Former TV host looks for answers

SPEAKING UP: Months spent talking to people most affected by the quakes has made gentle, good-natured Olly Ohlson angry.
SPEAKING UP: Months spent talking to people most affected by the quakes has made gentle, good-natured Olly Ohlson angry.

Former children's entertainer now activist Olly Ohlson says Canterbury people are not getting the support from the Government that they deserve. He spoke to VICKI ANDERSON.

Months spent talking to people most affected by the quakes has made gentle, good-natured Olly Ohlson angry.

Angry enough, he says, to stand up and do something about it.

Ohlson is a man of many causes, but the one dearest to his heart is as the face of the Brooklands Stayers - a group of 50 families in Brooklands. He accuses the Government of "committing a crime" in the way they have been treated.

The entire suburb of Brooklands is in the red zone, meaning the land is unsafe to build on, and everyone must go.

Ohlson and his group dispute this and they are going to fight it. They say the land could be fixed for less ($47 million) than the cost of clearing them off ($57m).

There's also anger over the insurance changes that could leave many people worse off with their payouts if they are forced to leave.

Then there are the dangers to the environment he fears from such things as fracking and oil drilling that need organised opposition. And he's fronting up to that.

It's a long way from the job of smiling under the studio lights when he first generated a public profile so many decades ago.

Te Hatapihopatapui Ohlson was youngest child of 24, born to a Norwegian man and a Tuhoe woman in the Bay of Plenty village of Te Whaiti.

Ohlson became famous on New Zealand television as Olly Ohlson.

He was the smiling face of children's television programme After School, and appeared each weekday for six years during the 1980s.

He was the first Maori person to front his own television programme, the first person to use Maori language on television, the first person to use sign language and the first to use television as an interactive educational tool. Ohlson mixed Maori, English and sign language into his delivery, and signed off each episode with his catchphrase "Keep cool, till after school" and "Hei kone ra".

"I don't get asked to say 'keep cool' now as often as you might think," Ohlson says.

"But at checkpoints I've had cops ask me to sing Fangface."

When he was on TV, Ohlson didn't actually own a TV.

"I used to go and watch the show in DTR, the rental place," Ohlson explains. "One day the bro working in there said, 'Is that you?', and pointed at the screen. They let me have a TV in exchange for putting up one of those life- sized cutouts of myself saying I was a DTR customer."

His fame was such that comedian Billy T James imitated him in his self-titled show.

Ohlson began his working life as a bushman, morphing to teacher, to insurance salesman, to parish worker, to television, to counselling, to tutor, to running a successful behavioural change programme in prison.

He learnt to read and comprehend books at the age of 26 while he was teaching others to do the same at Kokatahi and Runanga on the West Coast. Then he moved to Kaitangata and later Balclutha where he became a salesman for the Auckland Building Society.

A move to Timaru saw Ohlson change trade to insurance, an area he worked in for six years before taking up theological studies in the Anglican Church. "I was there for four years. They let me go for being too happy after they caught me whistling when I was walking into church one day," Ohlson chuckles deeply.

"They'd already given me one warning about the whistling. They felt church should be a solemn affair. I didn't really fit in."

It was at this point that television came knocking on his door.


He turned them down at first, but later changed his mind and went on to feature on After School, Seagull and Woolly Valley.

He's a natural at teaching and outside of broadcasting, Ohlson has a long history of teaching te reo and Tikanga Maori, teaching at Mairehau High School before working with tutors at Christchurch Polytechnic. He taught for five years at Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and has worked as a policy adviser at tertiary level.

He used his spiritual perspective to develop the programme Mauri Hauora in his work with Maori prisoners.

In the early 1990s, Ohlson set up a private counselling service, working with women and families through the family court system.

After the devastating earthquake hit Christchurch on February 22, 2011, Ohlson counselled affected families, particularly those from the eastern suburbs of Aranui and New Brighton, but also from his own Brooklands area.

He doesn't like to use the word "counselling", he prefers "talking". And it's those talks that have left him angry.

When the entire Brooklands suburb was red-zoned by Cera, Ohlson helped set up the community group of 50 families called Brooklands Stayers.

He is filming the community's struggles and progress, and has plans to turn the footage into a documentary.

