Parker accepts apology for 'clown' comment

05:02, Feb 09 2012

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker has accepted Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's apology for calling him a clown.

Brownlee has phoned Parker, who is in China, to apologise for the remarks, which he made to the Christchurch Mail.

In a statement, Parker said Brownlee had "been in touch" to apologise for the comments.

"Naturally, I have accepted his apology ... We are all working under considerable pressure at this time," he said.

Parker said the Government and the council had "a process of engagement" on several issues, which he was confident would continue.

"Our focus is just to get on with the huge job of repairing and rebuilding our city together," he said.



The spat between Brownlee and Parker is being likened to a tiff between a bickering couple.

Brownlee has said it was ''over the top'' for him to label Parker a ''clown'', but he has kept up criticism of comments Parker made to the Christchurch Mail newspaper about alleged Government pressure for rates rises and asset sales.

Brownlee also appeared to go further on the offensive against Parker by revealing the council had put pressure on the Government to pass an order in council allowing power company Orion to increase its prices beyond the regulated maximum.

Brownlee said there was no justification for the rises the council had asked for, which would have allowed Orion to ''go willy-nilly charging consumers what they like''.

Parker is overseas on a trip that was controversial because he left at a time when the council was in turmoil, with thousands turning out in protest and calling for mid-term elections.

A Government-appointed observer - former Nelson mayor Kerry Marshall - was last month installed to keep tabs on the troubled council.

Christchurch East Labour MP Lianne Dalziel said Brownlee had last year backed Parker but was now turning against him.

The ''awkward make-up, break-up relationship'' between the Government and the council was putting needless stress on Cantabrians, she said.

"I am worried that these comments are designed as a sideshow to take scrutiny off the underlying issue, which is that there is a showdown behind the scenes, with the Government putting pressure on the council to raise rates further than they already have and to sell off its assets," Dalziel said.

"The minister is clearly unhappy that the mayor has made a statement to the media about the nature of the pressure being applied by Treasury.

"He is trying to link this issue to recent concerns about council performance, but that has nothing to do with it.''

The Government wanted Christchurch to pay for its own rebuild but was keeping residents in the dark about how it would be funded, she said.

The Government has set aside $5.5 billion to help fund the recovery effort from last February's earthquake.

However, it has said Christchurch had to pay its share.

Civil Defence is negotiating with the council over more than $100 million in bills racked up in the months after the quake. Civil Defence officials have predicted disagreement over some of the bills.

The council is likely to also be under financial pressure over its portfolio of assets, some of which, including AMI Stadium, were severely damaged in the quakes.


Brownlee today continued to criticise the city council.

In yesterday's Christchurch Mail, Brownlee called Parker a "clown" over comments about possible rates rises in the city.

He has since said the label was "over the top" but reflected his frustration with the council's problems.

Brownlee today said the comment was taken out of context.

He also told Radio New Zealand he had been pressured by the council to take its power company, Orion, off the wholesale electricity price path, allowing power prices to rise.

That would mean the council could afford the $70 million required to repair the electricity network.

Price paths set limits on what monopoly companies are able to charge.

"I was being pressured to put through an order in council under the Cera Act to take Orion off the price path,'' he said.

Orion is 100 per cent council owned.

Looking at Orion's balance sheet, Brownlee said, the figures did not justify the request to come off the price path.

Orion had assets of $680m and $39m debt, while the cost to repair the network was $70m.

''All of this does not add up to just take them off the price path and let them go willy-nilly charging consumers what they like,'' he said.

"If you're a consumer, you'd expect a monopoly provider is on a price path and to have to justify the price they are able to charge.

''That legislation should not be easily set aside.''

Brownlee earlier criticised councillors for their reluctance to consider a rates rise or asset sales, saying the council needed to examine "every single option" to fund the city's recovery.

Parker last week told The Christchurch Mail the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) Act allowed the Government to force the council to increase rates or sell assets to fund the city's recovery.

"Cera has the ability to say, 'This is how you have to meet your costs, and can make us take measures such as raising rates or selling assets'," he said.

Treasury officials had made overtures to the council about a potential rates rise, Parker told the Fairfax newspaper.

Brownlee dismissed the remarks, saying the legislation did not allow the Government to make the council set a rate.

"That's an outrageous abdication of his responsibilities. The Cera Act specifically forbids that," he said.

Brownlee last night told The Press the ''clown'' remark was "probably over the top" but was based on his frustration with Parker's comments and the council's problems.

"We were going through a quite intense period of getting the council to recognise their responsibilities ... I am sick and tired of the council running and telling people what we're going to do."

He said there had been discussions between council staff and Treasury officials about how to fund the city's recovery, but no demands had been made.

"I didn't expect it to end up in the newspaper as if it was a threat ... I'm just incensed by that."

He had "not been made aware" of whether asset sales had been brought up as an option, but said the council should ensure that its assets were used "to their best advantage".

"There has to be consideration as to how the balance sheets of these assets are used at such a critical time for the city."

The Government had committed $5.5 billion to the rebuild, but more would be needed for the recovery. The council had to meet the Government "along the way" to fund the rebuild and should look beyond rates rises.

"Ratepayers' pockets are relatively limited ... The people of Christchurch are being highly disserviced if they don't look at every single option," he said.

Parker, who is in China, was not available for comment.

Deputy Mayor Ngaire Button told The Christchurch Mail she did not know why Parker had made the comments and was unclear about the powers held in the Cera Act.

"I think the risk for the city if councillors are replaced by commissioners is that rates would go up," she said.