Over the past four years the Earthquake Commission has been subject to some pretty rigorous examination by New Zealanders and in particular those from Canterbury. It is an agency that has raised as many questions about its performance and operating culture as it has answered. I do not think anyone doubts the enormity of the challenges facing E.Q.C. in Christchurch even though seismic activity has been largely stopped since late 2012.
However, 363 people leaving the Earthquake Commission in four years points to some fundamental problems. It points to an agency in dire need of immediate investigation, and some serious changes in its operating culture and/or structure. This agency is leakier than a failing dam when it comes to staff retention.
I have long been saying that if E.Q.C. is not cleaned up properly, that New Zealand will be worse for the wear. There are some very good reasons for saying this. Some of the reasons are glaringly obvious and quite immediate. Others are not so immediate, but which have definitive self imposed deadlines:
- Christchurch has waited long enough. People want us to get over it. We will when E.Q.C. is made to clean up its house, and in doing so deal with the outstanding problems still in Christchurch.
- What happened in Christchurch could be an operating template for how New Zealand deals with the next big earthquake or other major disaster requiring large scale insurance payouts. Therefore the operating template must be as robust as we can possibly make it.
- One day there will be another big earthquake. Maybe the next one will be on another obscure fault. Maybe it will be on one of our better known faults. When it happens, and how big it will be, we do not know the answers to. But we do know that it is only a matter of time. We must have E.Q.C. in a better state for it than it is currently.
- E.Q.C. is a Government agency. As a Government agency it is answerable to the Government, or in the case of Christchurch, the Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. Mr Brownlee as a Minister of the Crown is answerable in turn to the Prime Minister and at large the Government is answerable to the people of New Zealand. Right now, E.Q.C. seem to be a rogue agency. That – for obvious reasons – is not okay.
Recently I was in Los Angeles catching up with University era friends from Peru, a country well known for its earthquakes. Over dinner one night they asked me some really good questions about how Christchurch is getting on post earthquake as they did their postgraduate studies . One of them works for a civil engineering firm in Los Angeles and wrote his Doctorate of Philosophy in the use of rocking walls in confined mason structures. I answered questions about the damage and the nature of the recovery. Then I was asked what the biggest problem has been, and I told them straight up that it was the insurance companies and in particular the Earthquake Commission. When pressed for an explanation I explained that E.Q.C. had stalled on sorting out claims, that people were losing faith and the operating culture suggested major problems exist in the agency.
I hope my next conversation with my friends about this topic is more positive than the last. If it is not, it means that any one or more of the above problems have not been addressed.