"The rest of New Zealand is unaware of what is happening here. They need to know that this could happen to them, too."

His own home has been red-zoned and, like others, he has been caught in the insurance twist where the insurance company will only pay the amount to fix a home, rather than the amount to replace it - even though the house will be lost because it is on land that the homeowner has to leave.

"The way red-zoned people are being treated by this Government, I believe, is a crime and should not go unchallenged," Ohlson says.

"The legal opinion by Dr Duncan Webb, a partner in the Christchurch law firm Lane Neave, provides some hope for red-zoned residents such as myself. He has stated: 'It is our view that on the terms of standard insurance policies, other than those expressly limited only to physical loss, that where a property is in the red zone the obligations of the insurer will be to replace that property'.

"This means therefore that everyone in a red-zone area should be rebuilt or alternatively cashed up to that amount.

"Based on this legal opinion there could be an avenue for people to take insurers to court in retrospect for losses they incur as a result of being bullied into accepting the Government's offers."

Ohlson says Prime Minister John Key should instruct Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee to fix the land at an estimated maximum cost of $45m as opposed to the cost of red-zoning, estimated to be $57.7m. "These figures were from documents released by Cera," Ohlson says.

He and his group also argue that the whole suburb can't be red-zoned in one swoop and that an individual geotech report should be made at each site.

As he speaks, in what was once his lovingly tended garden, a bird starts to sing nearby. Ohlson turns his head and nods in its direction and comments "one of the children" before talking with pleasure about his much-loved home.

"According to Cera's report, you cannot use flooding - his [Brownlee's] whole argument is based on flooding - it's against Cera's rules but he's totally unaware. It says it in black and white, in clause 218, flood hazard cannot be used as a reason for a red zone. So it's right there, they haven't changed that . . . our land has dropped down, but everybody knew here that we haven't dropped much. We've got surveyors, architectural designers, construction workers who live here. We know the land has dropped but it hasn't dropped much."

The community has asked to see the LIDAR reports - showing where the land in Brooklands has risen and fallen - but have not been allowed access to these reports, Ohlson says.

A deputation to Cera chief Roger Sutton yielded a meeting at Ohlson's house between the residents' committee and a representative from Tonkin & Taylor. "He showed us the maps we weren't privy to. But even after he left we all had different understandings of it. Brownlee's argument is that the land is so low we're subject to tsunami, flooding. But there are people here who are in their 80s, they've lived with that risk and been aware of it their whole lives. They have seen flooding, they know their land like the back of their hands.

"Everyone on the east coast of New Zealand is aware of that risk, nothing has changed in that regard."

Ohlson and others in the small community have their own theories as to why Brooklands has been red-zoned.

"I'm not a conspiratorialist but you have to wonder what they're trying to hide from us when they won't give us the LIDAR reports for our own properties."

But he points to the Chatham Rock company's plan to mine a big phosphate deposit on the Chatham Rise in 400-metre-deep water, about 450 kilometres off the east coast of the South Island, for use as fertiliser on farms in New Zealand and for export.

Ohlson says that mining project stretches "right through to us" and the Government is right behind it.

"Brooklands would make a great processing area if it weren't for all us annoying people living here, getting in the way of development.

"But that's just our theory."

Ohlson is the MC for the Bring Change peaceful revolution concert being held today at Riccarton Racecourse. It features Christchurch natives Opshop frontman Jason Kerrison and Shapeshifter's Tiki Taane as well as high energy dance act Minuit.

The concert is about raising awareness of mining processes in Canterbury, including fracking and oil drilling. The Christchurch City Council called for a moratorium on fracking earlier this year which the Government rejected.

In October, Texas oil giant Anadarko, a partner in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, will begin drilling in the Canterbury Basin.

Ohlson feels strongly the importance of raising public awareness of these two environmental issues surrounding the oil industry and that "our children deserve a right to clean water to swim in, both in the ocean and rivers".

"There shouldn't be any fracking, full stop. Apart from earthquake risk, our water is precious. Once we pollute that, it's gone, we can't get it back again.

"This is also about maintaining and improving the health of our country. As a father and grandfather I believe it is time to be sensible and I say to John Key, as a father to another father, invest our taxpayers' money into other forms of non-polluting, sustainable energy."

The Press