Sorry Your Majesty, my country needs me

This is a climate which does not look kindly at penny-pinching by the state. The Prime Minister would be less than human if he wasn't disappointed at having to cancel his weekend engagement as the Queen's guest at Balmoral Castle, the royal family's residence in Scotland.

However, last Saturday's Christchurch earthquake is New Zealand's worst disaster in living memory in terms of property damage.

Tuesday's decision to ditch Mr Key's trip to Europe was vindicated in very human terms by events in Kaiapoi.

Just 24 hours after Mr Key had inspected damage in the town, a demolition order was placed on the building occupied by the local New World supermarket, forcing its permanent closure with the loss of 34 full-time and 52 part-time jobs.

Had Mr Key stuck to his original plan and flown out of Auckland for London last night, the job losses would surely have given Labour the gold-plated pretext it has sought to break the informal truce the two major parties have maintained since the quake.

Mr Key had indicated on Monday his overseas trip was still on when interviewed on TVNZ's Breakfast.

Later that morning, the Cabinet agreed to a series of measures, including the appointment of Gerry Brownlee as minister responsible for earthquake recovery, which would have given Mr Key the flexibility to depart for overseas with his fingers crossed everything was under control.

This was the psyche of the one-time foreign exchange dealer prepared to take a calculated risk.

Except in this case any benefit accruing from hobnobbing with royalty would have been largely personal.

So far, National's response to the crisis has been exemplary and criticism-free.

The Government has been relentlessly single-minded in focusing on providing and co-ordinating a recovery strategy for Christchurch.

It has driven the public service to the limit in getting that strategy implemented.

Cabinet ministers know they have to work miracles in the limited window they have before those affected by the quake tire of their plight, community morale slumps, and the Government becomes the target of blame, rightly or wrongly, for things not being fixed.

There is a heavy onus on Mr Brownlee, not only to deal with problems as they happen but to anticipate them.

If anyone needs convincing that Christchurch is a city on edge, they need only replay Wednesday's speech in Parliament by National backbencher Amy Adams from the Selwyn electorate.

She came closer than anyone so far in capturing the horror of last Saturday's quake and the psychological anguish felt by many in the aftershock-filled aftermath.

The Government's smartest move may turn out to be its blitzing of the city with out-of-town trauma counsellors.

Nationally, the focus has been more on the tangible - the loss of physical assets, the damage to homes and consequent drop in property values, and the effect on the local and national economy.


The Government might have got off relatively lightly.

Compared with similar-sized earthquakes elsewhere, last Saturday's shake has not affected the city's basic infrastructure too badly.

Many large-scale industries report they are still operating.

The farming sector crucially seems to have come through reasonably unscathed.

While the Treasury estimates a 0.5% cut in GDP as a result of the quake, there is some overseas evidence the local economy might pick itself up quite quickly; and there might be a construction-driven mini-boom.

The difficulties arise with small and medium-sized enterprises which were housed in now condemned buildings and which were already suffering cash-flow problems.

Some bank economists are worried about the effect of the quake on already shaky economic confidence, especially in the long-suffering retail sector.

They think the injection from increased construction will be offset by a drop-off in activity in other sectors.

National's other worries are the cost of repairing damaged infrastructure and services which are beyond local government to fund, and tax revenue lost.

With about 100 state houses rendered uninhabitable, the Government faces costs on top of likely forking out for more welfare benefits and temporary wage assistance.

The country is expecting generosity for those who have suffered.

Saturday's earthquake has loosened National's purse strings.

Twice in two weeks - the first the South Canterbury Finance depositor payour - Finance Minister Bill English has had to explain why the Government's books are still "manageable" when he previously argued there was no room for more spending.

John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter