Bob's manifesto

20:17, Nov 09 2012

RIPPED APART: A City in Chaos - Bob Parker's Story

by Bob Parker

Antares, $39.99

Reviewed by Stephen Erber

Bob Parker's book is a personal manifesto - a discussion and explanation of his stewardship during and in the wake of the earthquakes and a justification of controversial decisions made before and after them.

Being politically independent, he has no party machine and this book has been written to remind us that he has twice been the voters' choice and to argue that he should remain so.


Though ghostwritten, the voice is unmistakably Parker's, as is the take on the facts.

As an independent, he stresses that he has always done what he thought best for the city as a whole and has not "kowtowed" to some business people who "seek to control the city". Criticism of him is, he maintains, levelled at decisions which were the product of the political detachment for which he was elected.

It is clear that he has deep roots in Christchurch, is a devoted son, father and husband, and has himself suffered considerably in the earthquakes. "I am riddled with normality," he says. What you see is what you get.

So what are you getting? A curate's egg of a book.

On the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, as the driver of the city rebuild, he accepts that the grant of extensive and draconian powers was necessary, but is bitter they were not devolved to the city council. Bearing in mind the conduct of some councillors after the earthquakes, the disloyalty and worrying lack of restraint and judgment, this claim to vastly enhanced powers seems unrealistic.

On the Henderson deal before the earthquakes, Parker says the initiative to buy came from "the business community", and the perception of the deal as a cosy rescue of a troubled developer is false because the motive was to secure strategically important land. This justification fails wholly to convince since the fact is that the deal did rescue (temporarily) a developer whose earlier ideas and developments found favour with the council, and moreover that developer was allowed to retain an option to repurchase.

Dealing with other controversial issues Parker's grip is much surer. He is against the sale of assets to pay for the rebuild, and though the issues are complex, his case is plausible. His argument for the retention of the east end of Christ Church Cathedral as part of its redevelopment, while a compromise, is sensible.

His observations on the respective roles of the city council and national Civil Defence are pertinent. It was lack of national Civil Defence local knowledge that caused the delay in supplying portaloos to the areas most needing them.

On the claim that before, during and after the emergency he was no more than a "show pony" hungry for publicity, he makes the point that it was natural for the media to focus on him as the city's voice. And the fact is, he says, that he works well in front of the camera. Perhaps he is right and the criticism is the product of envy of superior ability and luck.

And then there is the controversy over council chief executive Tony Marryatt, whose 14 per cent pay rise prompted the appointment of a Crown observer. The genesis of this and indeed of Parker's troubles seems, from this account, to have arisen with the adoption of the Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy.

The mayor and the CEO do work closely together. That is not "cronyism" but common sense. Parker says they saw eye to eye on the strategy, although its adoption "had dire consequences" for some businesspeople. Parker thinks it is this segment of the business world that expects its financial disappointments to be assuaged by the council, which is to blame for the attacks on Marryatt and himself.

He says Marryatt's reorganisation of the council's management team enabled it to respond "magnificently" to the disaster. When the question of the renewal of Marryatt's contract came up, some councillors voted against him, but Parker thought "it was inconceivable that anyone would consider replacing him at this stage".

Bearing in mind that Marryatt had and still has a pivotal role in the emergency and its aftermath, Parker's argument seems unanswerable.

He is generous in support of council staff, councillors (including some not always on his side, although here the support is equivocal ) and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee in spite of the hurtful and unjustified "clown" remark.

That benevolence does not extend to the print media ("I do not believe I have had a supportive press"), which has he thinks consistently accentuated the negative and played down the positive. His criticism is not entirely misplaced.

Reading this spirited polemic you might think that to be mayor and retain goodwill it is necessary to be independent, but not so as to offend business or sectional interests; loyal to councillors and staff, but not when they become unpopular; firm in speech but malleable in performance; and popular but without a taint of populism.

Parker says he is not that sort of person, that he is an honest man and has behaved in a principled way and in the city's best interests.

Whether that is enough remains to be seen.

The Press