Prime Minister Chris Hipkins; Dave Gawn, CEO of the National Emergency Management Agency at last night's press conferenceand Keiran McAnulty, Emergency Management Minister.

The cleanup after Cyclone Gabrielle will hopefully be in hand by the time of the election, but it is likely to leave a long shadow over our politics.

There are immediate questions, particularly what the cyclone tells us about climate change.

There are questions about planning, about where houses and buildings should be placed.

There is a real issue for the forest industry, which the Prime Minister appears to have already made up his mind about.

And there will be questions about how the cleanup bill will be paid, particularly the need to restore roads and bridges.

Parliament yesterday had a brief debate on the cyclone, with National Emergency Response spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, offering the Government his support.

“I simply say to the Minister (Kieran McAnulty), thank you for your engagement and thank you for the work that you’re doing,”

Brownlee did indicate that he believed there would be a debate about the cyclone and the response eventually.

But that time was not now.

“There are many questions that could be asked in the usual exchange that occurs when a ministerial statement is made, but it seems to me that while we’re in the middle of that emergency, such questions are going to only detract from the necessity to focus on the best interests of those people who are most affected.,” he said.


National’s leader, Christopher Luxon, was also supportive of the Government’s efforts so far, and he told journalists that there was no doubt that climate change had played a big part in the extent of the flooding and damage.

And he said he wanted to work with the Government on addressing climate change.

“As a result, there is a bigger conversation to have in the coming months and years,” he said.

“There needs to be a multi-decade effort to think about how we build climate adaptation into our infrastructure.”

But the use of the word “adaptation” in the climate change debate relates only to dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Addressing the causes is called “mitigation”, and Luxon carefully avoided using that word.

National’s willingness to support measures taken under the Zero Carbon legislation is unclear.

It will be tested later this year when the Government announces its final decision on sheep and cattle emission pricing.

But Climate Change Minister James Shaw yesterday made it clear he believes climate change was behind Cyclone Gabrielle.

“I have to say that, as I stand here today, I struggle to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling about this particular crisis,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt as sad or as angry about the lost decades that we spent bickering and arguing about whether climate change was real or not, whether it was caused by humans or not, whether it was bad or not, whether we should do something about it or not, because it is clearly here now, and if we do not act, it will get worse.”

Shaw may well see the cyclone as a mandate to push harder on climate change.

Undoubtedly climate change will feature in the eventual inquiry into the cyclone, which Emergency management Minister Kieran McAnulty committed to yesterday.

“There is always a review of each response, no matter the size,” he said.

“There are always lessons to be learned.”

If National has not quite settled its position on climate change, it has certainly not settled it on housing intensification.

Questions about intensification and the pressure it has placed on infrastructure are likely to be increasingly asked over the coming weeks.

At the Select Committee looking at the National and Built Environment Bill last week, the party’s new Resource Management spokesperson, Chris Bishop, scoffed at one submitter who argued for some controls on housing sprawl.

Bishop told a submitter, Lisa Mein and the co-chair of the Urban Design Forum that trying to constrain housing development was the reason for high house prices.

“Making regional plans or councils provide enough land so that land prices don’t skyrocket inside that line that you draw around a city has been the cause of the exponential growth in land prices and thus house prices over the last 30 years,” he said.

Mein: “But we also need to think about the impacts in relation to high-quality soils for food production and the appropriateness of locations for residential development (Bishop: come on!) in light of climate change.”

Bishop: “Four thousand children live in motels in this country. We’re really going to prioritize farmland on the edges of cities over the housing crisis in this country. Seriously, is that what you’re saying?”

Bishop is a strong advocate of an amendment to the Resource Management Act supported by both National and Labour, which effectively allows the construction of three-storey, three-unit townhouses anywhere in a city without a resource consent.

ACT Leader David Seymour yesterday said that in Auckland though the rains were intense, many parts of the city were just fine.

“Other parts were not, and stormwater infrastructure made the difference,” he said.

“Places first developed in the early 1900s, with large areas of grass, are more vulnerable now,” he said.

“The grass is gone, and more roofs and downpipes feed into the same old drains, spelling disaster.

Seymour said the Auckland Unitary Plan already allowed for an additional 900,000 houses.

“With the Auckland Unitary Plan, Auckland Council rightly focused on getting intensification done along corridors and town centres,” he said.

“The logic was it would be easier to service new development with the pipes, roads and buses required by targeting specific places.

“The Labour-National three-by-three deal takes away that ability. It basically says intensification can happen anywhere, and if the pipes aren’t ready, well, they’ve never really explained what happens then.”

But National MP Gerry Brownlee, who has made it clear he opposes the so-called “three by three” housing intensification plan, has said the National caucus is now having a discussion about it.

That may itself intensify as a consequence of Gabrielle.

One question which almost has an answer is about forestry “slash”; the trunks and branches left behind after a forest has been harvested,

The slash blocks the passage of water to water courses and exacerbates flooding.

McAnulty conceded that yesterday in Parliament.

“There’s no doubt that forestry slash is causing an unwelcome and unneeded additional element to the weather event—particularly in Tai Rāwhiti, but not exclusively there,” he said.

“I have not received a report specifically about that from Emergency Management other than the impact that it is causing.

“However, I have discussed the matter with the Minister of Forestry, and I understand that he has made public statements indicating his likely work progress moving forward on that, “

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was asked at his press conference last night whether he was going to do something about it.

“Yes, but let’s have that conversation once we’re through the emergency response phase,” he said.

“But I think we absolutely have to acknowledge that this is a significant issue, and it is something people will want to see more action from Government.

“I’ve heard that message.”

The Emergency Management Office will begin over the next few days to try and get an estimate of what Gabrielle might cost.

In 1988 Cyclone Bola directly cost the Government more than $111 million in assistance to those affected and reconstruction work.

That would be $259 million in today’s money, but Gabrielle has covered a much wider area than Bola.

It has caused major damage to major roads (including State Highway 1); bridges have been washed away, and we are yet to get an estimate of livestock deaths and crops lost.

The question will be how much of the bill will go to the Government, which is already having to look for savings in its budget.

The Prime Minister yesterday wasn’t willing to speculate on how big a bill the Government might face.

“It’s really too early to put any kind of exact number on it, and, of course, the insurance sector will pay, and  they’ll certainly play a very big role in meeting some of that and a significant portion of that cost.”

The aftermath of this cyclone could dominate our politics for much of this election year.