Bringing down powers that be

Peter Lynch, right, makes a point to Deputy Maory Ngaire Button at the "It's our money" protest at the council offices in December last year.
Peter Lynch, right, makes a point to Deputy Maory Ngaire Button at the "It's our money" protest at the council offices in December last year.

Be careful what you wish for, says Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, as we sit in battered wicker chairs in the forecourt of the somewhat unexpectedly industrial central city unit he calls home.

The rabble are at the gates. At least they will be next Wednesday. Marching on the civic offices in Hereford St, perhaps in their thousands. And they are calling for heads.

They want Christchurch City Council (CCC) chief executive Tony Marryatt gone. His $68,000 pay rise - that he's now handing back - was the last straw.

Parker too. The demand is for emergency mid-term local government elections by April or May. Put the whole council team on the chopping block. Most of the present lot are not up to the task of running a city during the biggest crisis in its history, say the protest leaders. Let the people vote in fresh blood.

The cry for change grows broader still: CCC has become a bloated empire employing 3000 staff. Parker and Marryatt are just the symptoms of a problem which dates back at least two mayors, two chief executives.

Lopping off the figureheads will not be enough now. The council needs to be broken up, devolved, decentralised.

It is going to be a day branded in local history. The precise moment - 12.1.2112, or noon on February 1, 2012 - will be easily remembered.

A central city landowner, himself no fan of the council, is lending the bulldozed site of a block of flats right next door to the civic offices as a rallying point. If the police are called to move the protesters on, it is going to be difficult. They could end up camped under the noses of Parker and Marryatt until they get their satisfaction.

Squinting into the early evening sun, Parker muses. Just be careful what you wish for, he says again.

It started with a spur-of-the- moment remark on local talkback radio and has been snowballing since.

Well, there is more to it than that, of course. The mutterings about the "Bob and Tony show" go back long before the earthquakes. But a still seismically-shaking Christchurch is a powder keg of emotions. And the leaked news about a pay rise was enough finally to set feelings ablaze.

The man of the hour, the quite exuberantly cheerful Peter Lynch, opens the door of his cracked-up Burwood home. Mind the ragged split down the centre of his entrance hall, he says. Take a step down into the new split-level sitting room.

Lynch is a marketing and publicity guy. One of his youthful coups was signing up Robert Muldoon as ex-prime minister to peddle an Australian range of hoses and garden tools. "Sabco gets my vote," was the punchline.

Such things simply require a bit of nerve, a dash of charm. Lynch says he just flew up and asked.

Lynch views himself as an ordinary citizen speaking out for Christchurch ratepayers. These days he is employed as area manager of a major safety equipment firm. He has no political connections. There is nothing complex or devious about his motives. The launch of his "say no" campaign against Marryatt was merely a final straw reaction to the news he read in The Press.

There were already the stories from last year about the sustained attack on Marryatt organised by a number of prominent businesspeople, the concerted push to prevent Marryatt being re- appointed for a second five- year stint.

That was a bruising episode, which saw partial victory. Marryatt received only a 2 1/2 year contract extension, deliberately tying his fate to the next scheduled council elections in October 2013.

Lynch has also kept up to date with the previous Bob and Tony controversies - the Henderson properties, the Ellerslie Flower Show, the rent rise debacle, the music school row. He has even felt exercised enough to pen the occasional letter and make requests for official correspondence. But you know how things are. His protests had not gone beyond that. Now, however, the energy around town is different, Lynch says.

"This whole earthquake thing has changed people's outlook on life. Before people were still apathetic. It was like, 'Aw, yeah, I know, but what can we do?' The difference today is that it's not 'What can we do about it', but 'What are we going to do about it?' "

Like many, he experienced an instinctive outrage on hearing Marryatt had been handed a 14 per cent performance pay rise - a six- month, back-dated increase that took his chief executive's salary from $470,400 to $538,529 a year.

"Something said to me you've got to do something." So the next morning, December 22, Lynch got on to talkback radio and put out the call.

"I said: 'This is obscene. It's just another example of what the city council can do. In fact, I'm so incensed that any like-minded residents who want to meet me in the foyer of Christchurch City Council today, join me'."

