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A Disastrous Culture

Written By: - Date published: 8:37 pm, September 9th, 2010 - 34 comments
Categories: Politics - Tags:

If troops in Christchurch were being asked to drive water tankers, or were involved in searching tumbled down buildings, or in distributing some form of aid, or running temporary repairs on roads, or temporarily shoring up shaky structures, or any other form of humanitarian assistance then their presence would be understandable.

But they were deployed to enforce a curfew. A curfew!? Where exactly was the breakdown in civil order that justified such a move? And at what point was it decided that earthquake survivors constituted a threat to civil order and were to be treated as an enemy?

And why is nobody questioning this casual usurping of civil authority?

Further, if it was so crucial that the CBD be shut down for safety reasons, then why did the exclusion not extend to absolutely everyone at all times? Why were property and business owners allowed in? That indicates that the danger was considered to be somewhat less than unquestionably life threatening, no?

Which all leads me to suspect that some petty minded and somewhat inadequate civic leaders (egged on by media types?) have got all carried away with themselves.

Real disasters have looters. Real disasters have troops. They know this because they have been told that these things are present in real disasters… like Haiti or New Orleans.

And so led by preconceived notions we get the missing bits manufactured for us. First we get the looters. And then the troops. And… viola! We have a real disaster. And political leaders get to be humbly prideful ‘big men’ stepping up to ‘take charge’ of a real disaster rather than a mere catastrophe.

And the media dutifully runs to these self appointed figureheads and reinforces a culture of abeyance to them. Which I have a real problem with. Because on the building front, I want to be informed by a structural engineer, not a politician. On infrastructure, I want to be informed by a civil engineer, not a politician. On the health front, I want to be informed by a medical professional, not a politician.

Nobody needs information delivered in a ‘Chinese whispers’ environment. The politicians are not experts and are in no position to answer searching or intelligent questions that specialists could. They are not in charge. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. And their developing role as sole mouthpiece and figurehead only contributes to reducing a real catastrophe to a tawdry and disastrous soap opera of hype and sensationalism slowly unfolding beneath the real (though not banner) headline news of the day; the politicians’ media acumen and how that might serve them going forward.


34 comments on “A Disastrous Culture ”

    • Bill 1.1


      Was kind of bunkering down for scolding cauldrons of opprobrium, but hey, just goes to show.

      • the sprout 1.1.1

        the great thing about this site is that it helps to break the spirals of silence

        i agree with your points – points you’ll never hear the msm raise. the use of the military was completely overblown, contrived and counter-productive.

        one other point. rather than have ministers come down here to stand around and gawp, why don’t their PR minders get them on the end of a spade to help get rid of the grey ectoplasm everywhere?

        • Tigger

          Excellent piece Bill.

          I thought Key looked like a tourist and not a leader while wandering around the ruins. I hope at least some others realize this thing was PRed to the hilt.

  1. The use of the Civil Defence Emergency Act to convict in a single day a person who was found within the cordon, merely for being in the cordon, is really interesting. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily an abuse of power but it’s interesting that the State retains that kind of power for emergency situations.

    • Bill 2.1

      I missed the instance you’re referring to. Somebody was actually convicted within 24 hours for being picked up within the cordon? Or are you talking theoretically?

      See, here’s my problem.

      The situation in Ch/ch is an emergency on all sorts of levels. But it’s not an emergency for the state or civil society insofar as the perceived legitimacy of the state or civil society is being threatened by any spontaneous and infectious iconoclastic tendencies gripping the general population or any suchlike.

      And so the ‘drama queen’ parties or individuals behind the curfew pantomime should be unearthed and brought to boot and then given it (outsized, steel toe capped, public and all) in no uncertain terms.

      How dare they suggest that people who have just lost their homes, their jobs, their peace of mind constitute a threat requiring extraordinary legal measures being invoked whose only purpose is to contain and control an unruly populace?

  2. RedLogix 3

    While I understand your sentiments Bill, I wonder if you haven’t forgotten the brutal old truth that crisis like this bring out both the best and the worst in people. While we would each hope for the best, the state stands prepared on our behalf to deal with the worst.

    On the other hand yes, it’s remarkable how close under the surface the good old authoritarian impulse is.

  3. Dave Guerin 4

    I thought the rationale for having troops overnight was to help the cops get some sleep after doing long hours. I don’t think the army came out till Monday night when the cops were getting stretched.

    • smhead 4.1

      Shut up guerin, all pigs are bastards and they should work 1000 hours in a row. shame on you for saying they need rest it just shows you are a fascist who wants martial law.

  4. RascallyRabbit 5

    Forgive my ignorance but weren’t the troops brought in to man the cordon because the police obviously had a big job and were complaining of staff fatigue?

    I don’t believe there were any more sinister motives behind it – wasn’t it simply to allow more police to be freed up for more important work?

    However I stand to be corrected…

    • Bill 5.1

      New Zealand army enforces Christchurch curfew
      Monday, 6 September 2010 19:42

      A state of emergency has been extended in Christchurch following Saturday’s earthquake with troops enforcing a no-go zone amid reports of looting.
      (my emphasis)

      Army personnel have no more enforcement rights than you or I in normal civil society (as I understand it) unless the ground rules are changed to give them powers they don’t normally have.

