A Tale of Two Cities

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 61, Pentecost 2012

Jim Consedine

It is hard to know where to start when writing of the earthquakes in Christchurch. Already millions of words have been printed, almost to the point of nausea. Many are already sick and tired of hearing about it. Yet for thousands it remains an everyday reality to be faced and lived.

The problem is that Christchurch is a city of two halves. Often people from the western suburbs have little idea what it is like living every day in a quake-damaged area in the south and east. I sometimes say to people that it is a bit like the difference between living in Harlem and Queens. Both are parts of New York City yet few in one sector have ever seen how the other half is living. They know about each other mainly from movies or television. Ne’er the twain do meet!

There is a similar problem in Christchurch. In large parts of the city the struggle is still there every day for people, especially those thousands living in damaged homes or in the ‘red zone’. Every day the stress of making sense of what has been a horrendous disaster is sheeted home. Often it is done inadvertently by one of the giant corporations one has to deal with – the Earthquake Commission (EQC), the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) or one’s insurance company.

Letters to the editor in the morning paper every day witness to the pain of the dispossessed and the desperate. They provide a non-stop commentary, a weather gauge, on how many ordinary citizens are coping – or not. It is not a pretty read!

Communication has been a major issue, with EQC the main but not the only culprit. Normally one would deal with a government agency or an insurance company once or twice in a lifetime. But thousands of Cantabrians have to deal with one on a weekly basis as they are fudged off or totally ignored. It is ironic that in an age of instant communication technology, getting answers from corporations like EQC is so difficult. Responses from automatons in Manila and Delhi are demeaning. The stress levels for many are through the roof – and show few signs of diminishing.

My own rented home has sunk 20 centimetres but thankfully remains intact. I might get a rebuild in 3-5 years. My brother and sister-in-law’s home is off its foundations and is stuck in the infamous TC3 category – able to be repaired even though it is obviously not suitable. The decisions for such things are taken by insurers who want to spend the least amount on properties, even though the insurance taken by householders is often for ‘full replacement’. Insurers are too often saying ‘no – we will repair not replace because it is cheaper for us.’ This is regardless of what common sense might say about the state of the home.

The issue of land repatriation is also a major concern. Often the land has sunk or continues to sink with each consequent quake. The land at the end of my street in South Brighton has sunk several metres. This has resulted in the estuary seeping up into back gardens, undermining houses, sinking foundations. It has salted and killed the roots of thousands of trees which have had to be culled.

Liquefaction is another massive problem. Land has been spoilt. Hundreds of homes have been declared unstable and have to be evacuated prior to being demolished.

The much-heralded $2.2 billion recovery plan has many fine features and no doubt will bring a huge amount of fresh energy and finance to the city. It will also provide work for hundreds. But the plan ignores the plight of those who have been most affected on the eastern side of the city. These include thousands of low-paid workers or beneficiaries with limited incomes who simply see their options being shrivelled up every day by the planners. Many landlords have taken advantage of the housing squeeze to increase the cost of rents. There appears to be no plan by Government to address the desperate need of people for low-cost housing. Social housing should have been a priority for the planners. It hasn’t been.

The crisis in the city has evoked some wonderful responses from a wide range of people. Many have rightly been lauded by government and even awarded Queen’s medals. In particular, two stand out for us. The prophetic voice of Rev. Mike Coleman has rung out time and again calling on EQC, CERA, the Christchurch City Council and the government to respond in ways that speak to the needs of the poorest. Mike, an Anglican priest, has become the voice of the Earthquake Communities Action Network. He is a courageous fighter for social justice in the best tradition of Christian advocates of the past.

Another is Lianne Dalziel, MP for Eastern Christchurch, who has been unflagging in her efforts to speak to the needs of the disadvantaged and those who are being marginalized by the bureaucratic processes. She herself has had to shift from her home in Bexley, so knows firsthand what the issues are. Her unfailing good sense and moderation has not always won favour in government circles but she continues to try her best for the people of the eastern suburbs.

No one suggests that decisions being made are easy to arrive at. The expectations of many may be unrealistic given what has happened. But it is the priorities of the planners which need to be questioned. When so many have no affordable homes to go to, the high priority given to a new rugby stadium and convention centre need to be seriously questioned. These are assets which wealthy and established cities can well afford. But Christchurch is no longer one and there are more basic needs that should be met first.

In addition, the hullabaloo about the rebuilding of the Anglican cathedral is a debate that has got well out of hand. Bishop Victoria Mathews is to be commended for sticking to her guns in stating that the priorities for the Anglican Church are gospel related, understood in the light of the teachings of Jesus. There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the cathedral debate but ultimately it is for the Church, not civilian authorities, to decide its priorities and how it uses its resources. These matters are not always understood by heritage advocates.

It needs re-stating. The mission of the Church is the mission of Jesus. He came to announce the arrival of God’s reign in our midst. This was his stated primary task. The mission takes form in a series of priorities announced in Luke Ch 4 – ‘to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, set the down trodden free and proclaim a jubilee year.’ This has nothing to do with assets and buildings and everything to do with a message of hope for our troubled times.

The tragedies of Christchurch have created a unique opportunity for followers of Jesus to rethink how well or otherwise their particular tradition is living out that message. Now is a time of great opportunity. Given the loss of impetus and membership of the mainstream churches in recent decades, it is a God-given one. For the Churches, imagination, courage, deep faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit and ecumenical dialogue should be the guiding principles of a future rebuild.

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