Lynch was put in touch with the Rev Mike Coleman, the Avonside Anglican priest who leads the red-zone protest group Wider Earthquake Communities' Action Network (WeCan).

"He's more media savvy than me," Lynch confesses.

With a few more calls, the spontaneous rally became a news event. Reporters and TV cameras were there to capture 50 people waving signs saying "It's our money, Tony".

From there it became a Facebook page, a flood of letters to the paper, and now a much larger protest planned for Wednesday. Lynch says he has been working 18-hour days during his summer break with the organisation and he has been amazed by the strength of the response.

Teams have been putting up posters and distributing leaflets. It is going to get national attention. Maybe even international attention as the BBC are showing an interest in the executive pay angle.

So how many will actually turn out?

"I originally thought I might have several hundred. I may have egg on my face here, but now I think thousands will be there," he says.

It sounds like it could be quite a street party. Lynch has a sound system to warm the crowd up with appropriate songs beforehand. He will address the people at noon. Coleman will follow and there are other guest speakers. Lynch says he will be offering Parker and Marryatt a right of reply if they feel brave enough.

Lynch wants to keep the demonstration polite but firm. There will be options discussed, such as a rates revolt.

The aim is to effect real change in the council and Marryatt's pay rise has become more or less symbolic.

"Even if Tony Marryatt is fired, or resigns, or hands his pay back . . . the protest would still go ahead, because this is a much bigger thing than just his salary."

A view is taking hold as more and more people speak out. And others are proving influential voices in these heated times.

For a man of the cloth, Mike Coleman is perhaps surprisingly outspoken about local politics. However, he explains he was a commerce graduate and economics teacher before he became a priest. And his parish work is with the marginalised and unrepresented. Speaking up about injustice is his mission.

Coleman became activated last June over red-zone issues. First the games being played by insurance companies to avoid full payouts on the rebuilds, then the unfairness of the rateable value system being used by the Government for land deals, and, most recently, the lack of effort to create affordable alternative sections on the edge of town.

He has emerged as the spokesman for WeCan whose targets have been the Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

The most dramatic action so far has been a march of 400 people on Cera's offices in November. The crowd bore a multi-coloured cross representing the zoning decisions to Cera's door. Coleman read out and then nailed a letter to the nation on it.

But Coleman says WeCan now supports this new front against the council.

"On the East side, it may not be people's biggest beef. They have so much else to worry about. But people are really struggling with the way the council has handled a number of the earthquake issues.

"The cracks on the surface show the chaos that's within the organisation. The lack of leadership, the lack of communication. It's a centralised dictatorship really. It's top-heavy."

Coleman is blunt about just how offensive he finds Marryatt's pay rise - more than many earn in a year. "There is a level of greed and arrogance there that has really got under people's skin."

And worse, the tales of Marryatt golf days, his returning home to Hamilton for the weekends, his remaining on holiday after the fresh aftershocks of December 23. "No Cantabrian would stay on the Gold Coast when their city's sustained a major earthquake." Coleman believes Marryatt should go and there should also be immediate council elections. The people have had enough, he says. This is a campaign that is just building.

Another stirring the pot of discontent is former developer, Hugh Pavletich, a well-known critic of over-blown local government for many years. He met with Lynch and Coleman soon after to contribute his views, although he has no official connection to the day of protest.

Pavletich believes Marryatt and Parker are merely the natural product of a deeper systemic malaise. He says it is inevitable that once a bureaucracy grows to a certain size, it becomes bound up in its own agendas and stops listening to the outside world.

"The centralised model doesn't work. Once you start getting these tiers of management into place, it becomes immobilised with bloat. Nobody can make decisions.

"The poor buggers at the bottom are trying to do their best, but as they feed it up through tier one and tier two, you get this backwards and forwards rubbish."

Pavletich says public service is being taken over by romantics, the likes of Parker attracted to grand dreams. "The bureaucracy ends up at war with business and the people."

Pavletich says he advocates a decentralised approach of "one city, many villages". Break up the council and push its functions back out into the communities. "We need to move towards the service centre model and get the power and control down there again."

