In February-March 1988 when Cyclone Bola hit the eastern North Island I was Minister of Civil Defence. I remember flying crab-wise into a howling gale to a closed Gisborne airport in a small Air Force plane in order to get an immediate handle on the crisis that was unfolding. I met with local officials and put them in touch with the Beehive national emergency team. Prime Minister David Lange followed a day or two later by helicopter, dropping in on isolated farms and settlements with bottles of water and assurances that the government was doing what was needed to help the recovery.
Cyclone Gabrielle’s devastation far exceeds Bola’s. Some of the TV images of landslips, and mud-invaded homes, farms, and orchards, are heart-breaking. My wife and I quickly gave a donation to the Red Cross relief effort. But a great deal more than voluntary donations is needed. Jacinda Ardern would have been in her element, hugging the suffering and commiserating with those who had sustained huge personal losses. But not much else. Somehow, Chris Hipkins appears dwarfed by the challenge; tiny, insignificant, almost missing-in-action. This crisis demands mature, decisive leadership. No Prime Minister can restrain the elements, but right now there is need for authority when dealing with their trail of destruction. Immediate aid for the homeless and those without food and water, and assurances to people that roads, bridges and stop banks will be repaired to a higher standard than before; enlarging drainage pipes to cope with what looks like permanently higher downfalls in future. And tackling the forestry industry that has failed to respond to years of criticism of the slash they leave behind when harvesting their trees. Implementation requires strong directives from whoever has overall responsibility. The need for public reassurance is urgent. It is needed NOW. Fluttering about without any discernable plan won’t increase confidence in the government.
Jacinda’s wonderful line when consoling victims of the Christchurch shooting: “They are us” is absolutely relevant to Hawke’s Bay and other hard-hit regions. If we don’t realise it quickly, we soon will. Orchards, vineyards, horticulture, pasture all ruined. One of New Zealand’s “happy places” viciously wrecked. But the eastern North Island is more than that: it is an important provider of our food at the supermarket as well. With food prices already rising steadily, the upward push given these last few days is un-nerving. Expect fruit and vegetable prices to go through the roof. And our export income will be affected for years to come until vineyards and orchards are producing again.
The recovery phase will test this government big time. Its leading lights are all former student politicians who have read little, and who are captives of ancient left-wing dogma about the need to centralize decision-making to keep it out of the hands of capitalists. Note their health reforms which are removing local health boards. And Three Waters where the rule of many competent regional organisations like Auckland’s Watercare is under threat. Current Labour ministers instinctively distrust local government as their proposed reforms to the sector demonstrate. There is an urge in the Beehive these days to over-ride local attitudes when they don’t align with those of a minister. Michael Wood’s “Yellow Brick Road” to Auckland Airport at an estimated cost of $29 billion is still on the books despite city hall’s reluctance to have anything to do with it. Already more than $50 million has been spent on Wood’s rapid rail plans that ultimately won’t go anywhere. The as-yet unspent money is needed for the cyclone rebuild.
The recovery project will only succeed if it is driven locally. Mayors, councils, farmers and local enterprises are better placed to plan road re-alignments, bridge re-building, new stop-banks and drain expansion than the bloated Wellington bureaucracy the Ardern-Hipkins government has constructed. Alone, Wellington revealed a mindset that is out of kilter with the rest of us at the recent local elections when it voted for a far-left green mayor. In the areas destroyed by floods and damaged infrastructure, locals need empowerment and genuine partnership in implementing recovery, not wacky ideology.
So far, much the most sensible response from the politicians visiting the destruction has come from ACT’s David Seymour. Full of praise for the local authority people he’d met in Napier, Seymour declared confidence in their local knowledge:
“An emergency response such as this should be directed from those at the centre of the disaster, with support from Wellington. Not the other way around. The latter will never know enough about the needs and available means on the ground, but they can damage it.”
As of midday Sunday 19 February, neither the government nor the National Party seems to have provided such practical advice on how to respond to the crisis.