the latter includes 26% who were ‘neutral’ and 4% who ‘Did not know’.]

Think about that for a moment.

Over a third of the respondents had a “lack of confidence” that “the agencies involved have made decisions that have been in the best interests of greater Christchurch” with a further 29% being unconvinced that they have. And, that was across ‘Greater Christchurch’ which includes, presumably, the backcountry residents in the Selwyn and Waimakariri Districts and those in provincial towns such as Rangiora who have generally felt little of the direct after-effects of the earthquakes and the ‘recovery process’ on daily life.

Well, those “people carping and moaning” aside, isn’t it still true that, as The Press headlined its report on the survey, “Cantabrians happier, more positive “?

‘Happier’, ‘more positive’ … OK, but happier than when, exactly? This survey was the first in a series that will end in 2014 so it can’t be referring to the results of an earlier CERA Wellbeing survey of Christchurch residents.

Maybe the headline is ambiguous. Perhaps ‘Cantabrians’ are not meant to include residents of the metropolis of Christchurch? As the article itself notes early in the piece, “Selwyn and Waimakariri residents are happier than their Christchurch neighbours“.

But, surely, Christchurch residents are still ‘Cantabrians’? So what change in wellbeing has happened since the 22 February, 2011 earthquake?

As luck would have it, a ‘Quality of Life Survey‘ was carried out in 2010 – by the self-same Neilsen Research (note the extremely similar formatting) – and it included Christchurch, amongst eight New Zealand cities.

Even better, it occurred between the September 4, 2010 earthquake and the 22 February, 2011 earthquake so it neatly indicates (and can be used to discount) the effect of the first earthquake. Importantly, the 2010 survey was of Christchurch City only (not Waimakariri or Selwyn).

So, what do we find?

Quality of Life Response

Pre-22.2.11 (2010 Quality of Life Survey)

Post-22.2.11 (2012 CERA Wellbeing Survey)


Extremely Good








Neither Poor nor Good








Extremely Poor




I have no idea where The Press got the impression that the CERA Wellbeing Survey, 2012 showed how Christchurch people were ‘happier’ and ‘more positive’ than they were (when?), or how Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker saw in the findings “a ‘changing tide‘ in the city, where people had shaken off a very ‘tough winter’ to embrace the positive things that were happening”. Or, for that matter, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA could claim that (Greater) Christchurch people had a “positive outlook“.

Between the pre-22 February, 2011 summer and August-October 2012 rates of self-reported quality of life had plummeted in Christchurch City from 95% describing their lives as ‘extremely good’ or ‘good’ to 72% using the same terms to categorise their lives. What is more, only 12% saw it as ‘extremely good’ in 2012 compared to 30% in 2010 (after the first major earthquake).

In other words, an extra 23% – almost 1 in four – Cantabrians no longer see their quality of life positively.

And an extra 1 in 20 Cantabrians (5%) have moved into describing their quality of life as ‘poor’ with 1 in 100 desperately describing their circumstances as ‘extremely poor’ (0% previously).

This reveals many things but one thing it does not reveal is a ‘positive outlook’. What were Gerry Brownlee and CERA thinking when they framed that media release so positively two days before the second anniversary of the 22 February, 2011 earthquake?

Is it now politically incorrect to face facts? Is it seen as some sort of public duty to jolly the populace along? Does CERA now see itself as a branch office of Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising agency that told us all during the 1990s to ‘accentuate the positive’ and ‘eliminate the negative’?

Is this all part of Peter Townsend’s suggested feel good tsunami that would “drown naysayers in positivity” (mentioned in this earlier post)?

That 72% figure is not a reason to celebrate – it is a glaring, flashing red light that says “do something!”

But do what?

Here’s a clue. In the last sentence of the abstract (full article beyond the paywall) for their study titled “The Good Life of the Powerful: The Experience of Power and Authenticity Enhances Wellbeing“, Kifer et al. (2013) conclude,

Although striving for power lowers well-being, these results demonstrate the pervasive positive psychological effects of having power, and indicate the importance of spreading power to enhance collective well-being.

