Christchurch: the political shambles

OPINION

By Friday July 5, 2013, it was clear to Christchurch mayor Bob Parker that the game was up. The drama was played out on TV3's Campbell Live that evening (video).

All his props had gone.

It is not particularly well understood that Bob Parker's abilities begin and end in front of a television camera. Other than being trained as a chemist in his younger years, his time had been spent in the media.

As with most in the media, he has no real world experience and understanding. Journalism is a spectator activity, essentially – reporting on the successes and failures of others.

Understandably, Mr Parker saw his role in the public offices he held as simply a public relations exercise.

Even when it was blindingly obvious to others that things were seriously wrong or out of control, he was oblivious to the significance of these issues. Much of it was beyond his comprehension.

This is how the A and B teams of elected representatives on the Christchurch City Council evolved. The A team supported the Parker / Marryatt regime under all circumstances. With trepidation and in fits and starts, the loose B team occasionally dared to question the decisions of the former.

To suit themselves
None of them had much of a clue and the bureaucrats just played things to suit themselves.

There is little evidence to indicate that council chief executive Tony Marryatt managed much within the organisation itself, other than managing the councillors themselves.

Councillors were left in no doubt that it was not a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Parker / Marryatt regime.

They were also well aware that with their base income as councillors and lucrative directorships, that if they played their cards right, they could be paid (not earn) six-figure incomes. This is well above the roughly $A20,000 stipends their Australian counterparts in the major metros receive – for properly part-time work.

Very few of them would be capable of earning six-figure incomes outside the council.

Consistently, Mr Parker would defend the organisations he represented – being the Banks Peninsula Council, the seriously idiotic Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy (former mayor Garry Moore assisted him in to this role to give him profile for the Christchurch mayoralty), and these past six years, in his tumultuous role as mayor of Christchurch.

Mr Parker saw it very much in terms that if he supported the key bureaucrats in the organisations he represented, they in turn would support him.

He was blind to the failings of his chief executive at Banks Peninsula, Eddie Parker, at the time and Tony Marryatt of the Christchurch council.

The Magazine Bay Marina development debacle was extraordinary. The Central Blueprint is a replay.

One of the great mysteries

Quite how people such as Messrs Parker and Marryatt ever reached these positions is one of the great mysteries of life. Mr Marryatt’s history at Hamilton was well known.

So as the Christchurch City Council Building Control Unit, in an unprecedented step, lost its accreditation with International Accreditations New Zealand (IANZ) and with Mr Marryatt taking  leave, the mayor’s major prop was gone.

Mr Parker would also have been well aware that public opinion was strongly against him. The Press newspaper poll result released on Monday indicates 70% support for Lianne Dalziel and just 30% for Mr Parker.

This poll reinforced the message of other polls. It seems likely his support would have eroded further with more intense scrutiny of an election campaign.

He didn’t need to be told that. The thought of it would understandably exhaust him.

The natural reaction is to blame Mr Parker, Mr Marryatt and other individuals within and outside of the Christchurch council organisation, but this would be futile – and wrong.

The forced amalgamation of the Christchurch City Council way back in 1989 is the core problem. It was set up to fail, providing the foundation for the creation of a bureaucratic monster.

Driven away
Understandably, good people with the right attitudes and abilities were driven from being associated with it. Instead, it attracted people of little ability. Those more interested in playing power games.

Indeed, it degenerated in to an organisation where the bureaucracy – with the support of its major props – was at war with its community and business.

The bureaucracy's interests always prevailed.

This bureaucratic cancer seriously corroded the commercial culture of Christchurch. Within a The Press Opinion in September 2011, well-known commercial property investor Sir Bob Jones explained how market disciplined and competent developers and investors had long abandoned Christchurch (including the writer 20 years ago), leaving it to “hobbyists and sentimentalists”.

After the forced amalgamation, it started with the big-spending mayor Vicki Buck era (like Parker, a skilled TV performer). This was then followed by the sober government accountant type, mayor Garry Moore, whose main job was to attempt to rein the spending in, with new chief executive Lesley McTurk (now Housing New Zealand). Ms McTurk had little knowledge of local government.

Instead, the corporate bureaucracy was expanded and many experienced and well-regarded local government people left through that era. When Lesley McTurk left, incredibly, Tony Marryatt was bought in from the Hamilton council.

Little wonder, then, that by the time of the first earthquake event September 4, 2010, Christchurch, in development and construction terms, was already on its knees. With its severely dysfunctional council and severely unaffordable housing market (both go hand-in-hand) it was in no position to recover.

Well aware ast the time
The government was well aware at the time that Christchurch City Council was a failure.

It had already placed commissioners in the local regional council, called Environment Canterbury, a year earlier (something the previous Labour government knew needed to happen, but failed to do).

While it was common knowledge the Christchurch council was next for the commissioner treatment, this was not seen as politically feasible after the first earthquake events.

In endeavouring to allow a recovery to get under way, the government chose instead to go down the path of progressively taking over the responsibilities and functions of the city council as its failures became more blindingly obvious.

In persisting with the failed top down approach, it created further bureaucratic layers with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and the Central City Development Unit (CCDU).

Near three years on, with this top-down bureaucratic overload, the recovery has been a massive failure – to the extent that even the bureaucrats within all the organisations are well aware of it. Morale is at rock-bottom, with many looking for work elsewhere.

The whole top-heavy system has collapsed.

In mid 2012, the writer covered the sorry litany of poor quality decision-making, incorporating an outline of workable solutions with Christchurch: The Way Forward. There are hyperlinks within this article to earlier ones dealing with the Christchurch situation.

Around the same time, many of these issues were covered in a discussion with Jo Kane of Canterbury Television (video).

Also a failure
The commissioner controlled Environment Canterbury led by Dame Margaret Bazley is also a failure, with its unwelcome and unnecessary meddling in urban land use issues. Its latest infantile and clearly destructive Urban Land Use Plan (in essence a poverty creation programme) is only fit for the trash can.

It is Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee’s responsibility to ensure that happens as quickly as possible. Properly, this organisation should be confined to just water issues through the Canterbury region.

So Christchurch is a massive political shambles.

At this stage, the only likely contender for the mayoralty is former lawyer and union official Lianne Dalziel, the Labour Member of Parliament for Christchurch East. She has no local government experience.

While Ms Dalziel has made it clear that reform of the council is essential, whether she has the support, will and abilities to lead this change is unknown at this stage.

The citizens of Christchurch will collectively make the decision whether their city succeeds or fails.

To date, they have been remarkably tolerant of failure.

Hugh Pavletich runs Performance Urban Planning and is a co-author of the annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey

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