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I want to stay on: Brownlee

A decision will be announced by the prime minister early next week.

Sun, 10 Apr 2016

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee says he’d like to stay on as the minister in charge of the Christchurch rebuild.

A decision will be announced by the prime minister early next week.

He guarantees the troubled convention centre project will go ahead but would not give a date.

He is not concerned by reports that Ngai Tahu is considering pulling out of the convention centre project.

“The convention centre and getting to a satisfactory commercial position has been a huge area of concern and effort for quite some time but I think we’re very, very close to that," he says.

Mr Brownlee gives CERA a 7.5 out of 10 for its performance over the last five years.

He plays down concerns about the Commerce Commission ruling this week that Steel and Tube seismic mesh is not up to standard. 

RAW DATA: The Nation transcript: Patrick Gower interviews Gerry Brownlee

Watch the interview here

Lisa Owen: Welcome back. After five years, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, CERA, closes up shop next week. In its place will be a series of organisations designed to move Christchurch’s recovery into its next phase. But with more than half of Cantabrians reporting they feel angry about the decisions made by the powers that be, how effective has the recovery actually been so far? The Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee, is with Paddy.

Patrick Gower: Good morning, Minister Brownlee, and I have to say, we really appreciate you coming on to the programme. Good morning.

Gerry Brownlee: Good morning, Paddy.

Gerry Brownlee, the rebuild of Christchurch – I want you to pick something, something big something small from it, something personal to Gerry Brownlee, that symbolises the rebuild, the regeneration.

Well, I think if it was something big, it would be a collective of things that have largely defeated some of the more pessimistic outlook, or outlooks, that were around at the time of the earthquakes 2011. So you had predictions of population- or depopulation, economic decline of the city, consequential loss of equity. None of those things have happened; quite the opposite, in fact. So that, I think, is something I feel pleased about, and that’s nothing, really, that has been done by any one person. It’s been the whole effort from anybody living here in Canterbury. I think- On a personal level, I think the night that the temporary stadium opened in Addington, for me, was a very poignant reminder for how important having symbols of your collective parochialism is, and that was a great evening.

Okay, we’ll come to that later as well. With your own family home, I mean, that was destroyed, as we know. Now, how has that affected, you know, your decisions around Christchurch? Has that had a personal impact?

Look, I haven’t spoken about that in any media interview. My situation is entirely different, because a lot of my work is in Wellington, and I have accommodation there, so it’s a completely different set of circumstances. But what it, I suppose, let me know is some of the frustrations that can occur, or could occur, and has occurred for people as they’ve tried to get their lives back together.

But why have you never spoken about it? I mean, you were affected like everybody else.

Yeah, but I mean, the reality is that there were people in far worse situations than I was. What I was able to recognise is that there were some needs that we had to fill fairly quickly. The Accommodation Supplement was one of the initiatives that we put in place to try and ease some of that difficulty for people, as was the decision to buy up a whole lot of properties in what are now called the red zones – effectively areas where it would have been extremely challenging for people to either repair or rebuild their homes.

Sure. Now, CERA finishes next week after five years. I want you to give it a mark out of 10 for us.

Well, I just heard your intro where you’re saying that 50% of Cantabrians are angry about the progress and everything else. You know, I don’t want to discount that range of concerns that people will have that’s contributed to that statistic, but I go back to what I said at the start, which was the dire predictions that were around at the time of the first earthquake and continued for a time as we’ve gone through 13,000 earthquakes – 67 of them over 5 on the Richter scale, so continual damage over a period of time. I’d give CERA a mark close to the upper end of your scale.

What, you’d give it a nine out of 10 or what? What’s the mark out of 10 for CERA?

I think to recognise that no one gets everything right, I think probably in the 75 percentile is about where it’s at.

