Christchurch’s Second Coming

And what rough beast?

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last

Slouches toward [Christchurch] to be born?”

The ground is now being prepared for the future incarnation of Christchurch. What comes our way will bear the marks and influences of the quality of that preparation – for good or ill.

From almost any social, political, community or individual vantage point the ‘soil’ now being prepared for Christchurch’s rebirth looks increasingly toxic.

Demolition orders and red zone designations descend from on high like the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – immutable, unchallengeable, unreviewable and their origin unknowable (or, at least, unrevealed).

This weeekend, Roger Sutton (CEO of CERA) confirmed that there will be no review of red-zoning decisions while, at the same time, more red zone residents – ordinary people – are realising they’re up against a kind of unbridled power they never thought could be exercised on such a scale in New Zealand.

There’s little accountability for – and therefore understanding of – the decisions being made as part of the so-called Canterbury earthquake recovery.

This is a recipe for producing a disaster rather than for recovering from one.

The powers that CERA and the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery have been voted ensure that.

In fact, even the supposed checks and balances provided by the Community Forum and the Review Panel appear to have had little impact, and shed even less light, on the decision making process.

Only one of the recommendations from the Review Panel, for example, involved a change to an Order in Council (concerning inclusion of the need for the Lyttelton Port Company to consult with the Lyttelton-Mt Herbert Community Board and for a summary of the Board’s views to be included in any application to a consenting authority).

And, please, put your hands up if you can list the contributions and focus of the input from the Community Forum? Me neither. (That is not to be dismissive of the people involved – I have absolutely no reason to doubt that they are doing their very best to represent citizens’ interests. The issue is whether or not this body was ever meant to have real influence.)

Further, once a Section 38 (i.e., an order to demolish a building) has been received, the owner has 10 days (not ten working days) to respond with a demolition plan (if they plan to do it themselves). The timeframe for the demolition must be seen as ‘realistic’ by CERA. There is no appeal, in law, to a Section 38 order. It’s ‘bring it down’, no questions asked (or answered).

And now, it seems that the central city recovery plan will be taken out of the Christchurch City Council’s hands and placed firmly under the control of CERA.

As buildings fall apart, it seems we cannot even hold on to our centre.

Lianne Dalziel, MP for Christchurch East is not impressed:

“But we, the residents of Christchurch, don’t deserve to have our future dictated to by an earthquake tsar; one who is ignoring international best practice and making it up as he goes.”

Dalziel said Brownlee was making the “hard decisions” behind closed doors.

“What buildings will and won’t come down, where we can and cannot rebuild our homes and now what our [central] city will look like in the future, and all the while he refuses to engage with anyone in a meaningful way,” she said.

Minister Brownlee has called it a “crazy rant” but refuses to rule out a government takeover of the planning of the central city. Business leaders and the Council – and very likely most of Christchurch’s citizens – do not want it, but that means less and less in Christchurch these days.

Any Christchurch – or New Zealand – citizen who harboured hopes that they would have some say over what type of Christchurch would emerge from the aftermath of the earthquakes will now have been given a little lesson in realpolitik – 21st century, neo-liberal, New Zealand-style.

That lesson is very simple: You have no say; and you won’t be told why things happen – except in the most general and vacuous terms (e.g., to ‘ensure a rapid recovery’).

The irony of a government supposedly aiming for less government now spreading its powers wider and wider in Christchurch is breathtaking in its crude obviousness.

There is something coming, or emerging, in Christchurch as a result of all of these opaque, unchallengeable decisions – and it doesn’t look good.

Whatever is coming is already “moving its slow thighs” as it emerges from the desert of this city’s rubble. And, so far, its face is no better described than with Yeats’ line “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun“. It’s as indifferent to the humanity – let alone the wishes – of the people of Christchurch as the ‘pitiless sun’, or the ‘pitiless earthquakes’.

Yet, it shouldn’t be. The structures that are making the decisions about Christchurch’s future are not like massive forces of nature, beyond our control. They involve people, just like the rest of us and, more significantly, they are meant to be part of a democracy – isn’t that what New Zealand is?

Can a democracy vote away democracy and still call itself one?

So, who does have a say in the ‘recovery’? And what are those people mainly concerned about?

Sometimes it takes a (friendly) outsider to point out the obvious. Ian Maxwell, an Australian married to a Cantabrian and a frequent visitor to Christchurch, has given us a no-nonsense reality check when it comes to what’s motivating the ‘recovery’.

It’s possible to argue with some of his points (e.g., over MMP) but there’s far more than a grain of truth in his analysis.