[T]he importance of spreading power to enhance collective well-being“.

Well, there’s a novel thought: If we were truly concerned about Cantabrians’ wellbeing how about giving residents of Christchurch and Canterbury greater power over their destinies (both personal and collective)?

How about giving them a say over what happens in the red zones, the TC3 land, the hills? How about returning their voice to the Regional Council and giving their City Council more of a role in the recovery? How about letting residents determine the reform of the school system? How about ‘levelling the playing field’ between insurers (EQC and private) and the insured?

Joining the dots a bit shows that the main reason Christchurch residents have a radically lower level of collective well-being stems from a lack of power and control.

Here’s part of Table 7.2 from the CERA Wellbeing Survey (p. 20) that lists the negative experiences that have had a moderate or major effect on respondents’ lives. (I’ve only included the top 11 for space reasons – and, sorry about the blurring! I need lessons ).

Image 23-02-13 at 1.14 PM

It goes without saying that aftershocks are beyond a person’s control – but look at the other factors: ‘Dealing’ with EQC/insurance claims; ‘Loss’ of leisure facilities; ‘surrounded’ by construction work; ‘Uncertainty’ about the future; ‘Making decisions’ about damage, repairs, relocations; ‘Additional work pressures’; ‘Additional financial burdens’; ‘Loss’ of access to natural environment; ‘Loss’ of sport and recreation facilities; ‘Living day to day’ in damaged homes.

All of these are about circumstances, environments and processes that ordinary people feel they can do little about and that they had endured, by the time of the survey, for over 18 months.

On the other side of that ‘power’ coin are the agencies that are actually making the decisions: CERA, the three Councils, and ECAN.

On pages 61-66, the CERA Wellbeing Survey 2012 Report tabulates the levels of confidence respondents had that agencies are making decisions in the best interests of ‘Greater Christchurch’ (interestingly, that isn’t quite a question about motives but it does come very close to it, I imagine, in many people’s minds).

The Survey found that 39% of Christchurch City residents had confidence (‘very confident’ or ‘confident’) that CERA was making decisions in the best interests of Greater Christchurch while 29% did not and 28% were neutral.

A stunning 41% of Christchurch residents lacked confidence that the Christchurch City Council (CCC) was making decisions in the best interests of Greater Christchurch, while 29% had confidence.

This finding actually begs the question of the decision making power of the CCC. After all, it has no say over the central city (and, hence, over its budget given the vast sums it has been or will be loaded with to make the grand plan real), over infrastructure recovery in Greater Christchurch (given that CERA is in charge of that and, further, given a secret meeting between the CCC and Minister Brownlee in December, 2012 over a “blowout” in infrastructure repair costs and, therefore, how it will be paid for) or, now, over planning for the next ten years (yet another secret – or ‘private’ – meeting between the Council and Minister Brownlee).

It may be that Tony Marryatt’s $68,000 pay rise, announced in December, 2011, was still ‘front of mind’ for many Christchurch residents.

Whatever the reasons, the levels of lack of confidence in CERA and the Council (and, ‘overall’ as mentioned earlier in this post) also represent Christchurch residents’ sense of lack of control over what is happening around them and to their city.

In a word, it reveals a pervasive sense of powerlessness.

There is one bright patch, however. In every case, the Survey findings report that there is one group that is repeatedly the most likely to express confidence that the agencies are making decisions in the best interests of Greater Christchurch. It is also the group that is more likely to express greatest confidence in those decisions ‘overall’.

