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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 4-4-11

Government's Deadly Cuts
By Alan Marston, 4 April 2011
Infrastructure is to a nation what the heart and lungs are to you.
Infrastructure, like your health, is a boring subject until it fails to
meet your growing needs, or just fails. Infrastructure, transport
networks, electricity networks, communications networks, water supply
networks, buildings, these are things we take for granted - structures
that have always and we assume will always be there. It isn't until
infrastructure fails that we understand they are magnificent feats and
begin to appreciate how much human forethought and effort it takes to
maintain a daily acceptable level of safety and well being.
The aftermaths of the earthquakes in Canterbury and Japan tell one sorry
story: the hopelessness of private industry when it comes to thinking of
community needs. Luckily for New Zealanders we, the vast majority, have
successfully prevented Governments from imposing nuclearisation and
luckily for the Japanese, despite the failure in Fukushima where nuclear
reactors were built on an expectation that a 7.9 quake would be the
maximum any plant in the area would ever experience - and apparently
didn't account for the likelihood of an auxiliary tsunami - it appears as
though Japan's overall infrastructure is holding together. Yet even with
this luck nearly 200 died in NZ and in Japan over 10,000 missing people,
deaths of thousands (and counting,) radiation exposure, over 100 crippled
trains and the obliteration of entire towns all occurred in a rich nation
best prepared for earthquakes. Japanese citizens participate in earthquake
drills from early childhood, and buildings must adhere to the strictest of
regulation codes. Structures are even made "earthquake proof" with deep
foundations and shock absorbers designed to withstand seismic waves.
New Zealanders think we are pretty well prepared for earthquakes, we have
been proven wrong but the biggest problem isn't that New Zealand is under
prepared for a massive quake it's that our infrastructure isn't up to the
job and the pro-capital politicians in power are heading in a mad rush for
ever more cuts in government spending and ever more sales of the few
remaining bits of publicly owned infrastructure.
Japan's buildings, on the whole, coped with the 9.0 quake. Those who were
in Tokyo describe seeing skyscrapers sway and spin, some at an angle of 20
degrees; others inside the scrapers said they pitched and rolled as if
they were on the deck of a ship at sea. But the buildings did not fall. In
New Zealand a 6.2 quake, thousands of times smaller than that off the
coast of Japan, caused collapse of several building and inevitable
demolishing of hundreds more, not to mention the huge impact on housing,
sewage, power, roading, education and business that will take years to
Like Japan, New Zealand has very strict building codes, they have been in
place in NZ since the 1931 Napier quake that destroyed almost all of the
central city but even these guidelines don't match the seriousness of
Japan's codes.
As the country's networks of roads and bridges age, New Zealand is
simultaneously experiencing a harsh era of austerity. Having just spent 2
weeks on the roads of NZ's North and South Islands I believe a scandal
will one day soon emerge to the effect that a couple of private roading
companies have long-term contracts with set fees to build and `maintain'
the main highways and as such have a direct interest in NOT building or
maintaining them well in that the rapid breakup of roads is an additional
source of income whereas a well-built road not needing regular maintenance
is of no value to private roading companies. In short, our roads have
pot-holes and slips built-in to them. Withstanding an earthquake is the
last thing thing built in, no, not the last thing, it's not even on the
Meanwhile, the prime minister has called for the country to live within
the new realities while at the same time proposing to sell-off `key'
infrastructure assets still publicly owned. Is Mr Key a moron? Not at all,
he understands the affects of what he is doing, which makes him worse than
a moron, he is doing us in the eye with intent while humoring the
dystopian vision of the extreme right within and without this country
knowing full well that a dollar "saved" on not maintaining or updating
infrastructure is actually a dollar wasted. Even a moron knows it's
cheaper to strengthen a bridge that's standing than repair one that's
fallen down.
In the USA they have estimated that every $1 billion invested in national
infrastructure creates 35,000 jobs and generates $6.1 billion in economic
activity. The fiscally responsible thing to do, not to mention the
ethically responsible thing to do is invest in infrastructure and to do
that create an infrastructure fund that is difficult for politicians to
meddle with.
Politics is too important to be left to politicians. Budget cuts are
terribly painful for poor and vulnerable citizens but infrastructure
austerity thrusts ascetic measures onto massive structures that support,
carry and contain millions of people every day. These decaying giants
surround us, and it's the duty of the government to maintain and improve
such structures, or suffer de-construction at the next election.