Gerry Brownlee, pictured during the visit to NZ by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The Christchurch quake spying scandal: a Tsar Brownlee aftershock

The Southern Response spying scandal is just the latest in a string of post-earthquake disasters in the Garden City – and many of them can be traced back to one man, writes James Dann.

Almost as soon as the ground stopped shaking on February 22, criticism began about the National government’s handling of the response to the disaster. But after commanding election results in the Christchurch in both 2011 and 2014, there was a feeling that maybe those were just a few isolated voices – the carpers and moaners, as then earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee called them. Since the change of government, however, and certainly in the last month, a number of big stories have suggested that National’s response was about as reliable as an EQC inspection.

As the “carping and moaning” comment suggests, the relationship between the people of Christchurch and the government has often been tense. Though Brownlee was often called the “earthquake tsar”, maybe “earthquake dictator” would be more apt: he had extraordinary “wartime” powers, and an overarching centralised plan. He treated the media with contempt, and now there are revelations that the government was spying on people who tried to challenge it.

As reported by Newshub’s Patrick Gower, the government-run Southern Response used taxpayer money to conduct surveillance on its customers. Southern Response was formed when AMI went tits up (I believe that is the technical term) due to the scale of the damage and their lack of reinsurance. The government stepped in, but their performance has been notoriously poor. In a particularly memorable quote, one of their customers who was also part of the defence force in Afghanistan compared Southern Response rather unfavourably with the Taliban

It seems the system worked particularly badly for the people who, through no fault of their own, had the most difficult claims. They protested. Nothing changed. They put up signs on their homes. Nothing changed. They went back and forth, going over cap, under cap, getting a new scope, getting an independent engineering report, and so on. It seemed like this system was set up to frustrate, rather than to fix. This is what happened to people like Cam Preston, who was one of the customers that Southern Response started gathering information on.

Preston has always been vocal about his situation. He spent a lot of time researching his own claim, as well as the law and the general direction of the rebuild. He was frequently in the media. I’ve been to meetings that he spoke at. He had clearly done plenty of thinking about his situation and the situation of others, and was very concerned about it. He was worked up, but at no point in any of the meetings that I attended did it cross my mind that this man was a threat to anyone.

He was one of so many residents who had become frustrated, fatigued, persistent, and desperate. These people needed help. Southern Response chose to spy on them.

This spy story comes in the midst of a concerted investigation into EQC by RNZ Checkpoint, which has revealed some fairly alarming things about the quality of the home repair programme. The implications should worry people far beyond the 03. We could be talking hundreds or thousands of homes that need to be re-repaired, with a bill that matches.

Despite repeated attempts, John Campbell has been unable to lure Brownlee onto the show to defend his record. Even if he does front, the result isn’t about to satisfy anyone. He isn’t going to acknowledge that he made a mistake, let alone apologise for it. The sad reality is that Brownlee will, presumably, slide quietly out of parliament, either via a byelection when no-one is looking, or at the next election. He’ll be enjoying his life post-politics in one of his many houses, while many of the people he failed will continue to fight to have their family home repaired for years to come.

As the man who had almost unprecedented control over every aspect of the rebuild, Brownlee has shaped and misshaped Christchurch more than anyone else in the city’s relatively short history. CERA was his creation; EQC was moulded in his image. So it should be no surprise that EQC’s process mirrors his – a quick scope done by someone with little to no expertise in building followed by what appears to be a largely cosmetic fix to skimp on time and money. Only upon a more detailed inspection some years later do we find that the “repair” has merely papered over the cracks, and that the structure has been built on very shaky foundations.

While the new government tries to mend many of the buildings that still need to be fixed, the bigger challenge may be be to repair the trust between the people Christchurch and their political leaders that has been so thoroughly shaken in the last seven years.

James Dann was Labour candidate Ilam in the 2014 election


This section is made possible by Simplicity, the online nonprofit KiwiSaver plan that only charges members what it costs, nothing more. Simplicity is New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme, saving its 12,000 plus investors more than $3.8 million annually in fees. Simplicity donates 15% of management revenue to charity and has no investments in tobacco, nuclear weapons or landmines. It takes two minutes to join.


The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.