Those more likely to express confidence in earthquake recovery decisions (34%) are:

  • From a household with an income of more than $100,000 (48%)
  • Living in Selwyn District (39%)

p. 61

Those more likely to be confident with the decisions CERA has made (40%) are:

  • From a household with an income of more than $100,000 (53%)

p. 63

Those more confident with the decisions made by their local council are:

  • Living in Waimakariri (42%) or Selwyn District (39%)
  • From a household with an income of more than $100,000 (39%)

p. 64

Those with a higher degree of confidence [with ECAN] are:

  • From a household with an income of more than $100,000 (32%) 

p. 65

It’s pleasing to see that at least one group feels a bit more positive about the decision making. It’s worth remembering that those with household incomes over $100,000 are also likelier to be in the Selwyn District and, if in Christchurch, in the West of the city (though, obviously, the wealthier hill suburbs were also hit very hard).

A letter writer to the Weekend Press (23 February, 2013) summed up the sceptical attitude towards this survey:

“Stop spinning our wellbeing.

Agencies like CERA do not provide hope by issuing a report on the wellbeing of Cantabrians, concluding that the population rate the quality of their life high [Actually, the quality of life ratings are historically low, as I’ve shown.]

Providing hope is being honest about what’s going on and what needs to be done

Those who are disappointed by the spin created by agencies, insurers or authorities are the ones who lose hope. Stop spinning wellbeing. We will decide for ourselves what is fact and fiction.


Don’t try to take control over the one thing Cantabrians still pride themselves on having some control over – their ability to make their own judgments.

Which brings me to the title of the post – ‘Back to school …’.

That, of course, is a whole other story …

This entry was posted in Democracy, Earthquakes, Freedom, New Zealand Politics, Welfare and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Back to school in happy town

  1. Joe Wylie says:

    Excellent post as always, with one tiny quibble: It wasn’t Saatchis that that ran the “Accentuate the Positive” message back in the day, it was their possibly even more irritating Wellington rival McCann Erickson, in a series of TV spots promoting themselves.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Oops! I guess my only defence is that ‘they’ all sound the same to me. 🙂

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Joe,

      I forgot to say thanks for the compliment (I was replying on my cellphone and I’m very slow tapping out my words on it). I really appreciate the support.

      All the best,

  2. Kumbel says:

    Nice post. Couple of comments:

    1. The Urban Devel0pment Strategy project of some 6-7 years ago defined Greater Christchurch as extending as far as the Ashley River to the north, south of Rolleston, west of Rangiora etc.

    2. So, Rangiora is not a provincial town any more than Rolleston is. It is, effectively, a suburb of Christchurch. When you pull these surveys apart you need to bear in mind that the residents of Waimakariri and Selwyn work (especially work), play, shop and eat in Christchurch City daily. The centre of Rangiora is being steadily demolished just the same as the “Rebuild Zone” in Christchurch. I live north of the Ashley River but my neighbour has just finished having their modern house demolished and rebuilt so the effects are widespread.

    Not that either point takes away from the essential truth in your post.

    It appears to me that both central and local government are out of their depth in the rebuild process – but hats off to our councils and lines companies and NZTA for their work in repairing infrastructure. But, as always, when politicians can’t “fix” the people they veer off to build a concrete monument to themselves (with public money of course).

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Kumbel,

      You make some good points about the experience of those not in the immediate Christchurch urban area. I apologise if I gave the impression that I thought their experiences are trivial.

      There’s no doubt that people throughout the region have been affected. But the effects have been ‘patchy’. Even within the non-Banks Peninsula CCC boundaries there have been vastly different impacts in different parts of the city. I live just outside the central city yet I’ve been lucky, so far as our house goes. A couple of blocks away there was very bad liquefaction and the streets are still permanently dug up and unsealed.

      I guess I was trying to explain why the residents in Waimakariri and Selwyn Districts typically reported higher measures on the wellbeing survey than Christchurch City residents. Unless we say that Christchurch people are just more likely to be ‘sad sacks’ (i.e., blame the personalities of Christchurch residents) I think a good part of the answer has to do with the extent of impacts and the degree to which they have penetrated a good proportion of people’s lives (including where they work, where they live, where their children go to school, where they recreate, etc. – i.e., the effects are inescapable for some people not just confined to one aspect of their life) and, as I argued, the extent to which people in the city itself feel as if they have little control over what is happening and, vitally, over the future form of Christchurch (because of CERA’s ‘central city blueprint’, the complete emasculation and sidelining of the CCC over its budget, the scope of its responsibilities, its planning processes, etc.). My sense is that the heavy hand of CERA has not been felt quite as unremittingly in Waimakariri and Selwyn. Districts.