7.5 out of 10. But, you know, so many people-

This is highly academic, and I’ve already conceded- I’ve already conceded that people will have their concerns, no doubt about that, and I’ll be there for a range of reasons. You know, I often read the comments, the blog comments, that come in behind articles that are published in the newspapers, etc, and it’s always a concern that you’ve got a very limited time to communicate all the aspects of an idea, and I guess it’s a frustration. A lot of people don’t pick up on everything that’s gone into any particular decision.

Okay. Now, let’s look at the deal for CERA. The political deal, essentially, was that the Government got all these powers in exchange for speed, in exchange for money, but if we take the anchor projects alone – the stadium, the Metro Sports Facility, the Avon Precinct, the convention centre – all are delayed, Minister. All are delayed. What’s going on? It’s not good enough, is it?

Well, I think the question would be – delayed on what basis? So while they’re out there as projects, they’re all in a state of progress, if you like. So if you go through them-

They’re behind schedule, Minister.

Well, it depends on whose date you put on schedules. You will not ever find a statement from me that’s put a date on anything that we’ve done, because what I learnt very early on is that there are so many variables, it’s almost impossible.

You said in 2012 that these were your priorities, including the convention centre. So can you now put a date on the convention centre? Because that keeps getting pushed back. Can you give the people of Christchurch and taxpayers a date on the convention centre?

Look, I think what I would say to you, the reason why I’m not going to give you a date is because it is a commercial negotiation that’s going on. A lot people have said, ‘Should have left it to the private sector. They’d do better.’ We’re negotiating with the private sector, and believe me, they don’t want to do anything on the basis of being a benefactor to the city.

The people of Christchurch want a date. Their morale is low. They want to see a date for this convention centre. There’s $264 million of taxpayers’ money there. You can give a date.

Eventually, they want to see a convention centre that is of high quality, that is iconic for the city and that will not become some sort of a white elephant millstone around the neck of the ratepayer. That’s the biggest concern that we are working through.

You will guarantee that it will happen, the convention centre will happen? Can you guarantee that?

I’ll absolutely guarantee it will happen. The Metro Sports- Let’s go straight to the Metro Sports-

No, let’s stay with the- Let’s stay with the convention centre, Minister, and reports this week that Ngai Tahu are pulling out- that Ngai Tahu are pulling out of that. Can you confirm that?

No. I haven’t had that- I’ve read those reports, obviously, and heard them, but nothing has been conveyed to me as being of a concern. So remember that the Government is negotiating over the delivery-

Ngai Tahu’s seriously considering pulling out, and you’re not concerned?    

Do you want the…? So who-? So who else is involved?

The Plenary Group, the consortium.

My point here, Paddy, is you’re jumping over the top of an answer. So the point is that we’re negotiating with Plenary New Zealand, which is a consortium of partners of which Ngai Tahu is one.

And wants out. And you’re not worried?

Well, no, because the negotiations that we’ve got and the contractual relations around the process to get to a delivery programme is with Plenary New Zealand, not with Ngai Tahu.

So no worries about Ngai Tahu and- No worries about Ngai Tahu and no date on the convention centre starting for the people of Christchurch or for the taxpayer?

Well, certainly no worries about Ngai Tahu, but of course, the convention centre and getting to a satisfactory commercial position has been a huge area of concern and effort for quite some time, but I think we’re very very close to that.

Now, I want to follow the money now - $16.5 billion spent on the rebuild. That’s the figure, isn’t it?


But if you look at what Treasury tells us, only $4.7 billion – that’s taking out EQC – $4.7 billion has actually been spent. That’s the money that’s been spent, isn’t it? So why do you bandy about the bigger figure? It’s only $4.7 billion.

Well, I think because it’s not over yet. That’s always been a projection. We’ve got contingencies in budget lines that will run past next week into the new organisations and arrangements that they’ve got.

Now, looking at another topic related to this, the Commerce Commission this week found that seismic mesh by Steel & Tube didn’t meet standards. This is, of course, used for earthquake strengthening. How worried are you about mesh like this that’s been used in the rebuild?