Here’s a few telling quotes:

A visit to the suburban malls highlighted that many of the residents spent their lives entirely in the suburbs of this tiny city, in some sort of consumer frenzy.


The very strange thing about Christchurch, and maybe New Zealand on the whole, is the apparent total focus on money above all other things that one can focus on in life.


Kiwis in general seem to be very focused on the dollars; and the houses, cars and lifestyle than can be realised with the dollars. They are prepared to both sell and pollute their country for short-term gain. And there seems to be scant public debate about, or political control of the “problem”, primarily because it is not recognised as one.


New Zealand also seems way too happy to forge ahead into policy directions untested elsewhere.

When it comes to the response to the earthquakes, Maxwell continues in his refreshingly frank way;

Since the earthquakes, some interest groups have coalesced in a process that will largely result in the removal of the built heritage of the city. The Government is trying to rebuild the city at lowest cost since it is funding part of the bill. Building owners are trying to take the insurance money and run; they can do this most effectively by having their buildings knocked down.

A large fraction of the population, in shock over what has happened, have been conned into thinking the heritage buildings are at fault and can’t be fixed, or ever made safe; a scapegoat has been made.


Add it all up and there is a large fraction of the population for whom the prevailing mood is to just pull it all down and move on. And overriding all of this is the serious desire to rebuild the city at the lowest possible cost. The assumption therein is that any money left over is more likely to end up in the pockets of those supporting such a view.

The common denominator that links Maxwell’s view of New Zealand and his view of the ‘recovery’ is, of course, the centrality of ‘money’ and, therefore, of those who have it and/or desire it.

The ‘recovery’, that is, is not the recovery of Christchurch; it’s the recovery – as rapidly as possible – of economic activity and the generation of money. But isn’t that good? Doesn’t that mean ‘jobs’?

The Canterbury Development Corporation estimated last year that, in a worse case scenario, some 24,000 tradespeople would be needed for the rebuild, including 6,000 painters. But many of these people may well be ‘imported’, as the link suggests. So, there is no guarantee that this rush to economic activity will benefit the current citizens of Christchurch – or even New Zealand – as much as some might hope.

The point that needs to be understood, is that the rebuild is not about ‘us’, the citizens and residents of Christchurch and Canterbury in our entirety as personal, social, political and natural beings. Get business humming is the mantra. Everything else will – supposedly – flow from this simple imperative.

It’s about making money, for some, and generating economic activity for business in general. The beneficent effects of this rush to pull down so that we can get up and running again will, presumably, trickle down to the rest of us – all in good time, no doubt.

Evidence of this is in the government funding for an ‘innovation hub’ in Christchurch on the corner of Manchester and Tuam Streets. In explaining the funding, the Minister for Economic Development (and much else), Steven Joyce said:

Joyce said businesses needed encouragement to stay in Christchurch.

”[It’s] about providing security and continuity for Christchurch businesses affected by the earthquakes in ensuring they have the opportunity to stay in the city and retain their staff.”

Government support was crucial to the project’s success he said.

Fine, but what about “providing security and continuity” for everyone else in Christchurch? Instead, we have demolitions apace, government buyouts that are driving people away from the city (unable to afford anything here) and a lack of democracy that makes people feel powerless and out of control of their own lives.

I guess the decision makers are hoping that ‘Man’ does, indeed, live by bread alone. Pump up business and the rest follows. Clear the decks of Brownlee’s ‘old dungers’ and cheap,  tilt-slab heaven will resurrect business activity.

It’s time to be honest about what’s happening here in Christchurch. It’s not a process that takes seriously the kind of Christchurch ‘we’ may want or the kind of city that will ensure the sustainable flourishing of community, population health, personal well-being and an effective and robust democracy.

It’s the opposite.

The evidence is now overwhelming.

When W.B. Yeats penned his poem ‘Second Coming’ it was immediately after the First World War. He could not, of course, predict the details of what was being set in motion – the horrors of economic crisis and the foul blossoming of fascism (the coalescence of state power and corporate interests, as Benito Mussolini described it).

But he could sense that how things were, the actions being taken – the Spiritus Mundi (spirit of the world) – could produce nothing good. Here in Christchurch there is the same sense.

There is a ‘rough beast’ forming in our city, gathering its power as it slouches its way towards us. It cares little for us as citizens; its eyes are intent on a future generated through, and for, money.

But there are signs in Christchurch – letters to the Editor, movements of citizens in the red zone and even a recent editorial cautioning against a government takeover from the normally conservative The Press – that ‘the best’ are gaining some conviction and moving against what is coming.

