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  • Writer's pictureIan Fletcher

Resilience Lite


Ian Fletcher

I was struck by a recent conversation with a financial adviser (a good one, who I’ve known for some time, from a big-name firm). He commented at the end of a wider conversation about US politics and China that he thought New Zealand was a poor longer-term investment prospect because of the risks – he mentioned earthquakes, and foot and mouth disease.

At the same time, I have been reading the recently-published brief for the incoming Government prepared by the National Emergency Management Agency. It’s a sobering read: eEssentially, it says catastrophic events (big earthquakes) are certain to happen over time; severe weather events will increase, and other stuff (like major cyber attacks) will come along too.

There are few risks to New Zealand’s economy greater than that of foot and mouth disease (which affects all cloven-hoofed animals) entering the country. “Weak borders and almost no response capacity” to an incursion are a huge concern says Ian Fletcher.

Against that bleak forecast, the response system is weak (“even moderate weather events can easily overwhelm the response system”). Local government resources are thin, there is no really professional workforce, there’s limited ability to collate information. And so on. In the event the Beehive building in unusable, you will be pleased to know that the government will be run from hired rooms at the Ellerslie racecourse. I kid you not.

Then there’s foot and mouth disease (and as beekeepers know, that’s just one of the pests and diseases we face). MPI’s painfully slow and appallingly expensive response to Mycoplasma Bovis gives me little confidence that MPI could mount the swift response a severe, infectious viral disease would require. The GIA funding mechanism (which they’re trying to foist on beekeepers) lacks flexibility, or speed. In a big, thinly populated country like ours, biosecurity only works with a really strong border or pre-border system, and a willingness to have big enough ‘standing army’ of responders ready to move. It’d be expensive, and require serious effort. No sign of either.

Instead, we have weak borders, a lot of showing-off at airports by MPI staff, and almost no response capacity. I take no comfort from that, and nor should you.

These issues are all features of our level of resilience – in this case our ability to cope with the known risks we face. Earthquakes, storms and biosecurity incursions aren’t theoretical risks; they’re certainties. Only the timing of each event is uncertain. There’s no excuse for being unprepared.

To which we can add infrastructure, and culture. Infrastructure is the big stuff: electricity, telecoms, water. Electricity is the bright spot, with TransPower getting approval this week to invest more in grid resilience. Water is now a political football, with Three Waters gone (and so no funding mechanism), and local governments unable to pay for what’s needed. Telecoms might be OK; cyber resilience is probably not. The roads are a constant distraction (I recently saw a huge pothole on a national highway being fixed by local residents, without safety equipment, because they couldn’t wait).

Catastrophic events, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, are certain to happen over time in New Zealand, and our lack of preparedness is scaring off investors warns Ian Fletcher.

The recent decision to ditch the plans for new Cook Strait ferries is an incredible blunder. The loss of cross-Strait connectivity is now a real prospect: history shows that ships sink in Cook Strait regularly, and resilient ferries are both essential and expensive to avoid that outcome.

And then there’s culture. A senior official in Fire and Emergency told me some years ago that he was struck by the difference between Australia and New Zealand: In Australia, disasters were expected, and governments invested in systems, equipment and people to be ready. In New Zealand, we seemed to wait for the disaster then try to work out what to do. He found that frustrating; I find it alarming.

So, against that bleak canvas, what would it take for my financial adviser to change his view that New Zealand is too risky for longer term investment? The first, biggest answer is to take the problem of our resilience seriously, and resource it accordingly.

That’s a matter of money, but also people, institutions and physical preparedness. What would that mean?

First, reinforce local government. In a big country like ours, they’re always in the front line. They need to have core teams of professionals and a strong body of volunteers. Volunteers should be paid for their time, and have their employment protected (like Army reserves). Equipment needs to be procured in advance and stored around the country.

Secondly, a strong national system of coordination and information sharing. That exists in outline now, but it’s vulnerable and may fail on the day. That’s unacceptable and needs fixing.

Finally, imagine the worst, and prepare against that with exercises and public information. The biggest failure here is a failure of political imagination. The officials writing briefs for the new Government have sounded the alarm; has anyone in power bothered to read the material?

And to support that, fix biosecurity and infrastructure. Biosecurity needs decent funding (not cost recovered) and a sense of mission. Wait and see is not a plan; hope is not a policy, and funding by industry contributions is just laughable given the costs of failure and the fact that costs will mount suddenly when incursions occur – and producers are least able to pay.

Infrastructure is another whole topic. But whatever happens, a funding plan for resilient water investment and a funded, timetabled plan for new ferries are both gaping holes in the Government’s thinking. That’s irresponsible, and inexcusable.

The government’s recent decision to scrap investment in Cook Strait ferry upgrades is an “incredible blunder” warns Ian Fletcher.

None of this sits well with a swaggering, tax-cutting, deregulating Government. It’s expensive, time-consuming, detailed work. It means more public servants, and more money. It means building up local government (something the Wellington machine hates doing). It means being clear with the community that we live in an exceptionally hazardous part of the world, and that our luck will run out, soon.

Of course, as well as saving lives and sustaining our communities, a serious effort on resilience would improve the economy: investors would see less risk to their investments, and be prepared for a greater commitment over a longer period of time in an obviously well-managed country (think Finland, or Switzerland). That’s good policy and would be a great outcome.

Will any of this happen? I fear not.

Ian Fletcher is a former head of New Zealand’s security agency, the GCSB, chief executive of the UK Patents Office, free trade negotiator with the European Commission and biosecurity expert for the Queensland government. These days he is a commercial flower grower in the Wairarapa and consultant to the apiculture industry with NZ Beekeeping Inc.


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