Right Reaction, Wrong Process: Cantabrians protest at the bureaucratic edicts presaging the closure or merger of more than 30 Christchurch schools. Imagine a Christchurch rebuilt according to the deliberations of a participatory and democratic Christchurch City Council. Is it too late?
WHAT IF it had all been handled differently? What if the rebuilding of Christchurch, which began which such inspiring displays of bottom-up initiative, had been encouraged to develop along the same lines? All those magnificent student volunteers; all that neighbour-to-neighbour generosity and care; all that practical support and sustenance from the Farmy Army: what if these had become the Government’s model for recovery?
Imagine a very different sort of government had been in power when the earth under Christchurch began to tremble; a government which was willing to put its faith in grass-roots, participatory and unashamedly local democratic action.
Such a government would have based its response on a single, very radical, principle: that the people living in the houses, streets and neighbourhoods most directly affected by the earthquakes are the people most likely to know, and better than anyone else, what needs to be done. Imagine if all the emergency decision-making infrastructure that government installed had been constructed on this simple premise, and that all the resources needed for neighbourhood, suburb and city relief and recovery had been allocated accordingly.
The building blocks of recovery would have been neighbourhood councils, in which all citizens participated and from which a neighbourhood recovery committee was elected. This committee would’ve been responsible for getting help to those who needed it most urgently and for identifying the most seriously damaged dwellings, businesses, schools and other vital infrastructure. Each neighbourhood committee would also have sent a delegate to a larger, suburb-wide, assembly where issues encompassing more than the neighbourhood committees, acting alone, could be expected to deal with would be debated and recommendations formulated.
Imagine if such a system had been in place to determine the future number and configuration of Christchurch’s schools. The neighbourhood council and the local primary school would likely have shared very similar (if not identical) catchments, so its physical condition, and the degree of underutilisation of its resources (both before and after the big quakes) would have been well known, and the opinions of local parents well canvassed, right from the start – long before any input was required from Ministry of Education officials. The same would’ve applied to Christchurch’s intermediate and secondary schools, the ultimate fate of which would have been a matter of high priority for the suburban assemblies.
It is quite likely that the ultimate shape of Christchurch’s educational institutions – as determined by the city’s neighbourhood councils and suburban assemblies – would have looked remarkably similar to the plan handed down from on high by Education Secretary, Lesley Longstone, last week. The crucial difference, of course, would have been that the pupils, parents and teachers living in the school zones affected would have owned the decisions they had made. The plan, rather than being the product of bogus “consultations” and bureaucratic fiat, would have emerged from genuine democratic discussion and debate, infused, where necessary, with professional expertise.
Where, you may well ask, would the Christchurch City Council have fitted into this ultra-democratic recovery infrastructure? Well, rather than establish an undemocratic and bureaucratically-driven Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority, our hypothetical government would have passed legislation which not only established and empowered the neighbourhood councils and suburban assemblies, but also expanded the City Council to accommodate these additional representatives from Christchurch’s stricken suburbs. This considerably expanded City Council would thus have been recognised as the key driver of the city’s recovery. The empowering legislation would also have required the expanded Council to choose one of their number as the city’s “Earthquake Mayor” and to appoint a new “Earthquake CEO”.
Our hypothetical government would have resourced the expanded Christchurch City Council with the proceeds of a special Christchurch Recovery Tax – levied on the whole New Zealand population. It would also have offered individual and institutional investors the opportunity to purchase Christchurch Recovery Bonds.
With the insurers and reinsurers of Christchurch property, our hypothetical government would have staked out a very strong position. A range of possible measures, including: the temporary nationalisation of the entire insurance industry; the establishment of a state-owned insurance company; the active exploration of new reinsurance options; and even the temporary nationalisation of all civic and private Christchurch dwellings and land-holdings would have been put on the table to convince the big reinsurers that a swift and equitable settlement would be in both their short and long-term interests.
Working with the neighbourhood councils and suburban assemblies this government would also have co-ordinated the trades and other training required for a massive, state-funded but locally-directed house-building programme. (Perhaps some of those “empty classrooms” Ms Longstone’s so worried about could’ve been put to new uses?)
It is possible to conceive of a world in which the first response of those in authority is not to shut things down and freeze people out.
And what human-beings can conceive – they can also create.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 September 2012