Earthquakes, lives saved, and the OIA

I’ve posted a couple of times (here and here) on a “blunder of our government”; the plans and legislation to impose earthquake-strengthening requirements on many building owners, with seemingly little regard for any sort of robust cost-benefit analysis.  A sense, following the Canterbury earthquakes, that “something must be done”, plus perhaps some lobbying from vested interests, is the only way I can account for even the latest modified proposals.

This isn’t really my area, but I have great deal of time for my former RB colleague Ian Harrison who has led a lot of the thinking critiquing the government’s proposals.    EBSS (“working towards a rational seismic strengthening policy”) has been trying to use the Official Information Act to better understand the analysis and reasoning behind the government’s proposals, and its claims regarding the costs and benefits.    Their website is worth keeping an eye on from time to time, and they have a new post up about their latest request to MBIE.   I suspect they won’t mind if I reproduce it here.

The classic schoolboy excuse for failing to hand in homework looks credible compared to the excuse that MBIE has made for not provided us with documents requested under the Official Information Act.

In our analysis (the Minister’s new clothes) of the new seismic strengthening policies announced in The Building Minister’s speech in May we pointed out some ‘schoolboy’ errors  and suggested that there might be more.

The Minister said that the policies would save 330 lives over the next 100 years, but when MBIE last did the analysis in 2012 only 24 lives would be saved. We were also told that the whole strengthening exercise would cost only $770 million when the Tailrisk Economics analysis suggests that the true cost could be 10 times that amount.  The differences are critical to an understanding of the merits of the new policy.

To get to the bottom of the evidence on balance of the costs and benefits we asked for the following documents:

All documents relating to the following information presented in the Minister of Building and Housing’s speech on 10 May 2015 on the Government’s new seismic strengthening policies

(a)

  • The estimate of lives saved by the policy
  • The cost of the policy
  • The difference in risk between buildings near the 34% threshold and those with lower %NBS
  • The relative risk of dying in a car accident compared to dying in an earthquake

(b)   All documents relating to seismic strengthening policy for the period 1 April 2014  to 9 May 2015

Our requests were refused (past the statutory deadline for making information available) under section 18(c)(ii) of the Act, “as the making available of the information requested would constitute contempt of Court or the House of Representatives.” The rationale was that the Earthquake Prone Building Amendment Bill is currently before the Select Committee and that “all of the Committees’ ‘other proceedings’, including advice MBIE has provided to the Committee, are strictly confidential to the Committee”.

What MBIE seems to be saying here is that every document relating to seismic strengthening that has been produced by MBIE over more than a year have been provided to the Select Committee.

MBIE’s apparent claim is not plausible.   While MBIE might be entitled to withhold the advice they have specifically provided to the Select Committee there is no justification for a blanket refusal to provide the requested documents.

We suspect that what is really going on is that the Minister really hasn’t done his homework on the costs and benefits of his new policies and that MBIE is trying to cover it up.  On the 330 deaths there must be a strong suspicion that there has been a blunder or the evidence was engineered..

The material under (a) in particular seems like the sort of stuff that, in a genuinely open government, would have been pro-actively released a long time ago

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