31 Aug 2020

Government plans to transform Earthquake Commission in wake of inquiry

6:55 pm on 31 August 2020

The government plans to introduce legislation to change the Earthquake Commission's operations, as it releases its response to Dame Silvia Cartwright's inquiry.

No caption

File image. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

The damning inquiry, released in April, found that the EQC was woefully unprepared as it dealt with the Canterbury quakes.

It made a raft of recommendations around clarifying EQC's role and improving the way it deals with claimants.

EQC minister Grant Robertson said the government accepted in principle or will be doing more work on all of the inquiry's 70 recommendations.

He said the government was "adamant no other community should live through botched repairs and years of trauma and uncertainty following a significant natural disaster".

The government's response comes in a week that marks 10 years since the Darfield-centred quake - the first in a series which wreaked havoc in Canterbury.

Robertson said this was just the start and for many the real trauma came from their dealings with EQC.

"The stories that were heard during the inquiry were heartbreaking. Lives no hold, lives disrupted, for some never the same again. This government has committed itself to learning the lessons from this," he said.

Watch interview with Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Megan Woods:

Robertson said EQC was doomed to fail and it should have been obvious to the previous government that it was "hopelessly underprepared" to manage the flood of nearly half a million claims.

"As the inquiry noted, given the repair programme to EQC was quote 'a mistake', resulting in botched repairs that frequently failed to fix all the damage to a property or in some cases didn't fix any damage at all ... we expect to introduce legislation in the middle of next year to modernise the EQC Act. The new Act will respond to many recommendations in the Inquiry's report, providing certainty for claimants and agencies involved in responding to natural disaster."

Robertson said work was still being done on the question of who would manage a repair programme in the future and whether to raise EQC's liability cap of $150,000.

Former EQC and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said it was "utterly ridiculous" to say his government should have known EQC was unprepared and it would be like him saying the current government have "shown themselves to be hopelessly underprepared and inadequate to deal with a pandemic".

No caption

Gerry Brownlee. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

"You don't have a standing army waiting around for a natural disaster, and that's what would have had to have happened... this was effectively one in a 1600 year event, absolutely massive, and the fourth biggest insurance disaster in the world up until that point", he said.

He also defended giving the repair programme to EQC as at the time there were "all sorts of people who turned up in Christchurch doing temporary fixes on people's homes".

"To have left the city with so many houses so badly damaged, 267,000 houses damaged that EQC dealt with, without some clear track of recourse in the event of any failure would have been a massive mistake.

"And I find it fascinating that this word 'botched' keeps coming up when in fact the return rate on EQC repairs is less than on new builds", Brownlee said.

The Claimants Reference Group welcomed the government's response, but its chair Ali Jones was concerned claimants may still not be put at the centre.

"It's great that we're looking at the Act, it's great that we're looking at partnerships, but let's remember that it's the claimant that is at the centre of this and it's the claimant's voice that needs to be considered every single step of the way.

She also felt that some key points had been missed.

"The nightmare and upset that claimants experienced was as a direct result of failed damage assessments and failed repairs. So where is the information around how that is going to be addressed?," Jones said.

EQC chief executive Sid Miller

Sid Miller. Photo: Supplied / ACC

EQC chief executive Sid Miller said they had already implemented some major changes, including implementing more efficient claims processes and building stronger partnerships with other agencies when responding to natural disasters.

He said quality assurance would be a key element of any future response, and the organisation was committed to putting customers first.

"I don't think we can ever draw that line in the sand for those people and what they've experienced, we've made an apology and we recognise that.

"I think I look at it about learning from the experience those people have had and that's the focus on our organisation, so how do we improve so that people don't have to go through the same experience in the future."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs