Friday, February 17, 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle has shown us the best of New Zealand

What an extraordinary week.

I’m not just talking about the devastation, the tragedy and the heroism, although all that was remarkable enough.

What was also exceptional was the manner in which the country responded. Cyclone Gabrielle gave us a tantalising glimpse of a New Zealand that most of us grew up in and recognised; a country where people set aside real or imagined differences and pulled together in the face of a common crisis.

It has been easy in recent years to wonder whether that country has ceased to exist. Ideological extremism, identity politics and the culture wars, compounded by the social stress and dislocation of Covid, have so dominated politics, the media and the public conversation that it often seemed New Zealand was a country at war with itself.

We have been through a sustained and bruising period of division and polarisation, the purpose of which seemed to be to pull us in different directions based on race, gender, sexual identity and other markers of “otherness”.

But in recent days we have witnessed the re-emergence of the old New Zealand: a country in which people recognise that all of us – urban and rural, male and female, Maori and Pakeha, young and old, queers and heterosexuals, immigrants and those born here – are bound by common interests, values and aspirations and need to pull together when our national wellbeing is threatened.

We have seen the very best of New Zealand in the way communities rallied and turned to their own resources, and in the way emergency services personnel, many of whom were themselves directly affected by flood damage, selflessly responded to the urgent needs of others, often at great personal risk – and in two cases, with fatal consequences.

We have seen an outpouring of public support for the thousands of people whose properties have been destroyed and who must now set about trying to rebuild their lives. Farmers, horticulturists and orchardists are some of the worst affected and it’s possible the disaster will have a positive outcome in the form of a greater public appreciation of the rural sector and its importance to the rest of us.

We have been reassured and impressed by the performance of community leaders, sector representatives and local politicians who suddenly found themselves thrust into situations for which there was no chance to rehearse. Four who stand out are the mayors (all women) of Gisborne, Napier, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay. It’s notable that in Auckland it was another woman, deputy mayor Desley Simpson, who stepped up, presumably because Wayne Brown either accepts or has been told that whatever his skills may be (and they have yet to be revealed), they don’t include communication.

The crisis has been good for Labour, enabling Chris Hipkins to portray himself as a man of the people, out there hearing their stories and sharing their grief. Of course this is no more nor less than any prime minister should do in the circumstances, but it’s good for his image. National is forced into the position of being merely a passive observer, able to do little more than endorse Labour’s approach. Bearing in mind the old political adage that every crisis is an opportunity, the events of the past few days can only increase speculation that Hipkins will call a snap election.

We have been generally well served by the media, especially the broadcast media, who were tested to the limit. In the first two days the mayhem was so widespread and fast-moving that it was hard for news outlets to keep up. Just as reporters were getting to grips with one major development, another story broke somewhere else. I can’t recall any other crisis when the media focus kept shifting at such a dizzying pace – from Muriwai to Tairawhiti, Northland to Hawke’s Bay. Power failures and communication breakdowns made the job even harder, but reporters rose to the challenge.

Radio in particular came into its own. It’s unique in its ability to keep on top of a fast-moving and fluid (forgive the pun) situation. Radio reporters are highly mobile and can phone in their reports from wherever things are happening. Programme schedules aren't rigid, unlike TV, and can be interrupted whenever news breaks. Moreover, you can listen to the radio pretty much wherever you go and whatever you're doing.

The crisis also served as a striking reminder of the limitations of digital technology. When a smart phone is useless because cell phone towers are out or the phone can’t be charged, a battered transistor radio – as one farmer marooned in a remote area of Northland attested this morning on RNZ – can be a lifeline. To an incorrigible Luddite such as me, all this is very affirming.

To summarise, in the worst of circumstances we have glimpsed the best of New Zealand – a New Zealand many of us feared was changing beyond recognition.

For five days, ideological agendas and their vociferous, mischievous champions have been sidelined. The constant discordant static of division has been silenced. New Zealanders have had far more pressing issues to focus on – practical issues of survival and recovery.

