National Emergency Management Agency Conference
E ngā kai-hapai i te rama, e ngā ringa raupā, ngā ringa tohau-nui
Nei rā te reo whaka-mīha ki a koutou
Tena koutou katoa
I would like to begin today by acknowledging my colleague and friend Kiritapu Allan, who is unable to join us for this event.
There are a lot of factors to consider when you choose someone to take on a portfolio like Emergency Management – their temperament in a crisis, connection to people and community, and of course, their ability to spur into action no matter what time of day or night it is.
In her time as Minister for Emergency Management, Kiritapu proved what I already knew – she is incredibly determined, and carries a huge sense of responsibility in all she does.
When severe weather and floods hit Napier, she was there; not just looking at damage, but literally moving it as she joined the clean-up.
In March as we were threatened with a possible tsunami, and the biggest evacuation in New Zealand’s history, she was there, alongside many of you, communicating a plan clearly and concisely - all the while dealing with her own health issues.
I know I join many of you as we wish Minister Allan well, and as we look forward to her return.
Today, I have been given a rather ominous topic to speak to you all on - leading in a crisis.
It also feels a little unfair to be asked to comment on something you are all already doing on a rather more frequent basis than any of us would like.
But I am never one to ignore an instruction, so bear with me as I share a few thoughts on this weighty subject matter, and while I draw on what is a worryingly rich catalogue of examples; it has not been a quiet period for New Zealand when it comes to emergencies.
As you know all too well, the last few years have brought earthquakes, floods, drought, wildfires, terrorist and cyber-attacks, a pandemic, a tsunami and a volcanic eruption, to name a few - many unprecedented in their scale.
I want to begin by saying that being in a leadership role during events such as these is a privilege. And I know you’ll feel the same.
When people are scared, panicked, confused or unsure, they will necessarily look to whoever holds a position of responsibility for both answers and reassurance.
And I take that responsibility very seriously.
But my very first observation of what is important in these moments, came long before my time in Parliament.
My father was a policeman.
Over the course of his 40 year career I watched him in many different scenarios, including 14 years as a detective in the CIB. Even in the most harrowing situation, he always had a concise and yet calm way of working through a situation.
Perhaps it was growing up in a police family that gave cause for me to one day pick up a university assignment that involved me observing a 111 call centre.
I spent hours there, sitting and listening as operators took call after call with people in the most difficult of circumstances.
I cannot tell you especially what I did with the assigned work I had for that paper – all of can tell you was that I remember how those operators made people feel.
They listened. They understood what the person on the other end of the phone needed from them in that moment.
They were calm and considered, but also had the exact sense of urgency that the circumstances required.
I hadn’t thought much about those hours in that call centre till recently, when I found myself observing countless frontline staff facing similar trauma and emergencies, and watched them take that very same approach - calm, considered, empathetic.
And embedded amongst that communication is a really key element- information.
In a crisis, people will not only be facing the issue at hand, but the sense of uncertainty that comes with it. Uncertainty is frightening.
And information is a powerful antidote to that fear.
The more information people have about a situation they’re facing, the better equipped they are to respond.
That is not to say that we necessarily have to have all of the information all the time.
In fact, I am a strong believer that managing uncertainty is both about sharing what we know, as much as it is about be open about what we don’t.
Not every message we have to share is easy. They can be hard. And I have certainly been part of situations where the choice lies between giving people hope, or presenting them with the almost certain reality of a situation knowing that it will cause them horrific grief.
It’s an unenviable position. But in the aftermath, I have never had someone say they wish they weren’t told the truth, no matter how hard that might be.
But sometimes the subject matter we’re tasked with sharing isn’t just hard, it’s also extremely complex.
Twelve months ago, genomic sequencing, PCR testing, epidemiological links and alert level frameworks were not part of our day to day conversation.
Now, we can use shorthand in so many of our discussions.
I can still remember the day that we introduced the alert level framework for COVID. There was a lot of nervousness that we were asking New Zealanders to do an extraordinary thing, with entirely new rules, in a very short time frame. But while it wasn’t always perfect, the overall response was remarkable.
I still remember making our original alert level announcement.
Everything moved so quickly. At the beginning of the week we were still talking about a model that had us ‘flattening the curve.’
In just a few days we had modelling that told us that wouldn’t be sufficient, and we would need to use restrictions to save lives.
But how could we communicate the idea that we would need to move in and out of a set of tools that included everything from gathering limits to standing at a certain distance apart from one another?
As it turns out, you do it using the same kind of framework that is already known – water level alerts, or fire hazards.
By Friday we had a draft, by Saturday we shared it with New Zealand, and a few days later we were in total lock down.
I still remember making that announcement and walking from the Beehive to premier house. The streets were dead. It was both eerie and incredible. I will never ever underestimate the power of sharing a problem with the nation, no matter how complex, and people’s ability to use that information to respond. It was both profound and overwhelming.
But this brings me to the third critical lesson that I know you are all really familiar with. In times of crisis, we must reach as many people as we can, as quickly as we can.
