Earthquakes aren't caused by sinners - nearly all of us know that. But they are indeed political when it comes to how they are dealt with.

Decisions are made historically about where things are built in the natural environment, regulations are implemented to make sure everything is safe, and disaster response systems are developed and then operated by authorities.

After the recovery phrase of an earthquake, the rebuild involves incredibly political and ideological decisions that need to be made.

All of these governing functions require intense scrutiny to be applied to them. That's how we can have confidence that authorities are doing an adequate job. At this stage - in the four days since the Kaikoura earthquakes - there has been uneven scrutiny applied.

A weak focus on Government crisis management

There is always the danger in times of national emergency that a politics-free zone descends upon the nation. In this climate, a lack of scrutiny is applied to decision making. Opposition parties go quiet and bi-partisan, the media toes the party line and, instead, the main story becomes one of photo opportunities for a strong government reacting to a crisis.


John Armstrong writes about these issue in his new role as a TVNZ online political commentator: - see his excellent column, Government knows how to play a disaster.

Armstrong explains how the opposition parties are hamstrung by a seemingly non-political and non-partisan situation: "If Opposition politicians are critical of something that the Government has or has not done to start fixing things, they risk being accused of exploiting people's misery for political profit. On top of that, the public expects politicians to take a bipartisan stance during national emergencies. That is the high ground. Andrew Little has wisely chosen to occupy - at least for the time being.

"But he can only serve as an echo-chamber for the Government for so long. In the Government's case, the supposed politics-free zone is a charade. By definition, action taken by a government has a political component or political motive.

"No one inside the Government would ever admit it, but dealing with the after-effects of a natural disaster of the current proportions allows National to reinforce its leadership and competence credentials without looking self-serving. The Prime Minister has got this down to a fine art."

Image showing the destruction in Clarence. Photo / Clayton Lindstrom via Facebook
Image showing the destruction in Clarence. Photo / Clayton Lindstrom via Facebook

The National Government has previously had a reputation for strong crisis management, as Fran O'Sullivan points out: "Typically, both Key and English are coping well; they have considerable political street cred when it comes to crisis management. Key's confidence-building abilities are obvious.

"He has had plenty of experience fronting the disasters that have plagued New Zealand since his prime ministership began: the global financial crisis; the Canterbury earthquake, the Pike River mine disaster and the subsequent Christchurch earthquake" - see: Quakes pose an unpalatable question.

While it may be going too far to describe it as electorally lucky for National to have had so many disasters on its watch, they can provide a useful opportunity for governments to prove themselves and pull the country together in harmony.

This experience is discussed by Tracy Watkins: "Talk about rolling with the punches. John Key and this government know their way round disaster response like the back of their hand. The Christchurch earthquakes - not one, but two, either one of which alone would have been a heavy blow to a country barely recovered from the global financial crisis. Then there was Pike River, and the Rena grounding. So when Finance Minister Bill English told journalists on Tuesday it would be a long time before we see "normal" back in North Canterbury and Kaikoura, he was speaking from long and personal experience. In the eight years since the Key government got into power, New Zealand's share of disasters has been disproportionate to most" - see: A warning to expect the worst.


So, the mood at the moment is rather non-political, with other issues pushed off the agenda for a while, and it's not clear how long this false harmony will last, before divisions and arguments return. This is discussed today by Richard Harman in his column - see: Government planning to give itself sweeping powers to cope with the earthquake rebuild.

Harman says: "It is only starting to sink into MPs minds that once again, they face a major catastrophe and like Christchurch it will tend to divert political attention away from other issues. At this stage, the Opposition parties are supporting the Government, but one senior and long experienced National MP wondered how long that would last; indeed, he wondered whether it should last. Sooner or later politics will start again."

This week, the National Business Review has polled its readers about the Government's post-quake response, with a surprisingly large number expressing discontent: "Asked if this week's earthquakes exposed gaps in New Zealand's disaster-recovery plans, some 52% of NBR readers say no, the government has it covered. The remaining 48% says the quakes have been another much-needed wake-up call for the government" - see: Jason Walls' Opinions vary on government's post-quake response.

And experts agree with the doubters. According to Brendon Bradley, a professor in earthquake engineering at the University of Canterbury, the latest quakes show that "the country has still been caught somewhat flat-footed" - see: RNZ Checkpoint's New Zealand needs to better prepare for quakes.

People, pictured between 1am and 2am, evacuated to the top of Puketapu Rd hill in Taradale, Napier, after a tsunami warning. Photo / Paul Taylor
People, pictured between 1am and 2am, evacuated to the top of Puketapu Rd hill in Taradale, Napier, after a tsunami warning. Photo / Paul Taylor

Scrutiny of authorities: a failure of communications

Despite the politics-free zone being in effect, there are already a number of strongly-put challenges to authority being made in relationship to many aspects of the earthquakes, and this seems to be happening faster than after the Christchurch disasters.

For the best questions being asked about how prepared authorities were for dealing with Monday's quakes, see today's column by Toby Manhire: Wave goodbye to your tsunami alert.


He says "the big lesson is that Wellington is nowhere near well enough prepared. The spate of building closures yesterday suggests the exuberant rush to return to 'normal' in the city was overhasty." But his bigger target is the "deep flaws in New Zealand's tsunami warning process."

Manhire details the absurdity of how Civil Defence, then politicians, then the media were able to utterly confuse the public over the question of whether those in coastal areas needed to move to higher ground. Here's his conclusion: "While there can be no doubting the pressure individuals must have been under, this was a stress test of the system, and the system failed. Thank goodness the tsunami wasn't a monster after all. What the hell happened? At the time of writing Civil Defence had not replied to questions. It seems a pretty straightforward case of dysfunction to me."

Newspaper editorials agree. The Herald has said that "There has been valid criticism that information about the tsunami risks was confused. Different civil defence jurisdictions responded unevenly" and "information provided was erratic and uneven" - see: Tsunami advice must be improved. The newspaper says this is not good enough, and such situations "require clear and well-understood responses to protect lives. There can be no room for confusion or second-guessing."

The Dominion Post is even more forthright in its editorial, The earthquake has shown up big gaps in our safety systems. It says: "The earthquake is exposing more and more problems in our safety systems. Some of these shortcomings are large and will take a lot of fixing. But some are indefensible and must be fixed immediately."

The editorial is especially critical of levels of resourcing for GeoNet, and the way Civil Defence operated: "Civil Defence leaders need to get this sorted out, as well as the issue of sounding sirens. Here again, there seemed to be inconsistency and muddle. We were lucky to have the chance of a drill without fatalities, but Civil Defence must do better next time."

But the Government is promising reform - see: Civil Defence overhaul 'inevitable' after tsunami warning confusion: Govt.


So do we need a much more sophisticated early warning system, such as in Japan? Maybe not, according to GeoNet's Caroline Little: "We definitely could have one. But the cost of them is absolutely amazing - Japan has spent a billion dollars on their earthquake early warning system" - see: Rachel Clayton's Should New Zealand have an earthquake warning.

For a further discussion of problems with New Zealand's warning systems - see: Martin van Beynen's Alarm over sirens' failure.

Are we worrying too much? According to Chris Buckley, a former professor of geology at California State University, in this case "officialdom overreacted", and in general, "We are way over-playing the size and the role of tsunamis. And this is happening in a lot of other places too, because unfortunately we are in a period of science where, to get funding, you have to scare the hell out of the public" - see: Lois Williams' There was never a risk of a tsunami, says seismologist.