Well, I think firstly I’d say this is a problem potentially for the whole of New Zealand, but the Building and Housing Minister is taking the right steps to ensure that we do get good information, as are the Commerce Commission. I wouldn’t proffer a view at this point. What I would say is that one of the biggest problems for relatively new houses post-the earthquake was the building standard that required no mesh inside floors, concrete floors. So it depends on, I suppose, the type of stress that’s going to go on that particular mesh, and I think until all the testing is done and it’s categorised into both residential and commercial, and then a range of factors in each of those categories, it’s going to be very difficult to know exactly what the answer or the concern should be. But we are, obviously, looking at it.

But you’ve said it’s a problem for all of New Zealand. It has to be a problem, then, in Christchurch.

Only in so much as some of that steel would have been used in other parts of- that mesh, sorry, will have been used in other parts of New Zealand.

What about the disruption, though, as well, to future building in terms of the steel being quarantined? Is that a problem too?

Well, it doesn’t appear to be at this stage. I think it’s a matter of supply. And, look, these are detailed questions that are better put to the Minister of Building and Housing. And I think what I would say is it is again a situation where problem’s identified, every effort’s made to find out or quantify the extend of the problem, and then you’ll get some action points after that.

Now, going to Treasury’s latest report this week on major projects, which said there’s big problems with your Christchurch rebuild – in fact, major issues that don’t appear resolvable. Now, we know you’ve lashed out at Treasury over this, but is it accurate? Is what they have said in that report accurate?

I don’t believe so. Firstly, the report is an accumulation of data that goes back to last October. There’s very little difference in that between the one they produced this time last year. Treasury are well aware of all of the funding packages that are in place around anchor projects, and what I find extraordinary is that Treasury will be also giving advice that says ministers should seek best value for public spend but then on the other hand, say spend it as fast as you possibly can, and I think that’s the challenge here. If you actually look at the criteria also around what they see as being a red alert, it is very much focused on the internal workings and structures of Treasury. I think it’s a very limited value, in fact, and you’ve seen my comments, but I say again, when Treasury start getting into the area of commentating on policy, then it starts to get in the road of the democratic decisions that governments have to make. I think that’s a danger.

Now, looking at CERA wrapping up next week, that obviously means the ministerial role, the Minister of Earthquake Recovery role, that will go. That will go. What will happen to Gerry Brownlee? Will you stay on-?

The announcement from Prime Minister, Paddy Gower.

Yeah. Well, what will happen to Gerry Brownlee? Will Gerry Brownlee still be some sort of earthquake-related minister next week?

Well, let me just take you through a couple of things. So, firstly, the legislation that was passed in the house about 10 days ago—

Yes, we know—

…was unanimously supported by all parties.

Yes, yes, and that’s a political achievement for you, but what will happen if you—

More importantly, much more importantly, all parties in the seminar sessions we ran to get that bill into the shape that we all as Christchurch Members of Parliament thought would be a good process—

Yes, but, Minister, with respect—

Hang on.

That’s not the question here. Will you be staying?

I could have answered by now.

Will you be staying on in some sort of ministerial role next week?

Well, I’m simply saying that the bill still has some ministerial responsibilities in them.

Yes, and will you keep those?

And a minister will have to exercise those.

And will you keep those ministerial responsibilities?

Look, I think you’ll know that on Monday. It’s not for me to start announcing the Prime Minister’s prerogatives on this matter.

Do you want to keep those responsibilities?

Yes, I’d like to. I think we’re at a very pivotal point. I think, you know, you can easily look at the criticism that’s out there, but I live in this community, I know how people think, and I know that when we get through perhaps the next six months with a whole lot of decisions taken over by Ōtākaro Limited and we see some of the efforts coming through from Regeneration Christchurch, it’s going to be a very progressive time.

Okay, so Gerry Brownlee staying on – that’s a good place to leave it. Thank you, Minister.

Well, that’s your assessment.

Thank you, Minister, for joining us.

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I want to stay on: Brownlee