      I might be wrong, of course.

      The 2010 Wellbeing Survey I linked to (i.e., not the CERA one just released) was, as I read it, only of people within the CCC boundaries – the CERA survey was of all three local territorial authorities in ‘Greater Christchurch’. The direct comparison between the surveys is therefore only with the CCC residents.

      The ‘Greater Christchurch’ tag is also being used in the education/school reforms for the school network.

      Thanks again,

  3. Kumbel says:

    If a week is a long time in politics how about a month? Two issues that came up yesterday got me thinking again about this post. It really seems to me that we are now only just starting to understand the true lack of commitment central government and their agencies have to the recovery of Greater Christchurch.

    First consider that, when it suits them, our politicians make great play on how the situation in Christchurch is unique, the greatest disaster (economically) anywhere and so on. So how have our public institutions responded to the most significant event since WWII? As far as I can tell by aspiring to mediocrity.

    Let’s take exactly the same facts you quote from the Executive Summary to the CERA Wellbeing Survey and just reframe them:

    “95% of the residents of Greater Christchurch are not very confident the agencies involved have made decisions that have been in the best interests of greater Christchurch.”

    Doesn’t read well does it? I would not be proud of achieving that result. Yet it would seem that that our public institutions are satisfied. The problem is that when you claim the “OK” and “Dunno” responses as evidence you are not doing a terrible job you are also saying that you are only aspiring to mediocrity, an aspiration that can be expressed something like:

    “We will do whatever it takes to leave residents of Christchurch confused, a little disappointed, uncertain and only a little bit unhappy: anything as long as they are not bitterly angry.”

    So the data gaffe at EQC and the audit of Ministry of Ed’s consultation procedures have a wider context. It is a little unfair to single out one person when so many facts are not publically known. But one thing is certain: the person who emailed the EQC database to their fiercest critic did not bother to take 5 seconds to check the email was going to the right person. More likely than not this reflects the culture of EQC.

    And I was truly floored by Hekia Parata’s throwaway line when the Chief Ombudsman announced an inquiry into the Min of Ed’s consultation processes around school closures and mergers. The Minister believed “the ministry had done a reasonable job” in Christchurch. “Reasonable” is all we are worth apparently.

    Message to Christchurch from the government: “Here’s your parachute. We do an OK job of packing them…..although there’s always room for improvement. Enjoy your jump!”

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Kumbel,

      Good point. A promise of mediocrity is probably the kindest interpretation of the government’s actions on this. When it comes to Christchurch, even ‘mediocre’ could be an exaggeration. After all, A considerable proportion of the city’s residents were either unaffected directly or only mildly affected by the earthquakes (I mean such things as living in a seriously ‘broken’ home, being red-zoned, living in streets with severe liquefaction and loss of infrastructural services, etc.).

      The fact that even that proportion of the population do not appear to be flourishing in terms of their self-reported wellbeing speaks volumes.


  4. Sarah Miles says:

    Hi Puddleglum- an excellent analysis of what most Cantabrians instinctively know. Great to see others working on bringing out the facts.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Since writing this post there’s also been the recent Mental Health Foundation and CDHB study showing unsurprising levels of grief, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction and stress. It also showed that most people thought the government was using the earthquake recovery process to pursue its own agenda.

      That opinion was dismissed as “utterly ridiculous” by Gerry Brownlee. I don’t think he gets it.

      Once again, thanks for commenting – and I agree it’s important for people to express in public what they think and feel about what’s happening here in Christchurch.


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