A year ago, no-one was paying much notice to this kind of talk. "Bring up local government issues at a party and you'd send people to sleep." But Pavletich says Marryatt's pay rise has been an event which has finally galvanised the city into action. It is the tip of the actual problem, but it could lead to a flood of changes this year.

"I'm amazed how fired up people are out there. They're in no mood to take any more of it."

A storm appears to be approaching fast. Can the council weather it?

Parker is pleased for the chance to put his side. He says a lynch- mob mentality has developed and it is proving difficult to combat the emotions with the facts.

First, it is no surprise there is an anger looking for rightful victims. Parker says one lesson learned from disasters in other cities is that the crowd always turns and local administration rarely survives. The response from outsiders, observers from overseas and even Beehive politicians, is that Christchurch has been holding together remarkably well considering.

The natural upset of people - the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that comes from being subject to violent and unpredictable events - has already been turned on a succession of handy targets.

Civil defence when business folk could not get to their offices behind the cordons. Then Cera and the Earthquake Commission. "And now the council's the next focus," Parker says.

However, while the heat is understandable, cooler heads need to consider how much is at risk. Just what would be the consequences of a group of protesters getting all the things they wish?

To start with, Tony Marryatt is a top-class chief executive. Yes, people may snort, says Parker, but they need to look at the facts. Both before and since the quakes, Marryatt has had stellar performance ratings.

The recent "360 degree" review which earned him his salary increase marked Marryatt 4.25 out of five. This was an anonymous assessment by councillors and Marryatt's senior CCC staff. Given he might have got a few "zeroes" from two or three disgruntled councillors, Parker says, "It was a very, very strong result."

Parker says Marryatt took over an organisation that had been under-performing, that had bad morale and has turned it around.

In three years he lifted levels of staff engagement from below 35 per cent to 55 per cent. He has created major savings through restructurings. After the February earthquakes, he managed again to pull together an organisation with no offices, no phones, no computer systems in such record time that the council was out collecting rubbish the next week.

Parker believes there is an untold story about the continuing attempts to unseat Marryatt - the mud- slinging that has put him now in the public firing line.

He says there are some commercial interests in Christchurch who would like to see a more pliable town hall. Council decisions around the drawing up of development boundaries especially have been an issue, including which city fringe sites are inside or outside the Urban Development Strategy plan.

"There were winners and losers about where some of those lines were drawn. And there were inevitably some pressures placed, particularly on staff, and particularly on Mr Marryatt, around, you know, 'We can shift that line a little bit. What does it matter to you?' "

Parker says perhaps this kind of pressure might have worked in the past. But ratepayers should be grateful that they have a chief executive who is not about to allow the rules to be bent.

A witchhunt has been started up against Marryatt, yet Parker says questions have to be asked about whose purposes are really being served. Losing a chief executive would also be hugely disruptive in the middle of a recovery. Parker says some senior staff would leave, too - they have told him this privately.

"Given he has built an organisation that is performing at a higher level than it ever has before, and in remarkable and difficult conditions, you would rip the heart out of this organisation at the time it most needs to continue to function."

Likewise, pushing the Government on local elections would be a destructive step, says Parker.

There is the risk that if the council is considered too dysfunctional to manage the town, then the Government might put in a temporary statutory manager, or longer-term commissioners, as it did at Environment Canterbury.

Parker says the public does not appreciate how hard a time Marryatt and his senior team have already had in fending off Treasury and the views of the other bureaucrats in Wellington.

There is an opinion that Christchurch ought to be selling its own city assets - its stakes in its port, its airport, its bus network, its electricity lines - to pay for the recovery. Bring in commissioners and many decisions may be taken that are not in the best local interest.

And would elections heal any political divisions or just deepen them, asks Parker. We do know that the uncertainties created would stall the business of running the recovery for a good many months.

Parker says those then calling for the breakup of the council are still further off the mark.

The Auckland super-city has changed the rules. Christchurch needs to be planning how to stop Auckland becoming dominant in the national scene rather than winding back the clock to some more bucolic era of local government.

So the unhappy mob is advancing on the civic offices. Parker says the event may prove more of a fizzer than its organisers believe.

However, Wednesday is shaping up to be some kind of showdown.

And Parker just hopes people have taken the time to think through the likely consequences of getting what it is they feel they want.

The Press