They have been given a vivid reminder of the importance of social solidarity at a time when it was never more desperately needed. The question now is whether this spirit can be sustained once the immediate crisis has passed.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant summation Karl. We need to read and hear more of this ilk. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Great. K one w one is still alive and kicking.

Golden Oldie

Anonymous said...

"....whether this spirit can be sustained once the immediate crisis has passed."

It will not take too long for the victim bickering to begin again.

Already Feb 14 we've had an incredibly racicalised statement from a political party leader about celebrating the violent end and cannibalisation of James Cook instead of celebrating Valentines Day (albeit who does?).

Some communities have shown solidarity but the backbone of the complaints and grievance department never closes.

WWallace said...

Sadly, it was politicised early on by James Shaw of the Greens, who blamed Climate Change for the storms - implying all of us driving petrol and diesel vehicles, and flying (as he does), etc - are guilty of the recent deaths and destruction.
Too soon, James.

David George said...

Thank you Karl, completely agree.
We got off fairly lightly here in Northland, lots of rain but not all at once like some places. We were still left without communications for a day or so though; no Eftpos and cash only at the shops and service stations as a consequence. Having a bit of good old cash gives resilience, personally and collectively. Imagine if the whole electronic system crashed for days; chaos.

We had a really bad storm here in Kerikeri back in March 1981, lots of flooding and an old lady died when her house was washed away. After that two large dams were built in the main catchments feeding our rivers. They are for irrigation water but also serve to attenuate peak flows - we've not had anything nearly as bad since. There was a big national program of water management in the 60's - dams, stop banks and river dredging etc. Perhaps we need to look at a lot more of that sort of thing, the bigger dams can generate power as well. The Dutch are masters at this sort of thing - have a look at the history of floods and the appalling death toll before they put in their water management infrastructure.

The usual suspects are predictably shrieking about climate change. Unfortunately for them there's no actual correlation, much less causal relationship, between CO2 and weather but of course they never let the facts get in the way it seems.

Hugh Jorgan said...

There's an old saying in politics (which you will be well aware of Karl), "Never let a good crisis go to waste." This is Hipkins' Covid moment and you can be sure he'll milk it for all it's worth.
Having said that, IMHO it would be incredibly poor taste (in the vernacular du jour "bad optics") for Hipkins to call a snap election on the back of this; I don't think he'd be that stupid.
Good grounds for delaying the census, I would have thought...

Trev1 said...

All of us feel greatly saddened and want to help, the Red Cross have an appeal running where you can donate online. The recovery and rebuild must be the government's priority from now on. They should ditch their obnoxious legislative agenda, clear the decks and roll up their sleeves.

"The re-emergence of the old New Zealand". I would like to think so, it sounds like a scene from Brigadoon. Actually the old New Zealand never really went away. I have been puzzled for some time about the disconnect between the ordinary people you meet from day to day and the divisive, poisonous agenda being run by certain politicians, bureaucrats and lobby groups. These latter have far too much power and dominate our national conversation through the media, from which many have simply switched off. It's time we gave them all the bum's rush.

Huskynut said...

Forgive me, but you're being rather credulous.
The spirit of division which animates NZ has gone nowhere but underground.

Huskynut said...

Context: a friend of mine has just delivered a load of generators and fuel into Napier. He reports the police radio is constantly alive with reports of looting, ram raiding and hold ups.
There is much genuine heroism (including his). But the editors have apparently decreed a happy news cycle so that's all thats being reported.

Doug Longmire said...

Thanks Karl,

You have reminded us that New Zealanders are very good, caring, people on the whole.
Many visitors from overseas comment on the friendliness and hospitality.

There was a black American visitor a while back over here to watch his daughter in a sport event in Timaru. When he left to drive home - his car in the carpark had a flat tyre. He said he was overwhelmed by offers of help from fellow (Kiwi) drivers. This would not have happened in America.

However - we do have the small percentage of divisive racists here in N.Z. who want to split us apart into an apartheid nation.

Andy Espersen said...

