'Wartime' mayor steps back from fight

20:30, Jul 05 2013
parker landscape
QUITTING: Bob Parker is quitting the Christchurch mayoral race.

Bob Parker will be remembered as the mayor who led Christchurch out of an earthquake.

A eulogy is premature - he will be the city's steward until October. But he is not seeking re-election and will soon exit public office, taking with him a formidable local government resume... and an orange windbreaker.

Recent adverse headlines will linger in the immediate memory but his earthquake legacy - the reassuring public voice, the surety of his leadership - will override the tumult.

Parker entered politics through the old Banks Peninsula district, serving on community boards in the 1990s before two terms as district mayor between 2001 and 2006. When the authority was amalgamated with Christchurch he aimed higher, graduating to the mayoralty of the new, enlarged Christchurch city.

His first term in office - the one before the earthquakes - was not without controversy.

In 2007, there was the purchase of the Ellerslie Flower Show naming rights for an undisclosed sum, later revealed as $3 million.


In June 2009, there was a debacle over plans for a $24m Conservatorium of Music to bring Canterbury University back to the Arts Centre in the central city. Parker said the school would bring youth back into the city but the powerful heritage lobby rebelled. The project stopped.

Heading into 2010, an election year, Parker had a fight on his hands. Veteran MP Jim Anderton declared his candidacy for the mayoralty and made the early running. Just over a month before the September 2010 earthquake a Press poll put Anderton 19 per cent ahead of Parker. A one-term mayoralty looked likely.

Then, everything changed.

When the ground shook underneath Christchurch on September 4 2010, Parker was at the ready. Clad in soon-to-be-ubiquitous orange jacket, his calm demeanour was made for television - his old stomping ground - and voters responded.

He was the mayor for a crisis, and it won him an election. His assured performances eased Cantabrians' shaken spirits and he brought a semblance of strength to the city.

As a "wartime" mayor, the going was tough. At first there was leeway and understanding. The September 2010 and February, June, December 2011 quakes wreaked unprecedented damage, and other organisations - the Earthquake Commission, insurance companies - were in the spotlight.

Slowly, though, things began to give, as it became clear all was not well in council. His chief executive, Tony Marryatt, courted controversy with a $70,000 pay rise in December 2011 and bounced from bad headline to bad headline. Parker defended him.

There was a tempestuous relationship with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee - a microcosm of the central government-local government power struggle in the quake recovery. If it came to blows, Parker would lose. For the most part they had a workable relationship. Parker revealed in his book, Ripped Apart, he considered resigning when the minister labelled him a "clown" for comments he made over rates. They maintained a veneer of cordiality to the end.

All the while, bickering and political sniping at council over the quake recovery got out of hand, and media leaks were commonplace. Parker faced a councillor resignation threat and an untenable situation. He called Prime Minister John Key for help and was given a Crown observer, who would advise the council on how to sort out any problems.

In hindsight the move appeared not to work. Or even if did, it could not save the council from itself. The staff leave controversy, if not the work of the mayor himself, all took their toll on him. Finally, with the council consenting crisis, and what mayor and councillors were not told about it, came the death knell. Parker was forced to cast his trusted chief executive adrift, "embarrassed" at the position Marryatt had left him in. Two days later, Bob Parker was the outgoing Christchurch mayor.

He will not just be known as the "disaster" mayor, favouring style over substance. He had a good grasp of public policy, and ran council meetings expertly well - no mean feat around the often dysfunctional council table.

One-on-one interviews with reporters were often long, one-way conversations, but were good-natured, and always informative.

Throughout his two terms Parker had an uneasy relationship with The Press. There were periods of détente, but negative council headlines in the city's biggest paper were inevitably linked to the man at the helm. Observers were not surprised to hear his parting words come through other media channels.

Today, though, the first day of the end of Bob Parker's mayoralty, he is the man who led Christchurch out of the earthquakes.

The Press