Anyone reading The Press newspaper, the local daily in the province of Canterbury, will know that there are differing beliefs on how and when the Government should intervene in aspects of post-earthquake housing market in Christchurch. Whether one is believer in the market or not, there are a few unassailable points that the market cannot address no matter how free or controlled it is:
1) The market is not designed to deal with the extreme and often abrupt changes that a natural disaster throws into ones life. It is not designed to cope with thousands of people in the space of a couple of terrible moments suddenly needing housing that simply is not there. It is not designed to cope with the needs of a society that is trying to cope with the sudden destruction of all of the basic services that are taken for granted in New Zealand – the sewerage, the water, the electricity, the gas supply and the telecommunications. It is not designed to deal with extreme human stress as one must inevitably be in if they just saw their house disintegrate in a cloud of dust, or people disappear under collapsing facades and not come out again. It is a harrowing moment and the phrase “like a fault line through our lives” has never been more appropriate.
2) Too often I hear people talk about things returning to normal after a disaster. There is no normal after a major natural disaster. All of a sudden one’s natural life lines are in disarray. Life priorities are suddenly different. Kids that one might not have wanted last year, are now suddenly a priority; reducing work and having better quality holidays become more important. The grocery stores, pharmacists, places of entertainment, leisure, the council services that you all once took for granted are gone or off-limits incase the buildings housing them collapse whilst humans are occupying them. Some will completely disintegrate and many will be irretrievably altered in that the building or business might survive, but it might lose most of its staff. The atmosphere and decor might be completely altered. Suddenly the places that one was at ease with are memories that are beginning to fade into the distance.
3) Change – for better or for worse – is inevitable. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But change is change. In some respects as a society begins to rebuild after a major catastrophe, it is an opportunity to divorce itself of any ugly aspects of its past, whether societal, environmental, economic or political.
I point to the Myanmar cyclone of 2008 being a catalyst for change in that country, recognising that that near non-existent relief effort was a spectacularly bad failure on the regime’s part. It failed to provide basic necessities of life – food, shelter, water, clothing when it was most badly needed. The regime failed to acknowledge the severity of the disaster, failed to appeal for international help as would be generally expected after such a major catastrophe and actively blocked those efforts to provide assistance.
I also point to the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake, which recently had its anniversary in New Zealand. The earthquake devastated the towns of Napier and Hastings, killing 256 people and injuring thousands. In the aftermath of the earthquake the reconstruction of Napier unleashed the art-deco faze that lefts its imprints in the facades of numerous Hawkes Bay buildings to this day. The same quake was the opening number of a seismic reset of the lower North Island vis-a-vis a cluster of five magnitude 7.0+ events over the space of 11 years. The last two, just five weeks apart in 1942, prompted the establishment of the Earthquake Commission to handle natural disaster damage claims.
One can tell me in any way they like how a market is brilliant. The facts though are coldly undeniable. In a major natural disaster, the market has no calibration whatsoever with the needs of a human population. The reason for that is simple. The disaster has created conditions that no human concept – market economics or otherwise – will ever be able to fully comprehend or deal with, without significant human input. This is not an observation that I make as someone attacking the theory of market economics, but as an observant of extreme local scale seismic activity; as an observant and participant in the relief of Christchurch; a supporter of local democracy and humanitarian needs.
The market still has a place in socio-economics. It is still the best economic model that most people recognise and adhere to. It is still the freest. However, it needs to recognise there are certain instances where inputs from other sources, such as natural hazards are so extreme, it does not – and could not have been realistically expected to do so – have an answer to the immediate needs of people.
I am not sure that 2 years after 22 February 2011, the housing market in Christchurch really knows what it is supposed to be doing. So, to expect it to cope in a bigger event is a touch stupid.