I agree, Karl. We New Zealanders behaved as we ought to - and as we always did. The only silly consequence of it all is that we are now more than ever determined to "do something about climate change!!" Throughout the reports from our young journalists I sense the glee that the events of the Auckland downpour and the cyclone happening WITHIN ONE WEEK necessarily PROVE how dangerous climate change is - and that therefore we MUST STOP CLIMATE CHANGE!

Go all out for NetZero - no matter of what cost to us tax-payers! Build more windmills!! Stop cow-farts!

Birdman said...

Yes it is very sad to see the suffering and loss of life but uplifting to see New Zealanders pitch in wherever they can for others. From the first responders risking their lives through to the Indian restaurant distributing all its meals before they spoil - all heroes in their own way. Then listen carefully to Simon Dallow on 1 news during the Auckland storm and he calls it a "climate event" rather than a "weather event". No complaint will change the insidious intent of the writer of such "news" and its delivery in seeking to push one agenda and with it ramp up discord.

And on an early election, ever since the change of glorious leader we have been on course for that for sure. All the signs Ardern (remember her) would resign were there well ahead of Xmas. That wouldn't have been a secret to the insiders, so there will have since been plenty of central planning (where have we heard that term before I wonder).

Don Franks said...

Yes, there has been magnificent response from many and yes, the next bit will be more fragmented.
At the moment the response to the flood disaster is straightforward, authorities and communities striving to rescue people, provide essentials for life and restore basic facilities. Down the track, other issues will emerge, class divisions will assert themselves. Thousands of working people have been dispossessed, many of them dispossessed absolutely. In the wake of the flooding devastation, who will be compensated, to what extent, what will reconstruction priorities be? Although divided into rich and poor, New Zealand is overall a wealthy country. The capacity exists in New Zealand to properly rehouse and re-employ all those dispossessed by cyclone Gabrielle.

Eamon Sloan said...

I doubt that Labour would call a snap election before the scheduled October date. They would be poking themselves in the eye through not being able to pass all of the legislation on their programme. Opportunistic snap elections can backfire. Muldoon in 1984 lost out badly. Teresa May in the UK not so long ago wasted a big chunk of an existing majority and came close to losing the election. Later she lost her job as leader.

Labour for the moment is quite rightly doing mostly what any other governing party would do, or put more politely, doing what it is advised to do by the experts.

From a political standpoint, for myself, nothing has changed. I decided some time ago not to give my vote to Labour. The decision yet to be made is who to vote for.

Ben Thomas said...

No country has a monopoly on compassion and the ability to help those in been. Witness what is currently happening in Turkey/Syra, sadly overlooked in own grief.

Neither does any nation have a monopoly in scumbags who will try to profit from disaster be it stealing generators or looting. And when communications have been restored anticipate the online and telephone scams that will spring forth.

You express noble sentiments but the reality is that following a disaster both heroes and villains emerge regardless of the country concerned. There is nothing unique about NZ.

Karl du Fresne said...

Ben Thomas,
Read my post again. Nowhere did I say or even imply that New Zealand was unique or had a monopoly on compassion. You seem to have missed my point entirely.

Doug Longmire said...

Agree Karl - Ben Thomas has misread your message completely.

Gary Peters said...

I think an addendum to your article is needed, maybe along the lines of "The government shows the worst of themselves in this crisis".

While it may not be the time it seems clear enough to many, if not most, that the scale of this disaster has been massively magnified by the presence of forestry waste, a direct result of poor management post felling and the ridiculous imposition of green policies promulgated to "save the planet".

There also seems to be a concerted effort by the media to "campaign" for the government here but gloss over the incompetence and lack of investment by that same government.

Based on third hand reports, it also seems there has been a massive amount of under reporting which is obviously to keep the spotlight of the government's poor handling of the crisis. The "eyewitness" reports of "bodies on the sea" by naval personnel is again overlooked by the media and only reported on social blogs.

This is not the time for politics so can someone please get that message to the media.

Huskynut said...

Drip, drip.. the facts inevitably leak out..