Editorial : Earthquake Crony Capitalism

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 58, Spring 2011

The National Government is abrogating its responsibilities to govern fairly and equitably in its response to the massive dislocation caused by the Canterbury earthquakes. Rightly does the Prime Minister call it ‘the greatest single natural disaster in western history.’ It requires a response of similar magnitude. So far, this is not forthcoming. The Government seems determined to allow market economics, which promote profit and competition as their cornerstones, to decide what happens.

This response is a disaster for most affected families. We need better leadership based on community need rather than capitalist ideology. This will require courage and vision.

I have now been out of my family home for more than seven months. During that time I have learnt that the property I thought I owned is not really mine but an asset in the global market place. After paying a replacement insurance premium and earthquake insurance for 41 years I have discovered that, like thousands of others, I now survive at the whim of the global re-insurance market.

The ‘red zone’ package (market value 2007) will work for some. But what happens to pensioners and families on low incomes who lose their homes? Who will lend to the poor and people over sixty five?

They are not just losing the roof over their heads. It is the loss of a way of life – the memories, local connections, neighbours, wetland, park, swimming pool and the general environment.

The main homeowner victims of the quakes live in the eastern suburbs. This was the area where people on low incomes and benefits could afford a modest home.

More than 5000 of these homes have now been designated ‘red’ zone and the people must leave with a cheque for the amount of their 2007 valuation – or negotiate with their insurance companies – fat chance! Similarly, 850 homes in Kaiapoi have also been designated ‘red.’ The Government has given them a choice to take a cheque at the market value of 2008. These market valuations are all artificially generated and highly unreliable with variations of up to 40%. They were never intended to be used for this purpose.

For the elderly, some in their eighties, the Kate Shepherd Rest Home option is even worse. This is a large complex on the banks of the Heathcote River near New Brighton. They are being offered 75% of the original price they paid for their unit. This is morally repugnant.

If a family takes the cheque for their modest affordable home in the eastern suburbs where do they go? The market value for land and homes in the rest of Christchurch is sky-rocketing.

Anglican priest Mike Coleman has crunched the numbers. He estimates that families, previously mortgage free, will need to borrow between $100,000 to $200,000 to move out of the red zone and remain in Christchurch. This is the gap between what they will get and what it will cost them to buy elsewhere in Christchurch.

The current choice is to go into debt or leave the city. Neither option for most residents is viable. The debt option assumes that you are a reliable risk for a bank – young, fit, with a good well-paid job and the ability to service a mortgage. Leaving the city for most people would be a nightmare – leaving neighbours, friends, family, changing schools, jobs, communities – abandoning a way of life.

The current policy is catastrophic for most of the home-owners affected by the quake. Many are barely surviving. Some will die prematurely.

What needs to be done?

The National Government needs to decide whether it is there to serve the needs of the people first or global big business. All the indicators are that the latter is the case. This is proving catastrophic for quake victims.

EQC Minister Gerry Brownlee and Prime Minister John Key could learn from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh who, at the time of the devastating floods told the insurance companies to ‘act with compassion and flexibility’ and pay out replacement value. She also threatened to ‘name and shame’ in parliament those who failed. She is being hailed for her no bullshit honesty, decisiveness and plain speech.

Christchurch needs significant Government intervention in the market to buy houses and sections for those homeowners who have lost their equity. CERA already has the power to intervene. It’s time to act.

—Robert Consedine, robert@waitangi.co.nz

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