Broken earth, but not breaking ground for govt

7:45 am on 20 November 2016

Power Play - It is not something any government wants to become used to handling, but having faced the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, the massive 7.8 quake centred around North Canterbury in the early hours of Monday morning would have felt like deja-vu to the Prime Minister and his senior ministers.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (R) inspects earthquake damage from a helicopter near Kaikoura.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key (R) inspects earthquake damage from a helicopter near Kaikoura. Photo: AFP

View RNZ's full coverage of the earthquakes here.

At the helm was Gerry Brownlee, wearing the (hard) hat of acting Civil Defence Minister.

He is of course, the most experienced person in the Cabinet for dealing with earthquakes, having been the minister responsible for the rebuild and recovery efforts in Canterbury.

Gerry Brownlee and Tim Keating arrive on the USS Sampson.

Mr Brownlee arrives on deck to thank the three foreign naval ships which helped with the Kaikoura emergency. Photo: Pool

Life in Christchurch is not back to normal for many in that city, with so many still grappling with insurance claims and just negotiating the radically changed face and feel of the city.

There has also been dissatisfaction with the government response including criticism some parts of the rebuild have taken far too long, and ongoing questions about the government insurance scheme administered by the Earthquake Commission.

All of this will be high in the mind of Mr Brownlee, who has borne the brunt of not only political criticism but also the visceral, emotional response of Cantabrians who had their lives torn apart.

Monday's quake affected many communities in the north-east of the South Island, and reached up into the capital, Wellington - but Kaikoura was one of the the hardest hit, in part because it became completely isolated from the rest of the country.

Although many residents and businesses in Kaikoura and surrounding areas will have to deal with private insurers, it would be nowhere near the scale of Christchurch, a cause of major angst in that city.

Instead, the government is faced with the daunting prospect of repairing stretches of main highway and the rail network, which have been essential for transporting tourists, New Zealanders and income-generating freight from the primary sector.

Coastal Road to Kaikoura - rail road cuts through state highway 1

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Not only will that part of State Highway 1 have to be rebuilt, the government will also have to make sure it will not be vulnerable to the slips and damage that have made it impassable.

No-one has any answers yet about how that will happen except that it will take months and cost billions of dollars to repair the government's own uninsured assets.

Just weeks after announcing a healthy surplus to give him options in election year, Finance Minister Bill English can see that slipping away, possibly forcing the government to borrow to cover the cost of this repair bill as well.

It may turn out to be absolutely necessary - but not exactly what the government would have wanted to present to voters as an policy enticement to give it a fourth term in power.

It was a smart move of Prime Minister John Key to take opposition leader Andrew Little with him on the first helicopter ride to Kaikoura - it gave Mr Little the chance to see the devastation for himself and he naturally made comments on that first day about supporting the government response as that was no time for politicking.

John Key's flight has flown over Blenheim & Seddon. Some liquefaction in Blenheim, little damage can be seen in Seddon.

John Key's flight has flown over Blenheim & Seddon. Some liquefaction in Blenheim, little damage can be seen in Seddon. Photo: POOL

That was reflected in parliamentary question time, with no direct criticism of the government - just some gentle prodding for information.

Opposition MPs were mindful of the need not to look churlish on that first day, but the niggles started to appear the following day with questions about the effectiveness of the civil defence warning system, and funding for Geonet.

What will come under further scrutiny is the long-term sustainability of the Natural Disaster Fund used by EQC to cover claims.

EQC said "current projections" were that the Canterbury claims would exhaust the Fund, and at that point the government would have to cover any claims.

That is despite the levy - which homeowners pay through their insurance - having been raised by from 5 cents per $100 to $15 cents per $100 in 2012.

There are discussions going on about changes to the levy system, but no-one in the government is saying what that could look like, just yet.

Monday's earthquake will increase the pressure to get on with those changes, but no homeowner should be surprised if the changes mean a higher levy, or even perhaps an expectation those in more quake-prone areas pay more.

Mr English said the main lesson from the Christchurch quakes for the government was that affected citizens should never believe money would not be available to help them rebuild their lives.

Bill English at a social housing announcement in Northcote

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

But this could easily go wrong - as demonstrated by a medium-sized tourism company in Kaikoura being reassured by promises of support from John Key, but being bitterly disappointed it was not eligible for an employee support package for companies with fewer than 20 employees.

The government has said from the start it will be flexible, and the cost of covering that business would be insignificant compared with the cost of the adverse publicity or ill will in the community such situations could generate.

The initial response has been speedy and, apart from the problems with the warnings systems in the hours after the quakes, information has been readily available and ministers accessible.

However the government will ultimately be judged on its actions in the coming days and months, when the plight of the people affected by the quake and ongoing aftershocks is no longer headline news, and as they then embark on the long road to recovery.

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