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Democracy need reform - Australia, China and USA: A Tale of 3 Natural Disasters

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This month mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, USA (29 August 2005), This remind me the 2nd anniversary of the Earthquake in Sichuan, China (12 May 2008) three month ago and the 1st anniversary of the Black Saturday (Bush fire) in Victoria, earlier this year in Australia (7 February 2009).

 

The similarity of these 3 events is that they are natural disasters with many deaths and many more left homeless. However, for those who lost their home in such a large scale natural disasters, which government do you think do more and care more for their citizens in need? The so-called “autocratic” regime in Beijing, China or the so-called “democratic” and “human right” governments in USA and Australia?

 

The scale of damage to property and the human cost in the 3 natural disasters:

 

- Australia: Black Saturday (Bush fire) in Victoria 2009:

 

The fires killed 173 people, injured 414 with 7,562 people displaced. The list of damage to property are as follows:

 

· 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt

· Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including 2,029+ houses, 59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc), 12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station), 399 machinery sheds, 729 other farm buildings, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds.

 

To learn more: Wikipedia.

 

USA: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 2005

 

The flood killed 1,464 people, and an approximately 200,000 people were evacuated from the Gulf Coast Region to Texas, Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Of the more than 400,000 residents who lived in New Orleans prior to Katrina, approximately 350,000 lived in areas that were damaged by the storm.

 

Again, please click on Wikipedia, and  Amnesty International to learn more.

 

- China: Sichuan earthquake in 2008:

 

Approximately 15 million people lived in the quake affected area.  More than 90,000 people in total were dead or missing in the earthquake and 374,176 injured. The quake left at least 5 million people without housing. The area affected by earthquakes exceeding liedu VI totals 440,442 km2, occupying an oval 936 km long and 596 km wide, spanning three provinces and one autonomous region.

 

Again, to learn more, click on Wikipedia

 

Which governments do you think do more and care more for their citizens in need?

 

- Australia government

 

Out of the above three named natural disasters, Australia suffered the least in term of the scale and human cost of the disaster. Besides damages to a total of 3,500 structures including 2,029 + houses, the basic infrastructure such as road and other transport system were fully in tact. However, at the first anniversary of the disaster, let’s examine the governments performance during and after the disaster:

 

The disaster begin on 7 Feb 2009, the then Prime Minister ‘Rudd activates disaster plan’ (Brisbane Time, 9 Feb 2009) and announced a “$10 million in federal and Victorian government funds to help victims and emergency workers.”

 

Two days later, Mr Rudd told Parliament: "Hear this from the Government and the Parliament of the nation. Together we will rebuild each of these communities — brick by brick, school by school, community hall by community hall." (Brisbane Time, 11 Feb 2009 - ‘We'll rebuild: Rudd’)

 

However, he then begin to play politics with the well being of the disaster victims by “linking government relief for Victoria's bushfire victims to its $42 billion economic stimulus package,” (Canberra Times, 11 Feb 2009 - ‘Opposition blasts bushfire, stimulus 'link'‘)

 

Our media begin to compare Australia handling of the Victoria’s Bushfires with the American during the Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This is how the contributing editor of the Age, Russell Skelton wrote: “Where the Bush administration dithered for 48 hours after hurricane Katrina, leaving the flooded city of New Orleans without help, in Victoria, government and non-government agencies such as the Red Cross were on the ground from first light. Within days a reconstruction authority was set up along with a royal commission.” (The Age, 31 March 2009 - Out of the fire)

 

As usual in this country, the words of the politicians always sound louder than action. The actual outcome to the victims of the fires was: ‘Australia, Survivors of Victorian bushfires receive minimal compensation’ (wsws.org, 28 April 2009). One should note that: “More than 2020 homes were destroyed in the “Black Saturday” fires; 700 or just under a third of these had no insurance. Nevertheless, Victorian fire survivors have only received token government support. Small farmers unable to prove that over 51 percent of their income is derived from their properties will receive nothing from the official public bushfire appeal fund.”

 

Despite the fact that: “Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby has granted a one-off $50,000 grant for owner-occupiers whose homes were destroyed and the possibility of an additional $40,000 for some victims, subject to government approval” The arrangement was : “according to the premier, $35,000 of this amount can be used for building expenses and the remaining $15,000 for restoration of home contents. Those with homes partially destroyed by the fires and those who were renting will receive $15,000. The state government is charging survivors who have been forced into temporary accommodation a “maintenance” fee of up to $100 per week “.

 

The reality was: “These paltry grants will not even cover the cost of repairs, let alone fully replace homes and contents. They amount to a fraction of the cost of a home in the fire affected areas.” (Full report by wsws.org)

 

14 months on, our Reconstruction Authority which was set up within days of the bush fire seems to have done a “great” job? Frankly speaking, as someone who read dozen of Australian Newspapers every day, I have no idea what our “Reconstruction Authority” done so far for the bushfire victims? This was how the Herald Sun reported on the 4 April 2010 (without mentioning the Reconstruction Authority) - ‘Slow and steady but no promise of winning race’. The reality on the ground after one year are:

 

HUNDREDS of people in the worst-affected zones are committing to rebuild after Black Saturday,But progress is patchy in some areas, and statistics reinforce that it will be many years before the destruction is close to being repaired.”

 

“Just under 300 rebuilding permits have been issued for houses, sheds and commercial properties in Marysville and the surrounding triangle,” Locals believe as few as 50 houses are actually being rebuilt in Marysville while many permits are probably for sheds.”

 

“In the Kinglake Ranges, taking in Kinglake, Pheasant Creek and Toolangi, 361 building permits have been sought. There were 505 properties destroyed there on February 7.” and again: “There were 117 permits sought for Flowerdale and its sister hamlet, Hazeldene, compared with the 225 properties destroyed.”

 

The progress for reconstruction has been very slow, part of the reason mentioned by Herald Sun report was: “with the rebuilding process arduous for many - particularly those who lost family or can't decide whether to face the risk of any disaster.”

 

However, I believe that among those 700 who were not insured, there must be people who do not have the financial ability to rebuilt but not mentioned by the media. The major reason for the “slow in progress” is actually due to bureaucratic red tape. I read a report about this aspect of the delay in building approval few months back, but unable to find back the link. However, one of the NSW’s local council has this statement in their website under the title: Rebuilding after a bush fire pointing out that: “When bushfire events do occur, Council’s ability to help in terms of the approval process is limited because State planning and building laws continue to apply as they would in normal circumstances, and Council is not at liberty to alter or ignore them.”

 

15 months on, a Royal Commission of Inquiry set up more than a year ago to investigate into the Victoria’s Bush Fire has the following finding:

 

The tragically high death toll was caused by grossly inadequate emergency services, lack of fire warnings and the absence of any centralised evacuation plan.” The individual homeowners were left to decide by themselves whether they should “stay or go”. (WSWS, 28 May 2009 - ‘Australian bushfire royal commission: Survivors expose “stay or go” policy’)

 

The enquiry also find that: “None of those in command showed any real leadership” (News Limited, 28 May 2010 - ‘Black Saturday - Leaders faltered as Victoria burned’). The situation were:

 

“VICTORIA'S police minister and the state's three most senior police officers were all absent from the emergency nerve centre when most of the deaths occurred on Black Saturday” (Herald Sun,  7 May 2010).

 

The uncoordinated and chaotic division of responsibilities and functions of senior police and emergency services leadership points to the negligence of the state government of Premier John Brumby. It made no serious attempt to establish clear lines of command and communication inside the IECC prior to the devastating fires.” (WSWS, 17 May 2010 - ‘Australia: Government culpability in 2009 Victorian bushfires’)

 

As for the Federal Government, beside making some grand statements and posting for photo opportunities with the media at the beginning of the Bushfires and on its anniversary seems to disappear from the radar screen throughout the very slow rebuilding process. At the anniversary this year, the state government of Victoria was left alone to defend the delays in rebuilding including the rebuilding of schools in the bushfire-hit towns of Marysville and Strathewen (Herald Sun, 7 Feb 2010 - ‘Brumby defends bushfire rebuilding delays)

 

- US government

 

Comparing to the Bush administration, Australian media did has the right to feel good about ourselves.

 

President Bush has been warned on the eve of Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans' flood defences could be overcome” and “the risk to evacuees in the Superdome. However, “Mr Bush does not ask any questions as the situation is outlined to him.” (BBC, 2 March 2006 - ‘Video shows Bush Katrina warning’) That is, no action being taken by the President to do anything to the anticipated disaster.

 

During the disaster, a well research website in the US with links to its sources showing photos of the President enjoying himself - “playing Guitar While New Orleans Drowned”.

 

The research also show that: “Vice President Dick Cheney continued to enjoy his vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the whole debacle,” while “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bought $3000 worth of shoes at the exclusive NYC boutique Ferragamo.”

 

“Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert called for the bulldozing of New Orleans, saying that it didn't make sense to spend the money to rebuild the city; he also initially refused to call a special session of Congress to appropriate emergency relief funds for the Gulf Coast, saying that FEMA was handling the situation perfectly well. Hastert capitulated to pressure from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to allow the vote, then tried to take credit for the funding.”

 

At the 4th anniversary of the disaster last year, reality on the ground of New Orleans indicated that, not much being done by the US government to rebuilt the flood affected areas. Amnesty International released a report with title: ‘The Facts: The Right to Return—Rebuilding the Gulf through the Framework of  International Human Right.’ indicated that:

 

Despite the passage of almost four years, thousands of those internally displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina who want to return to New Orleans are unable to do so.”

 

“More than 14,000 families living in metropolitan New Orleans are still receiving Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) vouchers which help them pay rent. These vouchers come with an expiration date, which was recently changed from March 2009 to September 2009. Only approximately 7,500 of these families may be eligible for Housing Choice vouchers, which gives them access to Section 8 housing. Once the DHAP vouchers expire, the remaining families face potential homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) acknowledges that at least 4,000 of those who do not qualify for Section 8 housing will have difficulty finding affordable housing.”

 

The report further explained the situation: “After Katrina, the federal government placed tens of thousands of families in trailers which were meant to provide temporary shelter. Today, there are approximately 3,400 families still living in trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi, 760 of which are in New Orleans. After being told that they would be evicted if they did not vacate their trailers by May 30, 2009, the trailer residents will now be given the option to purchase their trailers for $5 or less. Many of the FEMA trailers contain levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic toxin, which are 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers. The federal government has indicated that trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde will not be available for purchase. As a result, only 1,160 of the trailers currently being used qualify for purchase by these IDPs. HUD has not yet provided a clear indication of how it will supply the remaining trailers.

 

Here is the full Amnesty International Report in 2009

 

The mainstream cooperate media in US were basically silence on the problem in New Orleans. This is how AlterNet, an independent website reported the situation on 10 September 2009: ‘How Corporate Media Are Washing Away Katrina From America's Mind’.

 

This year, on the March 2010, a blogger by the name of Douglas Brown has this personal account of what he watched first hand in New Orleans: “This week, I drove to New Orleans as part of a Mission Trip to help rebuild homes that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After five years, there are still literally thousands of people who are still homeless or living in trailers that FEMA provided in 2005. Most of these people are people who have little or no income, have lost family, often the main income earner, are elderly, widowed or disabled. There is no funding that these people can get to rebuild. They have nowhere to go, and in the richest nation in the world, the shame we saw when the poor were left behind when Katrina hit is still here, albeit not on National TV, since it is not a current story anymore.

 

For your info, a US federal judge has ruled in November 2009 that the Army Corps of Engineers' failure to properly maintain a navigation channel led to massive flooding in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Brisbane Time, 20 Nov 2010 - ‘Corps' negligence caused Katrina flooding).

 

- China Government

 

Sharp Contrary to the performance of the Australia and US’s governments during a major natural disaster, Chinese leadership responded to the 2008 earthquake in a professional manner characterise by its high efficiency and comprehensiveness:

 

The military formed the key elements in the rescue process and its response to the earthquake was rapid with “the first Chinese military rescue team reportedly headed for the disaster area within 14 minutes after the strong earthquake began” (Hoover Institute Research: China Leadership Monitor - 2008 No 25 - ‘The Chinese Military’s Earthquake Response Leadership Team’).

 

The research also find that within days, “China’s armed forces dispatched more than 100,000 soldiers and armed police to help with rescue operations in earthquake-hit areas, dividing their units into three geographical rescue zones.”

 

Military transport aircraft and helicopters had made 1,069 flights during the first week of operations, supplemented by 92 military trains and about 110,000 military vehicles, cranes, rubber boats, portable communication devices, and power generators. The military units had pulled 21,566 people both dead and alive from the debris, treated 34,051 injured people and transferred 205,370 people to safety”.

 

115 medical teams were sent to the disaster zone, and quilts, food, medicine, and tents weighing 780,000 tons were distributed. The armed forces also airdropped 307 tons of relief supplies and repaired 557 kilometers of damaged roads.”

 

There are 9 working groups involved in the rescue mission: “Emergency Management and Relief Provision Group, Masses’ Livelihood Group, Seismic Monitoring Group, Sanitation and Epidemic Prevention Group, Propaganda Group, Production Restoration Group, Safeguarding Infrastructure and Post-Disaster Reconstruction Group, Water Resources Group, and the Public Order Group.”

 

The Time (14 May 2008 - ‘China Races to Save Quake Victims’) also has this account of the military involvement in the rescue mission: “On the streets of Dujiangyan the rescue troops are ubiquitous. Military vehicles are lined up, and People's Armed Police and People's Liberation Army soldiers, kitted out in crisp, matching green camouflage, are battling rain and rubble as they try to reach trapped survivors and control emotional crowds.”

 

The response from the top leadership in Beijing were also sweep and decisive. This is how Wikipedia described the rescue effort: “President Hu Jintao announced that the disaster response would be rapid. Just 90 minutes after the earthquake, Premier Wen Jiabao, who has an academic background in geomechanics, flew to the earthquake area to oversee the rescue work. Soon afterward, China's Health Ministry said that it had sent ten emergency medical teams to Wenchuan County in southwest China's Sichuan Province. On the same day, China's Chengdu Military Area Command dispatched 50,000 troops and armed police to help with disaster relief work in Wenchuan County.”

 

Not long after the quake, the Chinese government begin to announce an eight-year reconstruction plan, which targets 2008-2010 for immediate recovery and 2011-2015 for long-term economic reconstruction. (International labour Organisation, 12 Oct 2009)

 

Within 16 months of the massive earthquake, Premier Wen Jiabao already re-visited the quake zone 8 times (This is the report of his 8th visit by the Hong Kong’s media, Ifeng news, 27 Sept 2009 in Chinese language).

 

A year later, China government released a report in regards to the progress of the rebuilding effort covering a wide range of issues and statistics including the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and residential building; the variety of assistance  given to the farmer who lost their land, people who lost their home, old people who lost their children, children who lost their parents and people who became handicap; and the issue with employment, etc. (Detail in Ifeng News in Chinese language, 7 May 2009).

 

The Time’s journalist, Austin Ramzy has a personal account of the quake zone after 6 months as follows (The Time, 19 January 2010) :

 

I went back to Sichuan six months after the catastrophe and was amazed at the speed of physical and economic recovery. In Dujiangyan, the largest city in the quake zone, the rubble and tent cities had disappeared. The jumble of debris was replaced by piles of new bricks, lumber and other construction materials. There was a building boom across the region, and dozens of temporary villages were erected to house the 5 million people who were rendered homeless by the quake. The prefab housing was made out of blue aluminum siding lined with Styrofoam insulation. It had concrete floors and was arranged in neat rows in flat spots at the bases of the mountains. Conditions weren't luxurious, but the camps were clean and the housing dry and fairly warm.”

