During a speech in which he was explaining the changing role of government, Michael Cullen once quipped that governments “seldom go looking for trouble — trouble comes looking for them”. The point he was making was that a lot of what they did was driven by external events, meaning that governments are in large measure reactive bodies.
The past three weeks have been a striking illustration of that. The fact Chris Hipkins has spent just three days in his office since becoming PM a month ago shows the extent to which he’s been in reactive mode.
When things go badly wrong, as they invariably do, only the Government has the financial resources, capacity for risk, moral responsibility and legislative authority to sort it out, Cullen argued in 2003.
Now, 20 years on, his “trouble comes looking” proposition is (again) bedevilling the present-day Government. This time as climate change-driven weather disasters arrive with a watery vengeance.
As if a domestic terror attack, a pandemic and being walloped by a global economic crisis haven’t been trouble enough. The scale of the devastation wreaked by rainstorms in recent weeks shows why they call climate change an existential threat: deaths and dozens more unaccounted for, homes and infrastructure wrecked, communities cut off from the world, some locations rendered unliveable, livelihoods swept away in raging floodwaters.
And as Cullen attested to, only the Government has the wherewithal, not to mention the moral obligation, to ensure we’re better able to deal with weather catastrophes that will be increasingly commonplace.
What is clear is that there are hugely expensive and politically fraught decisions ahead, and they’ve just become a lot more critical.
It isn’t as if this trouble was unexpected. For years it has been known that warmer air holds more moisture, and that New Zealand can expect more extreme storms and material changes to weather patterns.
To be fair, the Wellington boffins have been beavering away on climate change adaptation and mitigation for a while. There have been working groups and consultation documents, and just this week the Environmental Defence Society chipped in with a hefty working paper on managed retreat — the process of moving people and buildings out of harm’s way. It is expected that a Climate Adaptation Bill will be introduced this year.
But even as large swathes of the country have been getting inundated, it is hard to detect any sense of real urgency about getting ready for what has just happened, and what inevitably lies ahead.
Some clear priorities for action have emerged.
There has been a tendency to allow new developments in what Climate Change Minister James Shaw labels “dumb places”. Building houses on flood plains and former wetlands is inviting disaster when the heavens open up. The rewrite of resource management law, which will require councils to develop spatial plans that direct where buildings can and cannot be located, should address that.
Good flood-protection planning and better stormwater systems are imperatives.
Where it is done well, like at Stonefields in Mt Wellington and at the Te Ara Awataha “greenway” project in a high-density housing area on Auckland’s North Shore, flooding can be largely avoided. But those successes are offset by witless examples in the likes of Tauranga and Thames-Coromandel, where local councils have been indifferent to new builds on former wetlands — in Thames’ case the development being a retirement village.
Managed retreat is a trickier subject. Clearly there are locations in New Zealand, such as flood-prone parts of Westport, that are obvious candidates for clearing the population out of harm’s way.
But adopting a national policy position will mean reaching agreement on the principles that underpin a system of “retreat”, and on how it’s funded — inevitably that will be the Government’s responsibility, and the bill could run to billions.
There have been instances already of retreat. The biggest was in post-quake Christchurch, where 20,000 people were relocated from red zones after a government buyout of the affected homes. Another was in Matata in the Bay of Plenty, which became an example of how not to go about it.
In the wake of floods, the Whakatane council initially supported affected Matata locals rebuilding in the same location, but further down the track the council realised the folly of that decision and said the flood zone had to be vacated. The buyout that ended a protracted stoush cost the Government and local ratepayers $15 million.
The list of managed retreat questions gets longer the more you reflect on the topic.
What about property rights? Snuffing out existing land use rights, if that’s what a managed retreat means, could become a hot-button cause. As could the te ao Māori worldview, with its embrace of a strong spiritual connection to land and customary land rights.
And there is also the question of equality.
Residents who have the time, energy and resources to build a seawall or take on the local council tend to be the well-off, which could see poorer households getting an inferior outcome.
For many New Zealanders the family home is their only big asset — the one very large egg in their wealth basket, as Reserve Bank boss Adrian Orr describes it. It’s not hard to imagine the howls of resistance from some when a council “get out” decree arrives on the doorstep.
Given the scale of the challenge, it is encouraging that Shaw and National’s spokesman for the portfolio, Todd Muller, have signalled that they will take a bipartisan approach to crafting the Climate Adaptation Bill.
That is important, for protecting ourselves against increasing storm events is going to require a degree of ambition, resolve and co-operation that we seldom see in New Zealand politics.
- Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and was chief press secretary for Helen Clark.