Why a Bipartisan Approach to Disaster Recovery Does Not Work

Christchurch, New Zealand 2016. I still live in a city where truths so often do not make it through the gridlocked gauntlet of publishing. I live in a city where so much of what should be being discussed is not being discussed. I live in a city where the politicians who are supposed to be speaking for the people seem to have lost their voices. I live in a city where many are still suffering while most sit back and watch. I still feel anger, disappointment and frustration that after five years the government is silent, the media is silent, the regulators are silent and in the main so is the affected population.

I watch and wait as ‘Christchurch’ has become the on-going saga about an unprecedented catastrophe, with an affected population largely left to wallow in its own misery. After years of being involved in Christchurch what emerges is a story of a very sorry state of affairs, a story of incompetence, dishonesty, professional vested interests, cynical corporate greed and government complicity and self-service.

On top of that we have an insurance industry left to its own devices, an industry in dire need of reform. The industry has done and continues to do all it can to maximise its profits by delaying settlement of claims, causing policyholder abuse in the process. While insurance companies are in the business of making money, they cannot be considered ‘just normal businesses’.

They have special fiduciary duties requiring them to protect their customers both in statute and case law.

Paramount amongst those duties are the duties to act fairly and in good faith. The regulators in New Zealand have chosen to be blind to the events taking place here. And simply because the government entered into an agreement as part of its negotiations with insurers it should not be the population of Canterbury that pays the price for its own failures.

There are those who would have us believe that political collaboration is a necessary foundation for dealing with a natural disaster, but the experience over the last five and a half years has shown that a ‘bipartisan’ approach does not work!

Labour leader, Mr Shearer pledged that Labour would “… do everything in our power to bring the issues to the attention of Parliament. But I do believe we need to look at a way we can have a bipartisan approach on this.

We do need a government/opposition united approach.” And “as a result of that, I think we do need to be sitting down with the Government and looking at a bipartisan approach to the rebuild in Christchurch and its recovery.” ( See http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10779345 ).

What is a Bipartisan approach? Wikipedia defines it as “a political situation, usually in the context of a two party system, in which opposing political parties find common ground through compromise, in theory.” So in the context of the Christchurch earthquakes this would mean that Labour would essentially leave National to its decision making process in relation to matters appertaining to the recent earthquakes and the Christchurch ‘recovery’.

On the face of it, it is not hard to understand the appeal of bipartisanship. It sounds very mature and enlightened with a suggestion of the harmonious pursuit of quick and beneficial solutions to a set of difficult circumstances. It seems an obvious choice in the case of external threat, such as war, yet there is little evidence that solutions to big internal problems are to be found through bipartisanship, and there are plenty of examples throughout history that would suggest that they are not. When it comes to ‘crisis’ events, this is particularly so.

Democracy actually depends on partisanship – strong, critical advocacy that opens public debate- forcing the parties to explain their ideas which in turn clarifies choices for voters. Partisan causes are often bold ideas and though these ideas can be divisive, they can offer citizens a genuinely new path forward.

By contrast, bipartisanship has the ability to ‘cloak corruption, obscure chasms between politicians and the people they serve’, agree to invest single individuals with absurd powers, or simply indicate that the leadership of both parties has become a closed club, (often with an agenda). In principle and in practice, a serious partisan political structure is fundamental to a healthy democracy and partisan ideas are crucial for liberty. Bipartisanship, by contrast, has enabled some of the most shameful episodes in history such as American slavery, the Iraq war, and others. I note with interest that in the USA there is also a bipartisan approach to ‘climate change’.

Yet is it not the case that a good political leader is not the individual who rises above partisan concerns, but the person who is able to clearly articulate and defend the interests of one party? Able to put forward another view point, propose other solutions – widen the choice spectrum for the affected population? People living in a democracy should get the government they choose based on clear choices. Clear choices produce better results. Decisions by the political parties to ‘demote’ political representatives who raise questions of ‘punishment for not towing the bipartisan line’ are worrying.

I understand that disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery are the end products of complex political and administrative interactions, and the results cannot be easily controlled or anticipated. But there have to be alternative solutions and those solutions should be presented by the other political voices. End bipartisan approaches in post-disaster affected cities in order to ensure real democracy in action and perhaps some assistance and answers for those in need. If we do not like bipartisan approaches and can see the danger in their subtle application, those affected must express their concerns.

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