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Christchurch people will be saying a quiet prayer of gratitude today on the second anniversary of the devastating February 22, 2011, earthquakes.
They will be thanking Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee for the tender loving care he has bestowed upon us and for which we are very very grateful.
Just the other day I asked my old St Bede’s school mate to dispel the rumours that he has been called to take the top job in Rome.
He assuaged my fears, albeit he may have to reconsider if the position remains vacant.
Gerry longs to share more of our daily tribulations in Christchurch, battling traffic to get to work through daily changing routes as roads are continuously dug up.
But his higher calling in Wellington reassures us as that he looks after our interests at the top round table of the land.
When in town, Gerry reveals to media the amazing post-quake progress with his baffling grasp of statistics – billions already spent, enough new pipes to encircle the planet three times.
These media tours are cleverly timed to help take our minds off more troubling events – usually a couple of days before Education Minister’s Hekia Parata’s restructuring bombshells.
The out-of-town media go away armed with photos and sound bites that flood the papers and airwaves with good and positive news in ensuing days.
It is inconceivable that central government education reformers have used the opportunity of the earthquakes to dish out a prescription destined for other communities around the country.
Some of these decisions may seem irrational and inefficient but we know that wiser heads and steady hands are at the helm.
Starting to move
And it’s true that things are starting to move here.
Just last week some drilling operators came around to my house and sprayed paint marks over the front lawn. A council bloke did the same on the munted footpath four weeks ago.
As Gerry says – the city is like a “coiled spring” waiting to release its energy.
I’m an optimistic sort. Last weekend was a beauty.
The weather perfect as I sailed a warm easterly wind out to Godley Heads at the entrance of Lyttelton Harbour to look at the tonnes of rubble that came down two years ago. The day before we went to north Canterbury and swam in the clear waters of a still unpolluted river under a hot nor’wester. Canterbury is a great place.
But only a blind man could ignore some of the wee problems that are becoming increasingly apparent – the central city, for example.
It’s wrong to claim the central city is a total wasteland. Only part of it is – the part that’s under the control of the dead hand of bureaucracy known as the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority and its inflexible Christchurch Central Development Unit.
The precincts around the art gallery and arts centre are buzzing, underpinned by the hordes that stream in and out of the city council offices each day.
Over the road in the CERA nerve centre, its chief executive, Roger Sutton, keeps an eye on his counterparts, wistfully contemplating his liberating bike ride home. His demeanour with his boss in public is reminiscent of Frodo with Sam, who only occasionally gets to carry the ring that binds them all.
Stroke of luck
It was a stroke of luck that he inherited the city council’s Share An Idea that CERA boffins were able to reshape and refashion into an architect’s dream bearing little resemblance to the modest vision of the original.
Of course, there would have to be sacrifices – the central city would have to be destroyed to save it.
Remaining businesses and heritage buildings clutter the blank canvas. Why fix the Centennial Pool at minimal cost when a multimillion dollar Metro Sport centre is just a few years away.
The renewal must be new, big and expensive.
There are some sounds of mutiny. Not least from one of the city’s pre-eminent lawyers, Margo Perpick of Wynn Williams, who argues that CERA’s land banking designed to reduce the size of the central business district is also designed to artificially jack up land prices.
This is chasing businesses away from the city into long leases in new commercial buildings under construction on Victoria St and Lincoln Rd on the central city fringe. Her report can be viewed on the Wynn Williams web site.
Nor is the matter settled. At least one group is challenging the CERA “frame” in the Supreme Court, arguing that it goes far beyond the minister’s recovery powers.
All this is also causing headaches for the city council and ratepayers, resentful at central government criticism of mayor Bob Parker. He may be a clown, but he’s our clown. And he resides here, unlike the apparatchiks who arrive on Tuesday and leave late Thursday.
Some of them are achievers. Dame Margaret Bazley and offsider David Caygill have scored milestones as the government’s hired commissioners who accepted healthy stipends to replace democratically elected members at the regional council in 2010.
As far as the vast majority of Cantabrians are concerned, Environment Canterbury has ceased to exist. Pre-2011, regional issues about water and land resources were well reported and fiercely debated in local media.
Nowadays, Environment Canterbury meetings are now held on the outskirts of town, anything of interest in the agenda is “public excluded”, there are few if any presentations from interest groups. Its secretive work mainly involves advancing irrigation interests with selected zone committee members who hold meetings in small towns out of the purview of Christchurch folks.
Because the commissioners understand the outcome they are required to deliver, there is no time-wasting debate at the hasty monthly meetings – a victory for efficiency over cumbersome democracy.
When government wants something done it lets the commissioners know. They advertise it and the matter goes through the statutory processes. The commissioners then request the minister to ratify the decision – this is how the Water Conservation Order on the Rakaia was recently modified.
One disturbing thing about Christchurch’s plight is the ability of leaders to pit group against each other. It was apparent in the delight that some schools had at their reprieve, while colleagues at others contemplate closure.
Media shock jocks like to scratch the scabs that irritate the intelligentsia on radio talkback. Michael Laws, for one, climbed new heights the other day.
Perhaps he stabbed himself in the eye that morning with his eye liner pencil.
When listening to him I was reminded of a fictional Victorian hero called Harry Flashman, who features in a series written by the late George Macdonald Fraser, an ex-army man.
Flashman often muses on the jingoists and warmongers who made the Empire great but who never experience the fear and blood and guts of the battlefield, and lack the imagination to comprehend it. Even on the battle front they are the ones urging others into the path of enemy cannon and steel.
Their enlightenment only comes as the shot sears through their own bellies.
How nice it would be to transport Michael Laws to Christchurch circa February 2011, watch him struggle down to the back garden every morning with a spade, seek out water bottles from an army outpost, battle across town to the supermarkets still operating in the west to buy batteries, spend days digging liquefaction from his property.
And how he’d enjoy helping his elderly neighbours empty their chemical toilets into the street side collection tanks. He wouldn’t complain – that would just be whingeing.
Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee (left) with CERA chief executive Roger Sutton
A recent city demonstration for democracy is fronted (from left) by the Rev Mike Coleman, sculptor, poet and Hurunui environmental activist Sam Mahon and the Wizard, who recently turned 80 and needs the staff for support
Sam Mahon, son of Erebus judge Justice Mahon, speaks to supporters at the rally
The impressive new cardboard Anglican Cathedral slowly takes shape
The city is like a “coiled spring” waiting to release its energy
The old Anglican Cathedral that no one knows what to do with
The foundations of a new central city building
Arsonists have never been busier in Christchurch. The house behind us went up recently.
Gerry Brownlee at a foundation pour
And we still have time for reflection...