      If the rules weren’t changed, then you or I or anyone could have manned the cordons and advised people of their risk to life and limb in the CBD.

      • mcflock 5.1.1

        yep – and in Dunedin this year I think a couple of folk got done for obstruction when they breached a cordon that was being staffed by Community Patrol volunteers.

        But in a larger scale situation having a reliable and disciplined group of people who are capable of following instructions would be useful, and rare. Just don’t give ’em guns.

        • Bill

          Nah McFlock. I think you miss the point.

          You and me and ‘the others’ ( whoever they might be?) We’re not the enemy. We don’t need a policing presence when an informative presence would suffice, y’know?

          • jcuknz

            I disagree because there are so many around insisting on their RIGHTS as opposed to being responsible persons and using common sense …. it is good that we still have a few troops around to help spell the police. I’m tempted to comment that idiot lefties are always crying foul over what is sensible organization of resources in this situation …but of course I am a right-winger … yeah right.
            edit —I suspect the word curfew was dreamed up by the media that you are harping on.

          • mcflock

            you might not. I might not. But some do, and the problem is how you ensure the cops get enough rest in high-threat times, and who you get to help them.

            I would much rather 200 soldiers coming in with clear, centrally coordinated directions and a history of consistent training and assessment, as opposed to 5 local rugby clubs “pitching in”. I’ve seen rugby clubs attempt security work – it wasn’t pretty.

  5. ZB 6

    Police are civic peace enforcers not cordon guards. Police need to protect the public
    from themselves, business people eager to get their belongings may in fact get
    trapped and die in an after shock. Criminals likewise. Its seems fair to have
    those trained to set up and man cordons, the army to do the job. Let the students
    shine clearing the properties of pensioners.

    Certainly the rightwing media seem quite capable of spinning the disaster
    as a victory for the right, when in fact its a victory for taxes being invested
    and insurance built up to cover communties in a disaster. The Earthquake
    shows why we need good regulation, both day to day but also for disasters.

  6. Descendant Of Smith 7

    Civil defense people that I know take their role seriously and don’t invoke powers lightly.

    In some respects you got what you are asking for – you want an engineer to tell you engineering stuff therefore you would want a civil defense person to make the civil defense decision to invoke their civil defense powers.

    They are the people who are the experts. The powers to close off roads and areas remains with civil defense and applies to both day and night time.

    Once the powers are invoked however, by declaring an emergency, as I understand it then local authorities can impose night-time curfews to prevent looting.

    It’s a preventative measure so you don’t need to already have had looters and it’s not a civil unrest issue. Civil unrest comes under different legislation.

    So there’s two quite different issues – ones a safety measure and the other is preventative.

    I’m quite comfortable with the first and slightly less comfortable with the second as it may not need to have been invoked. I guess it comes down to how much you trust your fellow citizens or how much you want to give people an assurance that their premises, goods, stock, possessions are safe overnight or a confluence of both.

    As to the use of the Army I’m always cautious about the state using the army (Sleeping
    Dogs anyone?) but given a choice between paying the Army to give everyone a break and paying private security firms I know which I would choose.

    I’m far more concerned about the new powers the police have been given by this government that by using the army in this instance.

    • Descendant Of Smith 7.1

      Here’s the report of the arrest and conviction of someone lurking:


      Now this I’m more uncomfortable with as it wasn’t like he was caught with anything in his hands.

      However this was the judicial system at work i.e. the police for prosecuting and the judge for convicting and the defense lawyer for being stupid – to quote:

      “In his favour, he did not have any similar offending in his past, she said.”

    • Bill 7.2

      “In some respects you got what you are asking for – you want an engineer to tell you engineering stuff therefore you would want a civil defense person to make the civil defense decision to invoke their civil defense powers.”

      Erm. No. In the first situation, information is being imparted. In the second situation, power is being asserted. Two completely different things. Jeez.

      • Descendant Of Smith 7.2.1

        Yeah but much of your post is themed around keeping the politicians out of it and letting the experts play their role.

        You also confuse the post by suggesting that these powers are invoked as a result of a breakdown in civil order when no such thing has occurred and those powers are quite different and have not been invoked.

        I agree with the general theme of your post and anyone in civil defense would welcome scrutiny of the decision to declare an emergency “unleashing” the powers you seem so set against.. They take their jobs very seriously and only exercise those powers with much thought and reluctance.

  7. Puddleglum 8

    I think the more interesting aspect of your post, Bill, is not about the army (my anti-spam word, oddly enough) but the point that we have these notional ‘leaders’ who speak to us and for us.

    We take it for granted but it is odd when you think about it. Why on earth do we need ‘figureheads’ to tell us what we’re experiencing, how we’re responding, etc.? In a crisis do we revert to childhood and look for Mum and Dad to say things are OK to make us feel secure? Maybe we do – perhaps especially if we feel isolated from those around us.

