Crisis Politics and Neoliberal Disaster Recovery in Christchurch

Otautahi / Christchurch street art

Otautahi / Christchurch street art (source)

Guest article submitted to Fightback by Raven Cretney (Otautahi / Christchurch).

Four years ago, on the day following the February 22nd earthquakes in Christchurch, Prime Minister John Key spoke these words:

“Progress is certain, things will get better, Christchurch will rise again. On behalf of the Government, let me be clear that no one will be left to walk this journey alone. New Zealand will walk this journey with you. We will be there every step of the way. Christchurch; this is not your test, this is New Zealand’s test. I promise we will meet this test”

While it is commonly accepted that disaster recovery takes a long time and is a complex and multi-faceted task facing many individuals, organisations and institutions, we can look at the experience of ‘recovery’ in Christchurch and see some very clear problems with the current state of play.

Disasters as times of change and disruption are considered a unique window into the operation of power and politics in society. While these events are increasingly used by the Right to extend neoliberal governance structures and policies, the Left can also engage with disaster events as times of change and upheaval.

It is my opinion that the work going on in Christchurch is not only representative of the wider neoliberal project of the Key government, but that the effect of this work on ‘recovery’ is getting far too little attention nationally. We need to understand what is happening in Christchurch more, and we must raise awareness of the human rights abuses and injustices which are being caused on a large scale in our second biggest city.

So far we have thousands of people displaced from their land whether they wanted to leave or not, small and medium businesses which have been compulsorily acquired to make way for what is described by many as a land bank (to push up the price of land in the CBD). Alternatively this land is being used for expensive and expansive anchor projects at the direction of the Central Government with little or no input from citizens. We have a council which has been backed into a corner with a cost sharing agreement and debt to the point where asset sales have been put back on the table.

This council is also being made to contribute financially to projects that their citizens have not had a proper say on. No matter how often the government talks about the Share an Idea consulting process, it was them who overrode the people’s plan and replaced it with a 100 day blueprint to win over developers and investors. And if you needed any more evidence of the mismanagement of this recovery, we have people who have still not received any settlement offers for their damaged properties four years on. Meanwhile Jacki Johnson CE of Insurance Australia’s New Zealand arm has admitted at the Insurance Council Conference in 2014 that the government did approach the insurance sector to avoid the depopulation of Christchurch following the earthquakes.

Whichever way, and at whatever scale that you look at the Christchurch recovery, injustice is rife. We know from research on social and economic crises that these situations are often taken advantage of to increase profit, remove resources from the social sector and establish new patterns of neoliberal governance. Essentially a disaster such as this can provide an opportunity for new grounds for economic growth. If you think of the concept of creative destruction you can see how this principle operates. Creative destruction occurs in many places where developers engage in ‘urban renewal’ through demolishing low socio-economic areas and then rebuilding a new trendy area to attract higher income people and industry. The opportunities seen by governments such as ours following a disaster are very similar. Except the task of demolishing is already started and the canvas is much greater than one neighbourhood. This is the role of disasters in a capitalist society that places the value of economic growth above that of welfare and the strength of social systems

While disaster recovery is undoubtedly manipulated and manoeuvred to benefit those in society with the most power and influence it is important not to over-emphasize the powerlessness of the everyday citizen. In Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Paradise Built in Hell’ii, she traces the important role of communities acting autonomously to both respond to disaster and crisis events as well as participate in recovery. So while we need to see more clearly the injustice in Christchurch we also need to see the work that is resisting the encroachment of neoliberal recovery. This work that is creating alternatives to capitalism in their everyday activities, even if their activities are not explicitly anti-capitalist.

Here we can see the potential and possibility that arises out of disaster recovery which provides opportunities to shift how people see the world. The All Right survey in Christchurch found that 82% of people had a better idea of what was important to them following the earthquakes. We shouldn’t underestimate the transformative potential of such figures which show the way that disaster experiences shift priorities for those affected. One example of a project in Christchurch that is challenging the perceptions of recovery and urban planning is ‘A Brave New City’. Acting as a beacon of hope and possibility, A Brave New City is workshopping and creating new ways of envisaging urban space and the possibilities of participation that goes beyond voting and traditional forms of representative democracy. Through projects such as visioning the city with different scenarios and the creation of a series of vibrant and interactive billboards in public space, A Brave New City is providing a way for residents to see their city in a different light. This encourages the importance of many different aspects of life in the Christchurch post-earthquake, not just that of economic growth and development.

A Brave New City is just one example of many in Christchurch where innovative individuals and groups are challenging norms and creating exciting organisations, workplaces and projects that foster a way of life that goes beyond capitalism. Whether it is through transitional architecture projects, community gardens, time banks, protests and court cases, we can see plentiful evidence of the ways that people in Christchurch are resisting the government’s approach and creating alternatives.

The thing is, after four years of fighting, four years of aftershocks, four years of personal battles, insurance claims, EQC and countless assessments of houses and property, some people are getting tired. So while there is a lot of amazing work going on, we shouldn’t take for granted these actions and the toll the wider earthquake recovery is taking across the community. It’s my opinion that those of us in the progressive Left across New Zealand should be aware of the issues in Christchurch and support the amazing work occurring there. What affects Christchurch affects all of us because what is going on there is an extrapolated version of the reforms affecting wider New Zealand.


ii Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise Built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disasters. New York, NY [u.a.]: Penguin Books.


  1. Reblogged this on thechristchurchfiasco.

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