Parker rises to lead a city of ruins

03:09, Feb 27 2011
Mayor Bob Parker
Mayor Bob Parker

This is his Rudy Giuliani moment, rising up to lead the people of Christchurch through the greatest challenge they've ever faced.

Mayor Bob Parker has become the face of Tuesday's devastating earthquake, his calm presence, his clear and compassionate words and deep broadcaster's voice all sending the message that despite the utter devastation, the city will survive.

Like New York's Giuliani in the unforgettable events of September 11, 2001, Parker has stepped up under the watch of the world to give his people the reassurance they desperately need.

"I know you're suffering in every way but you have to believe me when I say we can do it, we can get through this by leaning on each other and finding a strength we didn't know we had,'' he told journalists just hours after the deadly events of Tuesday lunchtime.

At the time he was nursing two probable broken ribs from the moment when he was flung against a table. The 57-year-old didn't know where his parents were and several of his friends were trapped inside doomed buildings.

But he was fronting the world anyway. Parker went to great pains to point out he was no different to anybody else.

"We are all the same,'' Parker said, with eloquence.

"I might be standing here in an orange jacket and hard hat but I've got a heart that beats just the same as everyone else. I'm feeling the collective pain of the people and my message is this: 'We can do it'.''

It was a role he would always play well.

With a background in broadcasting, Mr Parker was a familiar face on New Zealand television as host of This Is Your Life, an often-emotional show where well-known Kiwis are surprised with the retelling of their life story.

Following this, he made his foray into politics, winning the mayoralty of Canterbury's Banks Peninsula in 2001 before stepping up take the reins in Christchurch in 2007.

Born and bred in the region, he talked then of his "base connection'' to the place.

By 2010, however, his star was waning. His involvement in some controversial behind-closed-doors council decisions had him trailing far behind in the polls.
Like Queensland premier Anna Bligh, a natural disaster changed all that. When the city's first quake, 7.1 magnitude, shook the city last September 4, miraculously no one died.

Buildings, however, were severely damaged and the people deeply rattled. Parker stepped up and won voters' hearts with his mantra about a stronger Christchurch.

A seismic change in attitudes followed and one month later he pulled off the most remarkable comeback in local body elections New Zealand has ever seen.
Fronting the media in similar, albeit more dire, circumstances six months on, this time with a mandate from his people, it's no surprise he exudes such confidence.
At the makeshift Civil Defence headquarters in the city's ultra modern Arts Centre, Parker is the key go-to man for the 350-strong pack of international media.
He rallies the grim-faced main players _ heads of police, fire, search and rescue, power and water organisations _ to press conferences, delegates speaking time, fields questions, even consoling the press pack for their challenging working conditions.
He understands this is an international disaster. At one point he asks for a show of hands so he can offer all 25 countries represented a tribute.

"To you, the people of China, you must know that your children are our children'' he says to one. To another a moment later: ''Our Japanese brothers and sisters lost here will not be forgotten.''
Not all his words were so grand. He wasn't scared of telling it like it was.
In that matter-of-fact way typical of Kiwis and Aussies, he talked of roads being "ripped to buggery'' and the central business district (CBD) being a "flaming mess''.

"The main sewer trunks are seriously munted,'' was another memorable quote.
Speaking about the surge in domestic violence since the quake struck, he urged Cantabrians to "cut people a bit of slack today''.

"There will be grumpy people, we all express our stress in different ways. Some laugh and get silly and that can offend someone else who is feeling really depressed and sad....We've got to keep working together, we've got to hang in there as a city.''
It is this positivity that he'll be remembered for.
The death toll will top 200 and the city's CBD looks like a scene from war-torn Afghanistan. It's clear to all that it will be months and multiples of millions of dollars before any semblance of normality returns to this city.
But still Parker pushes on. His people will "fight back''.

Their cathedral will be rebuilt, their calm restored, their businesses reopened, "a new and stronger city rising out of the ruins''.

He insists they will even host the Rugby World Cup because, as Parker says: "God knows we need it now more than ever.''

These are bold words from a bold man in the defining moment of his and his city's life.