‘Disaster capitalism’, according to author Naomi Klein, is when a shocking event like a war, invasion, or natural disaster provides a political opportunity for privatisation and corporate takeover of state functions.
In Chile after the overthrow of Allende, in Iraq after the American invasion, the US after September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, and Sri Lanka after the tsunami, the combination of social disorientation and the justification of disaster response made ideal conditions for right wing economic reform, usually with a reduction in civil rights.
In Christchurch, communities were already disempowered by the removal of elected representatives on ECan, the Canterbury Regional Council, as the Government sought to further ‘Big Farming’ interests in water allocation. The Global Financial Crisis was already being used to justify austerity measures. Canterbury’s devastating earthquakes then provided an opportunity for a range of sweeping law changes that have opened up the region to disaster capitalism with radical effects on the landscape of Christchurch and peoples’ rights.
Soon after the earthquakes, Prime Minister John Key met with 50 corporation CEOs to devise a plan for rebuilding Christchurch. What emerged included SCRIT – the “Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team” made of CERA, Christchurch City Council, NZ Transport Agency, Fulton Hogan and City Care, and publicly listed giants Fletcher Construction, Downer, and McConnell Dowell. Private companies were bonded into disaster recovery.
The earthquakes gave the government justification for five years of unprecedented legislative override. They gave Bob Parker the 2010 election, and Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority members payment of $1,000 a day. They gave Fletchers a bulk contract to rebuild 50,000 homes worth billions of dollars. Developers across Canterbury gained access to new land to house the displaced, and John Key got the claim that the economy is improving.
The catastrophe gave the people of Christchurch trespass notices and charter schools on the ruins of public education. The NZ Human Rights Commission reports that people got deteriorating living standards beyond the disaster’s initial effects, community dislocation, financial distress, unresolved insurance claims, poor or insecure housing, and undermined rights to property, housing and participation.
The Government passed sweeping laws which allowed them to “obtain information from any source; enter and demolish, remove or build land or structures; ‘require co-operation’ between adjoining landowners; and suspend, amend or revoke plans, policies, resource consents, existing use rights or Certificates of Compliance”; all with few rights to appeal. The sanctity of private property was swept aside.
These laws were condemned by eminent legal academics for their “unlimited extreme powers not proportional to the magnitude of the disaster, inadequate checks and balances, for containing elements contradictory to long standing constitutional and democratic principles, which … set a dangerous precedent and are procedurally unsound”.
True to the definition of disaster capitalism, many Christchurch residents are powerless, homeless, and depressed, while some of the world’s biggest companies rake over the ashes and take home the spoils from taxpayers and the state.