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Video transcript: The Auditor-General's Canterbury earthquake recovery work programme

A transcript for a video about the Office of the Auditor-General's work auditing the Canterbury earthquake recovery.

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Title: The Auditor-General's Canterbury earthquake recovery work programme


The Canterbury earthquakes were New Zealand’s worst natural disaster since the Napier earthquake of 1931. 185 people sadly lost their lives and about 5800 were injured. People’s lives were, and remain, disrupted.

The cost of the Canterbury earthquakes is estimated to be about $40 billion. The public sector is responsible for about half of that. This cost was incurred by both local and central government to rebuild damaged infrastructure, community facilities, schools, hospitals, and residential homes through the Earthquake Commission and Southern Response.

The recovery involved private sector organisations, particularly insurance and construction companies, and many non-governmental organisations. Many public entities were affected, and new ones were set up to respond to the earthquakes.

Organisations had to work together to respond to the challenges and issues in the recovery. This complexity is typical of most recovery efforts from natural disasters.

Henry Broughton (Sector Manager, Parliamentary Group)

I think one of the keys things we learned very early on was the sheer complexity of managing the recovery. Natural disaster affects people’s lives in so many different ways, in terms of schools, hospitals, and people’s homes, of course. People’s mental health, their sense of well-being – so, really the whole of government is required to respond to a natural disaster like the Canterbury earthquakes.

Andrea Reeves (Assistant Auditor-General, Local Government Group)

There had been a very cohesive response phase after the earthquake – or earthquakes – but there had been less thought go into ‘well, who was doing what?’ in regards to the recovery itself. We knew that the Earthquake Recovery Authority had been set up, but how were they going to be holding discussions with local authorities and other agencies that were on the ground?


I think one of the key things was clarity around roles and responsibilities – you know, whose job it was to do different tasks – and getting the right governance structure in place. We also found that the engagement with the community was really, really important – both in terms of communicating with the community, but also finding ways and means to enable the community to have a role to play in the decision-making.


As well as the challenges of co-ordinating and governing the response to the earthquakes, the public sector had to respond to unique and complex issues. Often, there was no blueprint for the public sector to draw on to respond to these issues.


So there’s no rulebook when recovering from a disaster – no rulebook to say what should a local authority – or even a central government agency – be doing in the aftermath of an earthquake or a flood or any other kind of disaster like that? So everyone really was trying to undertake what they thought would be the best possible piece of work or role that they could see themselves undertaking.


In 2012, the then Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, made a commitment that our Office would provide assurance that the recovery was being carried out effectively, efficiently, and appropriately. Alongside our annual audit work of public entities involved in the recovery, we carried out a programme of work about the Canterbury recovery. This included reports on:

  • the roles, responsibilities, and funding of public entities after the Canterbury earthquake;
  • the Canterbury Home Repair Programme;
  • the arrangements to repair pipes and roads in Christchurch;
  • the governance and accountability for three rebuild projects; and
  • the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.

We have provided advice to Parliament on the recovery effort and briefed select committees on the findings of these reports and our annual audits. We have also regularly met with people and organisations about the progress of the recovery. 

Through our work we have reviewed many of the complexities of the recovery, including the challenges of managing uncertainty, and working together to deliver rebuild projects.


So I think we thing that we learned when we looked at CERA was the importance of being agile to adjust to different phases of the recovery. So one of the recommendations that we made in the report is to continually look at your governance structure and see is it fit for the moment of the recovery now? Because at the early stages you needed an essential directive framework, you needed that kind of directive leadership. Later on in the recovery, perhaps that type of leadership needed to adjust to allow for more local participation.


How do you start the process of rebuilding your city or rebuilding your communities back to a state where communities actually expect them to be rebuilt to? So achieving the level of service where people in communities want to live in. That’s a massive challenge – you know, local authorities have constant conversations with their communities about the services that the local authority provides them, and doing that in a recovery setting provided a huge amount of challenge for a local authority, and it’s not a task that one organisation can do in itself. It needs the support from central government, it needed the support from iwi – from Ngāi Tahu – and it needed the support from other NGOs that were in Canterbury as well.


But with that there’s a tension there between do you take a top-down approach, centrally driven, or how much do you work with local bodies and organisations to take a bottom-up approach. So managing the tension between a top-down and bottom-up approach is I think a key challenge in any recovery.  


One thing that has been a challenge is having the right conversations, right up front because many people believed the rebuild would be done and dusted in a very short time period, and that’s just not going to be the case – it’s just impossible.


We know that recovery takes a long time – it can take up to 20 years, maybe even more – certainly you can set milestones for rebuilding buildings, repairing infrastructure, but the effect on the well-being of a community is going to take a while. I think the important thing is that any work that is done to recover and rebuild a city has the long-term in mind. We think about future generations in terms of the infrastructure, building better, but also thinking about the long-term nature of recovery for people’s sense of well-being.


Public entities must prepare for unlikely – yet potentially catastrophic – events. We want public entities to use the lessons from Canterbury to help New Zealand prepare for the next disaster.  


I think our final report on the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority in particular sets out some key lessons and recommendation for the government, thinking about any future recovery scenarios.


So I was at a conference over the last week – an engineering conference – and I heard a lot of really positive messages about lessons that had been learned from Canterbury and applied to the context in Kaikoura after the Kaikoura earthquakes late last year, and so I think that’s fantastic because we’re seeing some positive learnings being applied throughout the local authority sector.

So we’ll have to continue to monitor how public money will be spent in Canterbury – that’s something that we’d have an active interest in – the long-term plans of the local authorities for 2018-28, so the ten-year period over that time horizon, is going to be a really good opportunity for local authorities to have conversations with their communities about the levels of service that those communities can expect to receive over the next ten years and have a voice with the council about where they want their communities to head in the future.

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