Epilogue: For those interested, here’s Yeats in full prophetic mood …

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This entry was posted in Earthquakes, Economics, Fascism, Freedom, Human Wellbeing, New Zealand Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Christchurch’s Second Coming

  1. I liked Joe Bennett’s comment in The Press today:
    When Victorian England was reviving Gothic, we revived Gothic. When Edwardian England did plaster pediments, so did we. (They fell like bombs in February.) The 50s vogue for bricks brought us the gruesome railway station in Moorhouse Ave. When all the post-war world built brutal in the 60s, we built brutal, the same square tower blocks and metal window frames. When concrete disguised as concrete was the go, we got the town hall. When glass was all the rage, we got the bank monstrosities around the Square.
    There never has been much in Christchurch to say that this is our place, that here in the South Pacific we think for ourselves.

    I’d like to propose Napier as a good example of how to rebuild a city. And in some ways it is a good one. The rebuild was relatively quick, and resulted in post-quake development and growth occurring on firmer soils, away from the coast. The style of building (Art Deco/Spanish Mission) was en vogue at the time, so while it is not something unique ad location-specific, as Mr Bennett yearns for above, and while it has been interrupted with a range of out-of-theme development subsequently (especially the old railway land), Napier has character. I expect the speed of the rebuild had something to do with it.
    It’s not a process that takes seriously the kind of Christchurch ‘we’ may want or the kind of city that will ensure the sustainable flourishing of community, population health, personal well-being and an effective and robust democracy.
    It’s the opposite.

    In many senses you are correct. The approach taken to the rebuild has been (in an attempt to crystallize some of your concerns into a single word) very blunt. It is my opinion that that’s not as bad as it sounds; a measure of bluntness was necessary. The questionable parts are “where is this appropriate?” and “to what extent is it appropriate?”
    I’ll avoid the temptation to get too detailed in my description of what should have been done. In very general terms I think:
    – the emergency response was generally excellent, with a few exceptions.
    – the recovery effort has been too slow and underwhelming with regard to looking after people, their welfare/well-being and their property. People are living in absolutely appalling circumstances, effectively trapped, and they have largely been forgotten. Insurance companies and EQC were under-prepared for the demands placed on them, so people (aka customers) are materially disadvantaged. This is a failure of central government and business.
    – the recovery effort has been too fast with regard to renewing infrastructure. Decisions are being made in haste and as a direct result, Christchurch is missing out. This is not a reflection directly on the people responsible for the work, they are without exception dedicated, skilled, experienced and determined. Their decision-making is driven largely by the requirements of insurance companies and the government, again. Insurance companies want to pay out as little as they possibly can, and as late as they can. The government have different objectives; they want to minimise the cost to the taxpayer and they want to be seen to be doing something. It’s this desire to be seen to be doing something (anything) that is driving the less-than-ideal decisions.
    But here’s what I want to know – what effect did the earthquakes have? You talk about “…sustainable flourishing of community, population health, personal well-being and an effective and robust democracy” and it could be inferred that the legislative and policy work that has gone on in response to the earthquakes has caused the problem. I’m not convinced. Rather, I’d say that in line with a previous post of yours, that the decline in the things you list would still have occurred, albeit differently, if there had not been earthquakes. That doesn’t change the need for addressing the problems, and maybe not even the methods. Perhaps I just made an incorrect inference.

    • Puddleglum says:

      HI Armchair critic,

      I haven’t read Joe Bennett’s column yet but my wife says I should (so I will!).

      You’re right that the government is trying to meet several imperatives – looking as if it is doing something and ‘getting on with the job’; minimising costs; satisfying its ‘core’ supporters, etc..

      The one thing that isn’t countenanced, it seems, is giving ‘us’ – the people of Christchurch – the kind of power to influence, let alone determine, what kind of city will emerge.

      I just feel like we’re being fobbed off with circuses (the instant rugby stadium), sops (the pretense – and that’s what I think it was – that the CCC and its community consultation would be decisive in determining the form of the CBD), lack of information/transparency and the like. Central government are really treating us as mushrooms, and I’ve never liked that approach by a supposedly democratic governance system.

      I didn’t want to imply that everything was hunky-dorey in Christchurch governance prior to the earthquakes. I think we were in trouble as a community before that. The governance response to the earthquakes has simply accelerated the process and really made it obvious how little power ‘we’ have over ‘our’ city. These ‘we’ and ‘our’ senses are pretty delusional and have been for some time.

      ‘We’ and ‘our’ only applies where there actually is collective processes of ownership and governance – otherwise they are collective pronouns in only the loosest sense (i.e., a collection of internally unrelated individuals with nothing, in essence, in common).

