Natural Disasters and the New Zealand and Australian Economies

 We are only barely in the third month of 2011 and already New Zealand and Australia have had their fair share of natural disasters. Flooding has hit both countries (although Australia has been particularly hard hit), Queensland has experienced the wroth of Cyclone Yasi and Christchurch the recent devastating earthquake. Whilst the cost in human life is immeasurable the monetary cost to the infrastructure of effected communities is eminently quantifiable. Whilst cost estimates for the first Christchurch quake of 4 September 2010 range between 6 and 8 billion, the costs of the second are expected to be much higher. Guestimates range from a conservative 10 billion for both quakes through to a more realistic 25 billion. With an annual national GDP of approximately 166 billion New Zealand dollars (approximately 125 billion USD) a bill of 20 billion for two closely times disasters in one region of New Zealand is no drop in the bucket. However, both Australia and New Zealand are well placed to financially weather these crises. New Zealand Government debt as a percentage of GDP hovers around 16 to 20 percent. US Government debt by comparison hovers around 100% of GDP. The capacity of the government to borrow is therefore high. Furthermore, much of cost of rebuilding Christchurch will come in the form of money from private insurers who have classified the quake of 22 Feb as the largest insurance event of 2011; and for the sake of lives and families elsewhere in the world, may it retain this dubious honor for the remainder of 2011.

It is unfortunate that New Zealand is currently straining under the constraints of inadequate infrastructure across the entire country. Whilst many countries struggle with updating their old and antiquated systems inherited from previous centuries, the youthfulness of New Zealand means that infrastructure needs are assessed with little or no historical precedence. Of course, this dilemma may allow for fresh thinking, unencumbered by the work and mistakes of generations gone by. Furthermore, issues such as the rolling out of high speed internet, new and alternative forms of power generation and road building are little assisted by the systems previously in place. Irrespective of the difficulties associated with developing infrastructure in a young and largely untouched country, the Christchurch quake will result in significant delays in the development of Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city) in particular. The political football of a light rail system for Auckland and they laying of a broadband fiber optic network will now face significant delays, the flow on effect for New Zealand’s longer term productivity may therefore be immense.

With any significant disaster comes opportunity; an opportunity for a city, region, or even country to reinvent itself. Rarely are such opportunities available outside of war. Therefore whilst it is not accurate to say that New Zealand’s pain and grieving will “give way” to issues of redevelopment, the myriad of issues associated with rebuilding will soon take precedence. It is in this context that emergency powers passed by the New Zealand parliament in the wake of the September quake become of key importance. The near unfettered power given to the Hon Gerry Brownlee as the Minister responsible for the emergency, are troubling. Democratic and constitutional principles cannot and ought not to be entirely swept aside in the name of an emergency. Things need to be done immediately, of course – things that in peaceful, stable times may have taken months if not years to implement. However, times of emergency ought not to be used to “fix” all perceived inadequacies irrespective of how tempting such action may be. Democratic processes must be seen as integral to the process of rebuilding not inhibitive of it. It remains to be seen what difficulties will be faced by New Zealand as it attempts to rebuild its second largest city. But as with any person’s connection with their home, the people of Canterbury feel strongly about their Christchurch. If not given an active say in its reconstruction, further and unnecessary aggravation will be felt.