A section of The Terrace in Wellington cordoned off after some pieces of debris fell from a building following Monday's earthquake. Photo / Mark Mitchell
A section of The Terrace in Wellington cordoned off after some pieces of debris fell from a building following Monday's earthquake. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Scrutiny of authorities: Wellington buildings and the return to the CBD

Scrutiny is now turning to how authorities could have allowed so many Wellington buildings to be built and inhabited when they're now clearly exposed as dangerous. Even the boss of Statistics NZ, Liz MacPherson, has been forthright in publicly asking questions about how her department's building could possibly be built with such flaws. For more on this, and why the Statistics building collapse shouldn't have happened, see the Herald's Why did modern Wellington buildings fail in Kaikoura quake?.

The Dominion Post suggests that public confidence of government building standards is now in danger - see: the editorial, Serious questions after Wellington's double blow.

This issue has Christchurch's The Press asking whether authorities have actually learnt the lessons of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, adding "how many Canterbury Television-type buildings are out there. The current state of some Wellington buildings suggests the checks haven't been thorough enough and the engineering not good enough" - see: NZ Earthquake: Were we prepared enough?.


The editorial soberly concludes: "The latest earthquake is another wake-up call. The unfortunate thing is we have heard that before." In this regard, it's also worth reading Martin van Beynen's Ten easy lessons from Christchurch for Kaikoura.

And serious questions are being asked about whether the green light was given too early by authorities for the post-quake return into Wellington's CBD. To listen to Wellington's new mayor, Justin Lester, has Kathryn Ryan apply some heat to the city council's decisions listen to her interview with him here: Was capital's CBD declared safe too quickly after 7.8?. The "testy interview" is also covered in the article, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester defends decision to reopen CBD amid evacuations.

The Dominion Post is also disgruntled on this issue: "In earthquake-prone Wellington, people needed to know that they could return to safe workplaces. So speed has to be tempered by caution. It now looks as though Wellington mayor Justin Lester acted too quickly in announcing that the central business district was safe" - see: The dangers of haste in the shaky isles.

The newspaper strongly disagrees with the city council's advice for city workers to check with their employers on whether it was safe to return to work, and it raises questions about other assumptions: "It is clearly not enough for each building owner or employer to make sure that their own building is safe. They also need to know the neighbours are safe too. This they cannot be expected to do. At this point they are dependent on the findings of the authorities. They are dependent on collective knowledge and action. Nobody expects the local authority to know everything. This earthquake has shown that old assumptions about safety are probably wrong. In particular, it seems, modern buildings are less safe in an earthquake than we thought. This has made the job of politicians even tougher than before. But the call to return to work on Tuesday also seems premature given that rainstorms were due."

But it's not just government authorities being challenged over communication and transparency, as landlords have been found to be deficient too - see: Hamish Rutherford's CentrePort owes Wellington answers about the risk of its buildings.

Scrutiny required on other political issues

There are plenty of other political aspects of the quakes and future rebuilding that require intense scrutiny over the coming year. For example, National's intention to bypass the RMA to allow local authorities to push through development in Kaikoura could yet be controversial - see Claire Trevett's Prime Minister John Key promises fast-track help for Kaikoura businesses.


The amount of money required for rebuilding will also have significant economic, environmental, and political ramifications - see: Dan Satherley's Kaikoura earthquake: Some realignment' to SH1 needed - Bridges, Richard Harman's The earthquake: Bridges says no problem with money for the rebuild, and the Press editorial: Rebuilding SH1 for tomorrow, not yesteryear.

And then there's the increasingly loud call to move some of the capital out of Wellington. This is best covered in Tracy Neal's Quake prompts new calls to move some govt services out of Wellington. But also see Anthony Robins' blog post, Move the capital?.

Finally, there's been the sideshow about Brian Tamaki's "gayquake" comments. Although there have been plenty of interesting responses - see, for example, Lloyd Burr's MPs disgusted by 'sick' Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki and Natalie Akoorie's Petition to stop Destiny Church having tax-free status gaining support - possibly the most appropriate response is provided by Josh Fagan - see: The most effective response to Brian Tamaki's backward views.