Quake - a year on: Key's NZ is failing the test

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As New Zealand marks the first anniversary of the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake, nzherald.co.nz asked local bloggers to describe how their lives have been affected in the year since. We sought a range of voices to paint a broad picture of how life really is in the shattered city.

James Dann lived on Cashel Street, in the middle of the Christchurch CBD, before the earth moved and forced him out. Over the past year he has tweeted honestly and bluntly about the state of his city and the response from officials.

Visit James' website, and follow him on Twitter: @edmuzik.

Cashel Street and its mall were severely damaged during the earthquake. Its replacement, Re:Start, has been a success - for high-end retailers. Photo / Simon Baker
Cashel Street and its mall were severely damaged during the earthquake. Its replacement, Re:Start, has been a success - for high-end retailers. Photo / Simon Baker

With an event as destructive, as complex, as difficult to describe as the series of quakes that my city has suffered, it is inevitable that the message becomes one communicated through symbols. The cathedral is a symbol of the city's broken heart, while overgrown, boarded-up houses in Avonside reflect the desolation and neglect of the abandoned east.

Conversely, images of the student volunteers or the Farmy Army hitting the streets with shovels and determination were uplifting reminders of the strength of community spirit that we discovered in the face of such adversity.

One of the most notable symbols of the rebuild is the renovation of Rugby League Park in Addington, to become the new home for the Crusaders rugby team, Christchurch Stadium. The government has put up some of the money for the stadium, and despite the budget blowing out by $5 million dollars, they are doing all they can to have the park open for Todd Blackadder and his boys.

As with the Rugby World Cup, this government seems to believe that the economic benefits of the sport are both indisputable and so powerful that they they don't need to talk about it; that sport is inherently a "good thing" that will lift the spirits of all in the city.

While the Christchurch art gallery, so prominent as the civil defence head quarters through both quakes, will be closed until the middle of 2013 at the earliest, hundreds of people are working round the clock to get a sports ground up and running. A symbol of hope, sure, but also a sign of the government's priorities for the city.

Another prominent symbol (for example a picture of the colourful containers accompanied Toby Manhire's story on the anniversary of the quakes which featured on the front page of the guardian.co.uk website) is the Re:Start container mall, clustered around the Ballantynes store in Cashel Mall. It has been incredibly successful ever since John Key cut the ribbon in late October. It is centred around Ballantynes, the department store which defines Christchurch - or at least, part of Christchurch. It is a store for people who aspire to own Le Creuset kitchenware and Polo shirts by Ralph Lauren.

The other stores in Re:Start also pander to the high-end of the market; Apple computers, designer women's fashion, faux-kitsch nicknacks from stores such as Toi Toi; it's our very slice of Newmarket in the middle of our desolate CBD.

Instructively, just days after the mall was opened, it was revealed that Trade Aid, which had been a retailer in Cashel Mall for 30 years before the quake, had asked to be part of Re:Start. However, they were turned down as they didn't fit the "high-end fashion" mould of the project. The physical layout of Re:Start should have been a clue. You enter from the western end, via Oxford Terrace. At the eastern end, fences prevent you from going any further than Colombo Street. Windows have been cut from the wood, so that rubble-neckers can admire the cracked carapaces of the city's buildings. At the eastern end, barriers, destruction, uncertainly; the western, we're open for business as usual.

Key's down here in a flash when there is something to be snapped at; inspecting the work at the stadium, opening the Re:Start Mall. He was nowhere to be seen when the bulldozers began their death-march into Bexley and the eastern suburbs last month. 6,500 houses to go - the population of a small town like Oamaru or Feilding, just rubbed off the map. Surely one of the most significant events in the history of not just this city, but the whole country, and yet the Prime Minister is more concerned with retail and rucks, a modern-day bread and circuses. A year on, beneath the superficial layer of well-meaning but ultimately empty nods towards a rebuild, this city is dying.

Key himself called the event our "darkest hour" - a year on, and we're still waiting for someone to bring us a light. It is the most defining event of this nation's history since the second World War - and yet unlike that event, the destruction has been wrought across our territory. The generation that came back from the war strived to reshape this nation as a fair, equal society, where children would have every opportunity to succeed.

Key, growing up in the western suburb of Bryndwr, was just one of those children.

Whether he likes it or not, his response to this disaster will end up defining his Prime Ministership in years to come. Will it be left to the invisible hand of the market - most frequently invisible when it comes to the fortunes of the poor and marginalised - to rebuild this city? Or will the government use the unprecedented powers it has been given, currently sitting largely unexercised in the figure of Gerry Brownlee, to stimulate the recovery, to intervene in the intrenched, unmoving insurance market?

The day after the quake, Key said "Christchurch; this is not your test, this is New Zealand's test." For some people, contented with rugby and retail, the government will get a pass mark. But as long as we have people struggling with insurance and EQC, trying to get their heads around the rainbow of colour zones, coming to terms with the loss of jobs, or equity, or both, then Key's New Zealand is failing that test.

* James Dann, aka Ed Muzik, is a musician. He has reworked a hit by The Strokes, appropriately titled 12:51, to capture the spirit of his damaged city.


Read also:
Peter Hyde - Tale of three cities
Mike Dickison - City without a heart
Bex Davies - Christchurch is 'the waiting place'
Adrienne Rewi - The biggest test of all

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