The theme of today’s Hui Taumata, 'Building Safe and Resilient Communities: The Future of the Emergency Management System' reflects your commitment, and ours, to an emergency management system that’s geared towards inclusive, community-led responses to natural disasters and health events.
We all work hard on this front, but still more needs to be done to support those disproportionately impacted by emergencies, including Māori, Pacific peoples, our ethnic communities, those for whom English is not their first language, seniors, children and those experiencing socio-economic deprivation, disability, ill health, or social or geographic isolation.
This means recognising that different communities face different, and often disproportionate, exposure to risk.
For rural communities it might be because they’re more isolated.
For migrants, it might be because they face language barriers, or lack the societal connections and support networks that many of us take for granted.
For people with disabilities, it might be that they lack the mobility to evacuate, or access to information.
I believe these considerations have formed part of your discussions so far, and I look forward to hearing the outcome of those.
For all of this, if you were to look for a silver lining of crises, it is their galvanising effect.
Emergencies test our capacity and capability, but also push us to go further (and stay awake for many hours more) than we may have thought possible.
A crisis enables action and innovation that we often struggle to match in “normal times”.
Look for example at how we all but eliminated rough sleeping in New Zealand during lock-down.
Or at the roughly 5 years-worth of technological innovation that occurred in just the first few months of COVID.
But, perhaps most importantly, experience has taught me that crises are moments to reconnect with our values.
Tragedy reminds us to revisit what we stand for, and what motivates us to act as a nation with manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, kotahitanga and with purpose.
I am always proud to be a New Zealander in moments of collective strife.
We are strong, we are smart, we stand together, we are kind.
I can tell you these things make my job, and I am sure your job too, that much easier.
But crisis leadership is not just about what we do today – it’s about how we prepare for tomorrow.
It’s about planning for the next emergency.
I know we are all unflinching in our commitment to learning lessons from past events and embedding a culture of continuous improvement in our emergency management system.
What we have learned from each emergency has led to material change.
One of the emergencies that led to the review of our emergency management system in the first place was the 2017 Port Hills fire.
Two years later, the largest wildfire in New Zealand’s history broke out across Nelson-Tasman. I visited at the time and it was clear that one of the reasons the response to that fire was such a success was because of the lessons learnt from Port Hills, and the subsequent system review.
The response saw superb coordination between agencies, it brought the community along with it, and lifted the integration of iwi into the top tier of the response structure.
And so too must we learn from the other tragedies that have hit our nation hard.
The terrorist attack on the Christchurch mosques on 15 March was the most abhorrent act.
But as much as we find it impossible to fathom how it could happen here, we have a duty to learn from it – and to do all we can to prevent something like it happening again.
That’s why we established a Royal Commission of Inquiry which made 44 recommendations. We have accepted those in principle and are working to implement them, alongside communities and interest groups across New Zealand.
This work will help to strengthen New Zealand’s counter-terrorism efforts and foster a safer, more inclusive society.
But there are lessons to be learned in almost every emergency we face – and one such lesson is that we don’t have to follow a rule book.
We are for instance the first country in the world to attempt to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis from our national herd.
That wasn’t an endeavour we took lightly. I still remember when we first came into office facing the dilemma of how to take this challenge on.
I recall asking for officials for advice on what other countries who had experienced an incursion had done, and how many had attempted to eradicate bovis before. The answer – none.
That wasn’t a reason to walk away from that option, but it was most certainly a reason to build an alliance around it, if indeed that was what we were to attempt. It is one thing to try an untried strategy; it is quite another to do it on your own with no support.
But together with the sector, we agreed that eradication was the option that was best for us, and it was far better to try and fail, than to give in.
We never said it would be easy, and unfortunately this has rung true for some farmers. But what’s important is that we’ve learned from this experience.
Processes have been refined, and farms are moving through the eradication and testing system more quickly.
We have also increased our focus on the human welfare aspect of the eradication effort.
We work with farmers to undertake activity at a time that’s less disruptive to their business and, in many cases, they’re able to keep farming, provided the risk of disease spread is mitigated.
What’s also important is that we leave the biosecurity system stronger than it was. It’s one thing to eradicate M. bovis, but to leave our farmers and farming sector partners with the knowledge and tools to protect their farms from pests and disease has flow-on benefits for us all.
And so far – eradication is on track.
This hasn’t been the only disaster to hit rural New Zealand though.
In March and December 2019 and February 2020, the South Island was hit by our most frequent and damaging emergency - flooding.
During these events we saw the old landfill by the Fox River being exposed as rubbish washed down river and into the sea, and the storage of ouvea premix next to the Mataura River leading to the evacuation of residents.
These issues sternly illustrate how emergency management is much more than just planning for response – it begins with how we plan our communities.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the country, Northland was entering a lengthy period of drought.
The juxtaposition of these events highlighted a real challenge –as the effects of climate change worsen, so will the frequency, complexity and severity of severe events.
We are continually improving, but equally, the goalposts keep moving.
But together, I absolutely believe we have the skills and most importantly, the people, to build resilience and capability as face these challenges.
But, we do need to work hard to make sure we work together as we go. That means building strong partnerships, including with iwi.
Whakaari White Island and March 15 hold many differences as events. But they also had something in common.
Both reinforced for me the valuable role community and iwi play in supporting those impacted.
Currently, I know we are all driving the development of a more contemporary emergency management system.
This year we are pursuing an ambitious regulatory reform programme that will see:
• an overhaul of the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act (the first major overhaul in 19 years);
• a refresh of the National CDEM Plan; and
• the development of a roadmap of actions to give effect to the National Disaster Resilience Strategy.
Just last week in Budget 2021, the Government announced an unprecedented investment of over $46 million into NEMA to support it in its mission to build a safe and resilient Aotearoa.
The funding boost will lift the performance of the emergency management system at the local and national level, and empower communities before, during and after emergencies, which as I mentioned before, is critical.
It will deliver:
- Robust new standards and a new monitoring regime
- A stronger, more professionalised emergency management workforce
- Greater coordination and planning across agencies
- A new and improved National Exercise Programme
- A new national lessons management system to enable continuous improvement
- Targeted initiatives to support disproportionately affected communities, and
- Improved hazard risk management expertise
- And stronger connections to science.
But as Hon Kris Faafoi’s said at yesterday’s Hui ā-motu, it’s time to also enable the valuable role Māori play in emergency management.
I’ve had more than one experience now, of marae and iwi opening their doors and providing rapid response and support when disaster has struck.
When iwi mobilise to extend manaatikanga, they do it not only for Māori but for all people who find themselves in distress.
Following the eruption of Whakaari White Island, local iwi rallied around victims’ families.
Following the March 15 mosque attacks, Ngāi Tahu and local rūnanga Ngāi Tūāhūriri stood alongside the Christchurch Muslim community during their grieving and burial processes.
I received countless messages from those who experienced such support in their time of grief, telling me what a profound difference it made.
During the Tasman Fires, Iwi Liaison Officers coordinated the iwi response at three marae, which were preparing to support evacuees.
After the Kaikoura earthquake, Takahanga Marae served more than 10,000 meals and provided 1,700 care packages to visitors stranded in the earthquake aftermath centres in Kaikoura/Hurunui.
And over the last year we witnessed a similar response from iwi and marae up and down the country to COVID.
We’ve seen great partnerships emerge locally between Māori roopū and local government and central government partners.
Our goal now must be to build those partnerships more reliably across the system. It happens now, but it can and should happen more systematically.
Before I conclude today, I want to share a thought or two on risk, especially given you are all in the business of it.
Risk is the uncertain possibility that something could happen, may happen, probably won’t happen, or, as we recently learned about the Alpine Fault, probably will happen – in our lifetimes.
As Sir Geoffrey Palmer famously said, “Sometimes it does us a power of good to remind ourselves that we live on two volcanic rocks where two tectonic plates meet, in a somewhat lonely stretch of windswept ocean, just above the roaring forties. If you want drama you’ve come to the right place”.
Risk is not new for New Zealand. But that hasn’t stopped us avoiding too much talk about it. That’s understandable, risk can be a daunting conversation, not only because the risks we face are innumerable and often unthinkable, but also because the consequences of those risks can sometimes seem too vague, or too vast, to comprehend.
But I do sense an increased appetite for a national conversation around this.
The 2018 National Disaster Resilience Strategy identifies managing risk as its first pillar.
Knowing our risks is more than just a stocktake of hazards and threats – it’s a comprehensive understanding of where those hazards and threats, their probabilities, and our vulnerabilities intersect.
And while talking about risk can be daunting, it’s also empowering. It helps us plan and prioritise.
It allows us to pinpoint our weaknesses, and identify ways to address them.
This is why we are investing in a strong and agile emergency management system that identifies risks during peacetime, and uses that knowledge to make communities more resilient.
What we all know is that the frequency, duration, complexity and consequences of emergencies in recent years has increased, and our exposure to risk has increased along with it.
This Government is committed to ensuring we have an emergency management system that’s equal to the task.
Together, we are shifting our focus to the top of the cliff rather than repeating a more reactive cycle.
So where do you fit in? What am I asking of you?
In my time as Prime Minister, through the many emergencies and tragedies we have faced, one thing stands out more than anything.
And that’s the value of listening and hearing those effected, and responding to that.
Emergency management is at its best when it acknowledges that emergencies are felt and experienced locally, and are therefore essentially local.
We need to ensure our response is relevant and appropriate, community by community. We need to empower people at a local level.
Listen to each other, listen to your communities, and see yourselves as a single, seamless emergency management system.
Irrespective of who you work for, or what your role is, you are part of a truly collaborative system that spans all of government, and all of New Zealand.
Thank you for knowing that, living those values every day, and being at the frontline of some of New Zealand’s hardest moments. What you do is extraordinary.
Nga mihi nui kia kotou katoa