Although there are those who would disagree, Natural Disasters are probably not driven by politics, but nor are they immune from politics. Far from it. The actions taken by human actors undoubtedly affect the prevention, mitigation, and damage of natural disasters and their aftermath.
The ‘shock’ refers to the natural act itself e.g. the earthquake. The ‘aftershock’ comes later. Post-earthquake 2010-2012 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Earthquake Commission, the Canterbury Earthquake Authority, the Christchurch City Council, and the Government of the day equate to the net impact of the ‘aftershock’ on the population – the physical ‘disaster’ is far from the whole event. It is also made up of those shocking post-disaster events, such as delayed insurance payouts, top-down authoritarian decisions, ineptitude of professional bodies, evidence of corruption in the post-quake city – and the list goes on…
Though governments are supposed to care about the social welfare of their citizens, they also have an interest in maximizing government income and though governments do spend on both preventative and palliative measures to lessen the impact of a potential natural shock, they also use natural disasters to redistribute power through the political effect, for example favouring disaster spending in regions that are politically aligned with the party in power. Dire circumstances provide rapacious governments with a stronger ability to increase their level of theft and to hide it. Disasters can be used as a blunt policy instrument to target or reward populations and to enrich a government and the ‘corporate classes’.
Interesting too, is the fact that a time of crisis can increase markedly the amount of information a population has about current or incumbent politicians and their governance style and outcomes. This is because disaster produces a highly informative environment where voters are continually debating and experiencing the performance and merits of the operators in power – be that a Prime Minister or a City Council. It is in these high information environments that voters learn enough to enable them to consider taking the decision to replace the political incumbents.
For example, certain incumbents in Christchurch are currently responsible for rebuilding a city infrastructure and restoring the lives of affected communities to some semblance of order. During normal times there is usually little information about how good a job the incumbent did or is doing, but during an earthquake or hurricane voters quickly learn a lot more about whether the incumbent has done a good job and who these people actually are. When there is this much information floating around, information about performance may become sufficiently informative to overcome a voter’s initial tendency to support an incumbent. Their likelihood of re-election by the persons of the affected area therefore has the potential to ‘take a hammering’. And the truth is that as voters we often understand little beyond our own or our local community’s pain and pleasure… as voters we often have only a vague, or at worst primitive understanding of the connections between incumbent politicians actions and our own pain or pleasure. Governments also rely on national media disinterest (or control) to ensure that populations outside the affected area get to hear little of their manipulations within the area.
Educated voters are fully rational, and research shows that re-election rates are lower for incumbents following natural disasters. The mechanism is informational. A rational voter votes retrospectively – i.e. based on what they perceive to be the past performance of the incumbent-but does so only because that past performance is informative about expected future performance.
Confidence in a country’s disaster preparedness depends on confidence in the ability and willingness of its government to mandate and oversee levels of decency and fairness in addition to the efficiency of reconstruction. The dilemmas that Christchurch City faces require constant balancing between rebuilding faster, rebuilding cheaper, rebuilding safer, and rebuilding back better. In order to achieve the right ends there will be a need for the government to deal with many of the elements of local and private enterprises who have been and still are placing profits ahead of community interests – including having the all-important conversations with insurance providers and addressing their stalling of claims settlement and the dubious processes employed to minimize the cost of valid claims. All these are examples of potential failures of central government to assume responsibility and control of regulation and enforcement in the long-term planning process, which is arguably motivated by an entrenched culture of corporatism which favors corrupt dealings and the pursuit of occluded agendas. Markets have no inherent moral character therefore it is government’s role to decide how to manage them.
Declaring a disaster a ‘national emergency’ has profound political implications. In the follow-on from managing the emergency and the rescue efforts it is practically unavoidable that a further politicisation of the event increases as the affected community moves from the emergency response through to the recovery and the reconstruction phases. The immediate emergency response by any government is fairly predictable, as it should be, but, from a political point of view, the aftermath has proven to be uncharted territory, highly susceptible to the opportunities of the circumstances and the political values and agendas of the day. The way a Government perceives its political mandate, or is given opportunity to define it, is never more critical than in a recovery phase.
Markets have no inherent moral character and it is therefore arguable that it is the government’s role to decide how to manage them. In particular, after a major disaster markets must be regulated ‘under emergency’ to ensure that they are working for the benefit of the recovery of the majority of citizens. A political system of non-interference only serves to amplify the voice of wealthy corporates and fails to protect the ordinary citizen against corporate abuse. Money speaks in politics as it does in the market place. Any system of recovery must have rules and regulations operating within a legal framework. In a modern economy, the government has the responsibility on behalf of its population to set and enforce the rules of the game in the market place. This is especially true in the case of a major disaster where government takes the decision to be involved in the recovery process. In the absence of genuine government support, the extent to which a population can recover post-disaster is likely to be severely challenged. What has characterized the recovery in Christchurch is that political decision making has been in favour of the corporate and government stakeholders – the insurance industry and the construction industry. The policy of non-interference in the marketplace has been the cause of slow, painful recovery. The consequences of this approach have been sorely and visibly felt by the affected population.