Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Insurance Aftershock by Sarah-Alice Miles, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

Some of you may remember that I've often, after our annual return from New Zealand, blogged about the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. Those blogs have not merely been about personal experience. This has been, for five long years with little sign of an end, a blight on a whole community and a shocking example of the results of corporate power when governments, whether from weakness, incompetence or actual collusion - or an unholy mixture of all three - give those corporations free reign.

The Christchurch  earthquake fiasco is far from being merely of local interest. It’s a disaster which contains serious implications for us all. Relative to the rest of the world it may seem an unimportant affair concerning a small city of 300,000 inhabitants and a few in the sparsely populated Canterbury Plain which abuts its boundaries.. In fact, it is a perfect microcosm of what all countries within the capitalist system as it is organised at the moment, with behemoth private corporations being responsible for solving human and societal concerns, can expect to experience when, as is increasingly likely, they suffer major environmental disasters. For that reason, the Christchurch and Canterbury experience demands close study by both governments and the governed throughout the world. It is also why TTIP, the proposed trade pact between  the EU and the USA, should be opposed at every step, because corporations will be able to sue governments in off-shore courts outside national jurisdiction for actions which they see as harming their interests - in which case we've got no chance. TTIP is still not law, so make your voices heard in the swelling protest movement. Sadly, I'm not aware of any opposition political party in Britain which has spoken out against it. In fact, nobody at the top seems to mention it at all. Dereliction? Perhaps they are all in it together.

I speak as an observer, not a participant. However, though I am British, my wife is a New Zealander who has earthquake-damaged property in Christchurch and an insurance claim which is still not settled after five years. This means I have watched this tortuous process at close hand and been appalled by the distress, strain, anger, doubt and grief which scores of thousands of Cantabrians have suffered as they struggle for satisfactory solutions, only to find they are cheated out of their rights and the protection for which they paid, in good faith, their insurance policy premiums.

In her two books, The Christchurch Fiasco and now The Insurance Aftershock, Sarah Miles dissects these processes with a forensic scalpel. She exposes the inescapable fault-line in corporate structure. When there is a matter of public concern, where should the corporations’ first duty lie, to the clients or to the shareholders? She demonstrates clearly that corporations have chosen the second course, and also that Government has allowed this to happen. Thus, the insurance companies have reneged on what we innocently thought was the whole reason for their being.

The Christchurch Fiasco chronicles the earlier period in the rebuilding process. The Insurance Aftershock takes this further and mercilessly exposes the faults and weaknesses – yes, and concealment, incompetence and corruption - inherent in the process, ending with devastating conclusions which the rest of the world would do well to take notice of and ask whether it could happen to them.

Well, the answer is clear. Unless we, as citizens of relatively affluent Western societies, change the way we do things, yes it can. And Sarah Miles’s brilliant books, written with the same page-turning clarity and passion of writers like Naomi Klein, give a clear blueprint for what these changes need to be.

This is not a political book. It is a survey of a flawed system in operation and, inevitably, some elements refer to positions on the political spectrum. However, surely all persons of goodwill must say as they read it, ‘Things have to be better than this.’

A sinister footnote. We bought the first book, The Christchurch Fiasco, quite by accident, never having heard about it before. There were a few copies lurking on a shelf fronted by glossy guide books in the city tourist centre. There's good reason to believe that the book was actually suppressed from above. I tried to buy more copies in several Christchurch bookshops but it never seemed to be in stock. I wrote a letter to the Christchurch Press about what seemed to me to be a strange situation, that a book highly relevant to an urgent situation seemed almost unobtainable. I was told by several people that they wouldn't publish my letter. And that was dead right - I did not trouble the correspondence columns. Then the original publisher of Fiasco declined to publish The Insurance Aftershock, which is why it only exists at the moment as an ebook. I was amazed by the number of people who didn't know about the first book - including a friend, a retired senior librarian from the Christchurch Central Library, who you would expect to be aware of what went on.

I'll say nothing about arm-twisting, but such occurrences do give pause for thought. Democracy is a fragile plant at the best of times.

You can find more about Sarah Miles, her regular blogs and the many searing comments she receives  from angry people at:              

The Insurance Aftershock is available as an ebook on Kindle and other platforms.

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