  2. Phil says:

    Interesting thoughts. The analysis of the situation highlights the lack of support 4 the people of Christchurch, starting from central government. Leadership at these tragic times is essential and unfortunately lacking. The whole country is behind the rebuild but unfortunately feels disempowered by a lack of leadership of government. I and many others are really upset at the lack of real progress to help those most in need. Good luck Christchurch and all Kiwis in our shaky Isles.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks Phil. It’s important to remember – and be reminded – that most New Zealanders do want things to work out well for us here.

      There is progress being made – but it isn’t coming from the top, or even being helped/nurtured from there. Basically, groups of people are finding ways to make things work – and I think that kind of ‘organic’ response is great. But central government doesn’t seem to trust that we can organise ourselves in ways that will work for us.

  3. I’m one of New Zealand’s five card-carrying liberals. What’s going on in Christchurch ain’t liberal. Or neoliberal (if neoliberal is just liberal plus hawkish foreign policy).

    Liberals, and neoliberals, start with a respect for property rights. That disappeared in Christchurch with the February quake. Liberals, and neoliberals, are sceptical about central planning. Christchurch exemplifies everything that’s wrong with central planning.

    We’re in a hellish worst case where the government expects the market to be able to sort things out while simultaneously leaving in place regulations that kinda stop developers from doing things like building new houses.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Eric, it’s good to see you commenting here!

      I’m not sure I’d characterise what’s happening in Christchurch as central planning. It’s much more like the brutal assertion of power – and those things aren’t the same, even though I’m no fan of highly centralised processes (‘planning’) that are completely beyond the ken and influence of most people.

      In fact, I’m pretty ‘anti’ the sorts of hierarchical and absolutist decision making processes at play in Christchurch just because it doesn’t allow all of us (people in Christchurch) to come to some general agreement (i.e., ‘plan’) about what this city of ‘ours’ (i.e., our collective habitation) should be like.

      I think that I’m probably less averse than you may be to having democratic decision making about the general form a future Christchurch should take. This probably isn’t the place to get into philosophical discussion of the very notion of markets, the problems with the kinds of individualism espoused by some of the early Classical Liberal thinkers and related issues – maybe some other time?

      It’s worth remembering, though, that Classical Liberalism (and the Enlightenment in general) was more a politically than intellectually motivated project and individual property rights were central to that political project because of the particular historical (political) circumstances of the time.

      Time, however, has moved on and while some truths remain eternal I think the notion of the absolute inviolability of ‘property rights’ has become a bit of a fetishistic icon amongst modern (neo)liberals. Property rights were promoted and defended as a bulwark against aristocratic despotism, cronyism and the like in a time when there was only the scantiest of democratic processes (and highly limited suffrage).

      The real bulwark against despotism today is less property rights and, more so, democratic rights – for groups to self-determine. (Human groups, btw, have a long, evolutionary, history of respecting the autonomy of individuals – see a lot of research on hunter-gatherer societies – so it isn’t a case that empowering a group automatically should be seen as disempowering individuals, e.g., via ‘expropriating’ their property.)

      To recover from these earthquakes and their consequences I think that ‘we’ (not just a whole bunch of ‘I’s expressing preferences through a market mechanism) should be given more say in the collective decisions made about Christchurch’s future.

      Once again, thanks for commenting – I’ve always respected ideological liberals for the clarity of their position. But I think it’s important to be a bit sceptical of a system of thinking that is rather too crystalline in its clarity to be true – because it probably isn’t (true).

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Eric (again),

      I just remembered that I was also going to make a point about your comment about regulations and developers.

      One of the things that market transactions, qua market transactions, don’t do is generate responses like ‘gratitude’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘connection’. Yes, developers might build (some type of) housing if they were given free rein – after all, there’d be lots of money to be made.

      Of course, people being people, you can guarantee that corners would be cut, rules bent, etc. and ‘bad blood’ between those who feel they ‘have to’ buy from developers that they don’t know and may not trust and the developers is almost inevitable. (Also, my understanding is that the main reason houses are not being built (or repaired) has more to do with insurance issues than regulations – but you might know better than me.)

      What is needed most of all here in Christchurch are the more positive feelings of ‘gratitude’, etc. that I mentioned above. That can only be provided by a collective assertion of our caring for each other. Provision of housing quickly and now by the ‘collective’ can generate just the kinds of appreciation and experiences of support in the affected population that Christchurch will need to be a place that is good for people to live in.

      I don’t think markets – qua markets – are good at producing that socially supportive ‘sense of place’ for people.

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