    You’re right Bill. It’s very peculiar this notion of ‘showing leadership’. It assumes that we are so incapable of providing each other with sufficient reassurance and support that we need to see or hear someone on the tv or radio looking and sounding serious to confirm that everything will be ok.

    The reality for most of us was that it was our neighbours, family and friends who helped us to understand what was happening, how to respond and who provided the meaning and support that we needed when we needed it. That’s why people were contacting and talking to each other so much. I bet the average number of contacts in those first few hours was strikingly high. We actually don’t need leadership to get us through this. We can do it ourselves.

    Parker et al. may have fronted to the rest of New Zealand but I know who I looked to to get through this and it wasn’t Parker, Key or any other politician, frankly.

    There is, of course the need for various people to help with coordination of responses and recovery. But that’s not the same thing.

    It really is weird, this view that ‘our leaders’ matter in these situations. They don’t. In fact, it’s almost the quintessential situation in which leaders don’t matter because no matter how omnipotent and omnipresent they may want to appear they can’t directly help each person during the hours that help is needed. (Their decisions do matter, I guess, but only because of their ‘place holding’ powers – not because of the people they are.). Their words might matter to some people – but why?

    • Bill 8.1

      “In fact, it’s almost the quintessential situation in which leaders don’t matter because no matter how omnipotent and omnipresent they may want to appear they can’t directly help each person during the hours that help is needed.”

      And there be the rub.

      You know that they were and will continue to be utterly irrelevant to your situation. But the illusion must be maintained, for the rest of us not directly affected, that they are somehow relevant and important in the face of all this important stuff.

      So’s the Pope.

      • pollywog 8.1.1

        Did y’all see Key visiting the damaged church out at Hororata, and the female vicar refer to God as SHE, on the telly the other night ?

        I’d say God might have been a bit miffed at that, especially if the vicar made a habit of it, and the earthquake damage is like having a quiet word in her ear expressing HIS displeasure 🙂

        but yeah, t’was just another photo op for ‘smile and wave’ to turn up smile and wave at…zzzZZZzzz

      • mcflock 8.1.2

        I dunno – the ability (or failure) to immediately fund and mobilise recovery, damage assessment and rebuilding resources is pretty direct.

        Frankly, I’d rather the experts and administrators having daily/half daily meetings with the politicians to get cheques authorised and fill them in on progress and resources required, then spend the rest of their time actually working on the problem.

        The politicians can be talking heads all they want – engineers should be engineering, not dealing with idiot questions from idiot journos.

        • Puddleglum

          “The politicians can be talking heads all they want – engineers should be engineering, not dealing with idiot questions from idiot journos.”

          Various experts are routinely interviewed in media – listen to Morning Report just about any weekday – and I’m not sure it interferes terribly with the work that groups of experts perform.

          When there’s a major storm front coming, should we interview a local mayor to see what the weather is likely to be?

          It’s interesting that, with this earthquake, what many people have suddenly become interested in is the ins and outs of geoscience (geonet website, etc.). What Mark Quigley (University geologist) says in an interview spreads rapidly and becomes folk wisdom. That’s where the ‘reassurance’ is coming from, not Bob Parker.

          This is what people have been talking about in Christchurch – passing on to each other what they’ve heard about the likely occurrence of aftershocks and another ‘big one’, how best to protect your house or building, how best to respond, who you contact to get your chimney taken down, etc.. I haven’t heard much animated discussion of how politicians are presenting things – the odd passing comment, the occasional partisan letter to the editor, at best.

          They’re a sideshow. Though I expect that as the immediacy of the threat recedes we’ll start to see eulogies to our politicians’ wisdom, calm and general greatness as the media start to write our history for us.

          • mcflock

            Yes, by and large politicians are a sideshow. Like most media reports.

            But they are not completely functionless – it is, after all, a democracy, even during emergency powers. A competent politician would be able to sufficiently answer the big basic questions with up to date information. I would much prefer that the experts who are still have stuff to do all the time (rather than monitoring data at regular periods) not be taken off the job to answer the same or dumber questions from journos that they answered in the morning briefing with the people who sign their cheques.

        • mcflock

          although I saw Tolley on nightline touring (guided by the principal) a damaged school with a posse of photographers.

          Mayor? Yep.
          PM? okay, for a bit.
          Housing minister with reconstruction plan? Missing.
          Education minister pointing out the bleeding obvious with a dozen people inside a structurally damaged building that is located in an area of current seismic activity? Too much, too dumb.

    • Draco T Bastard 8.2

      There is, of course the need for various people to help with coordination of responses and recovery. But that’s not the same thing.

      Administration. Unfortunately the administrators have all the information and try to prevent us from getting it so as to keep power over us. If we had the information then we would know what needed doing and would be able to do it. We’d probably still need administrators but we would no longer be held in thrall.

  8. g-sus 9

    We’ve had to chase away looters twice this week from neighbours houses… they’re pretty bold and with so many empty houses it must be tempting for those who crave more shit in their lives…

    From what I could see the army spent most of their time redirecting or escorting tourists to their hotels – obviously the danger was not that extreme.

    Most people however have simply done as they’ve been told to and stayed away. That’s a nation of sheep for you.

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