Tuesday, 15 November 2016

New Zealand has had to deal with two earthquakes in the last week – at almost opposite ends of the globe.

First was the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States, and the second was the massive earthquake that tumbled many people in central New Zealand and the Upper South Island from their beds in the early hours of Monday morning. Both will have profound effects on our country for many years to come.

The Trump earthquake was extraordinary in that it was so unexpected. While no-one suggests that Hillary Clinton lapsed into sleep-walking to victory, there was a general assumption that the election was hers for the taking, and that despite the campaign ups and downs, she would ultimately prevail. In the wake of her defeat, many reasons have been proffered by all the usual now wise after the event commentators in the United States and here. They may be right, or just professional pontificators singing for their fee once more, but they all overlooked one obvious fact – the only time the Democrats have won more than two consecutive Presidential elections was in the Roosevelt/Truman Depression and War era of the 1930s and 1940s. Before and since then no Democrat candidate has won the third election, as incumbent Vice Presidents Humphrey and Gore found out in 1968 and 2000 respectively, and Hillary Clinton found out last week.

Donald Trump comes to the White House as a political novice – he has never been elected to any political office before. The last President to have had no prior political experience was Eisenhower in the 1950s. Yet it was Eisenhower who as President oversaw the development of America’s comprehensive Inter-State Highways programme, and whose outgoing address to the American people warned against the rise and development of the military industrial complex, an extraordinary admission from a former Five Star General. So there is the precedent for Trump to similarly surprise positively, but his demeanour to date suggests this is unlikely.

All that raises the prospect of Trump’s stated protectionism having a detrimental effect on New Zealand’s economic relationship with the United States, and his wider isolationism might also put paid to the thaw in the US/New Zealand relations that was highlighted by John Kerry’s visit last weekend. We have moved forward from then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “very, very, very good friends” description of 2008 to Mr Kerry’s assessment last weekend that we were “the great Kiwi friend” and “extraordinary partner” of the United States. What Mr Trump will say in time remains to be seen.

The Kaikoura earthquake and associated aftershocks are a further, if unnecessary and certainly unwelcome, reminder that we live in an incredibly seismically active country. They have not only inflicted serious physical scars on the landscape and emotionally traumatised many tens of thousands of people from Christchurch to north of Wellington, but have also highlighted once again the vulnerability of many of our infrastructural links. From roads to railways, to ships and ports, we have put too many eggs in one basket, which means affected areas of the country generally become quickly isolated once disaster strikes.

On the positive side, however, the phenomenal resilience first demonstrated after the Christchurch earthquakes has been shown once more, as individuals, communities and emergency services have gone about the task of recovery. But Christchurch has also showed it will take time, and not be without stress, although the outcome is likely to be very positive. We have to hope the same spirit prevails as we go about this latest rebuild.

In America last week, the slowly improving times the Obama Administration has been ushering in were sideswiped by the Trump victory. Similarly, in New Zealand, the emerging recovery demonstrated by improving growth rates and falling unemployment may have been knocked by the recent earthquakes.

In both cases, resilience is what matters now. The cork cannot be put back in the bottle or the clock wound back. Things are what they are. The challenge for Americans scared or affronted by Mr Trump and New Zealanders disrupted by earthquakes is how quickly we both can put our vicissitudes behind us and get on with building our future the way we want it.

Good luck to both countries in the face of their respective adversities!








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