 

“I found no evidence of homelessness, though there were reports of people in the mountains who refused to spend their rebuilding funds and chose to remain in tents.”

 

“In 2008 the government said it would spend $176 billion on reconstruction by 2011. (The total recovery cost is estimated at $250 billion.) As of last June it had already spent more than $50 billion. Some of the expenses have been shouldered by other parts of China. Twenty provinces have set aside 1% of fiscal revenues for two years to help rebuild Sichuan.”

 

In fact, the kind of care the Chinese government extended to its citizens in needs has gone beyond financial aids and the reconstruction of buildings and infrastructures, their care for the people has extended to areas such as: “paid for group weddings and plan to hold a matchmaking fair.” (The Guardian, 11 May 2009 - A year on from the Chinese earthquake, love flourishes amid ruins of Sichuan)

 

In fact, the center of the quake begin from a village where the Tibetan’s live, and what the Australian media did not tell us is how China assist their minority to rebuilt their live. I will have a special article on this issue at an appropriate time with title: “Minority Policy—China Vs. Australia”.

 

Purpose of this article

 

The purpose of writing this article is to use actual examples of how the three governments (US, Australia and China) handled a major natural disaster to demonstrate one fundamental truth: That is, the world has yet to find a perfect political system. All form of government has its strength and weaknesses. For the sake of humanity, countries should learn from each other successful experience to improve on oneself.

 

Unfortunately, in Australia, despite the fact that we have daily news about China, our media not only failed to tell the Australian public the massive human right achievement China made to the more than 5 million people who lost their home in the 2008 Earthquake, some in our media industry systematically running smear campaign with invented stories to demonise China. For those who are interested to find out how? Click on this story: How the Australia Press Council protected media that violated it own written principles?

 

Conclusion: Democracy Needs Reform

 

Theoretically, democracy is supposed to bring about caring leaderships with the assumption of “from the people, by the people and for the people”. In practices, this may not be the case as the above 3 examples already demonstrated. Why?

 

Have we become complacent and obsessed with Winston Churchill assessment of democracy in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

 

Is there any room for improvement? For examples, I believe it is fair for one to ask the following questions:

 

1) Has our current form of democratic process produce leaders with the right attitude, mindset and ability to care for the people in needs?

2) If not, what should we do to overcome those system deficiency?

3) Will it be a good idea to introduce the element of socialist philosophy into our democratic process? How?

4) Should we regards the inability of a government to care for their citizens in need a human right issue?

 

The 2009 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report rank China 98 (USD3,678) out of 180 countries based on its per capital GDP,  Australia rank 11 (USD45,587) and USA 9 (USD46,381). However, why China out perform the two much richer countries in term of caring for their citizens in need?

 

If democracy is define as government ‘listening and caring for their citizens in need’, I believe, China has no doubt achieve such goal. How?

 

I will continue to write a series of articles using the heading ‘Democracy Needs Reform’ before moving into the area of analysing the solutions. Unfortunately, I was banned by the Australian Media as an accredited Journalist from enjoying my membership due to my political view, so I reckon, most Australians would have to be happy with the Age contributing editor assessment that: “Australia is better than USA.”

 

However, my up coming article, ‘Democracy Needs Reform—Australia Voters Facing a Basket of Rotten Apples’ may provide some insight into why both Australia and US’s governments failed to care for their people in needs during the Bush Fires in Victoria and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

 

Written on 2 Aug 2010

 

You may leave your comment on either of the following websites:

 

Independent Media Centre or China Blog

 

 

Related Articles

 

Democracy needs reform—The cruelty of poll driven politics (28 June 2010)

Democracy Needs Reform - The frustration of Australian voters (21 Aug 2010)

 

 

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