Blast from the Future

Listener: 21 July, 2012.

Fortunately, the recently instituted deep-earth monitoring observed the magma slowly working its way to the surface. Breaking out, it pushed up a cone not unlike its twin, Rangitoto (some 600 years older), erupting to fill the skies with ash, bombs, rocks and poisonous gases. Given the warning, few lives were lost. The primary eruption happened in the school holidays; children not already out of town were evacuated to school-based centres by teachers giving up their time off. But the physical destruction was great, not just from the cone and lava runs, but from the ash and debris so thickly layered on roofs that houses and buildings collapsed under its weight. Few had realised just how vital the transport links through the Auckland isthmus were to the country as a whole. External supplies were maintained by diverting ships to Tauranga and planes to Christchurch.

Unprepared Auckland-based firms disrupted their branches when their centralised computing systems failed. Other than producing stunning pictures of the volcano and the destruction it wrought, the media (which had been largely based in Auckland) could barely cope with the chaos. Businesses and people moved to Hamilton and Tauranga and elsewhere in New Zealand, but the long-term shift was to Sydney and Melbourne. Although the rest of New Zealand welcomed the extra jobs, it found itself struggling because a smaller, less-productive Auckland, less able to reap economies of agglomeration, meant there were fewer businesses there to supply and service. Farmers in the north welcomed the mineral-rich ash that boosted their pasture’s productivity. House prices rose as people who lost Auckland homes scrambled for shelter. Real estate agents said the rise showed the housing market was in recovery.

The building industry promised economic growth and jobs from their extra work. (A greenie grumbled that he’d rather have had no volcano and gone surfing.) But because of the destruction of Auckland capital, any growth – for the rebuild was repeatedly delayed – was from a lower base and no one really felt better off except those who profited from others’ misfortunes. A Treasury wag suggested that if such popular miscalculations were correct, New Zealand could get itself to the top of the OECD by nuking Wellington; she promptly left for a job in Japan. The triennial redisorganisation of government departments meant there was no recollection of any lessons from the Canterbury earthquakes. The increasingly casual treatment of Archives New Zealand found the documents in a mess. The report in which officials, fearful of another great Wellington earthquake (the last was in 1855), had tried to bring together the Canterbury lessons had been scrapped when it was realised that it would be very critical of politicians.

The dominant individualistic ideology, without any notion of community, could not work out how to harness the collective concerns of the nation. People were willing to make common sacrifices for the public good. But the leadership, which had been more concerned with dollars and cents than nation-building and public well-being, failed to meet their aspirations, destroying community and commitment with mediocrity rather than inspiration. Instead of harnessing local enthusiasm, initiatives and knowledge, central government imposed top-down controls over the rebuilding, repealing just about every democratic right – except the ancient constitutional one to grumble, of which New Zealanders readily availed themselves. The parliamentary opposition, with largely the same concerns and competencies as the Government, supported it; the Auckland Council was too divided to have any effect.  Aucklanders demanded that the rest of the country pay for the rebuild by cutting Government spending, rather than by a levy on income tax to which they would also contribute. The Cabinet minute was signed off as a true and accurate record of the discussion, but nobody could make sense of it. As a hard-hatted Auckland engineer who had moved north to escape the Canterbury earthquake said through his breathing mask, “just like the last time”.