Canterbury's basket of opportunity
Post-quake, Canterbury is in need of direction and leadership. But is the newly launched Committee for Canterbury just a little too self-appointed and corporate? JOHN McCRONE investigates.
Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter was unkind about the Auckland one. Writing on The Daily Blog last year, he called the Committee for Auckland (CfA) the city's shadow government, a retread of the old New Zealand Business Roundtable.
Representing the corporate world's view of how things should be run, Trotter said the Committee's Who's Who list of members – paying a $10,000 annual subscription fee – had gained a de facto power of veto over Auckland Council policy.
"Any measure deemed harmful to the interests of the banks, large accounting firms, construction companies, large-scale investors and property developers who hold the ring for Auckland capitalism would instantly unite the CfA in fierce opposition," Trotter warned.
And now Canterbury has one too. After years of talking about the possibility, the Committee for Canterbury (CfC) finally launched itself in November with a group of high-powered trustees, 14 founding members including BNZ, IAG, Fonterra, Foodstuffs and Ngai Tahu, and a positioning document, its "Case for Canterbury".
So meeting up with Gill Cox, a professional director in Christchurch who has been the driving force behind the formation of the CfC and is now chair of its trustees, the first question seems obvious. Corporate stooge?
*The Case for Canterbury report - pdf file
*Everything you didn't know about the Committee For Auckland - Chris Trotter/Daily Blog
*Canterbury's mayors promote regional economic strategy
*Canterbury Regional Economic Development Strategy - official document
*Future of 'golden triangle' up for grab
Cox, who is on the boards of the likes of MainPower, Transwaste Canterbury, Ngai Tahu Farming and the New Zealand Transport Agency, groans at the suggestion the Committee for Canterbury is merely going to be a self-appointed lobby for local financial interests.
He says the "committee for" model, which came out of Australia where Melbourne formed its own some 30 years ago, is quite a different thing. It is a genuine across-the-spectrum think-tank that aims to rise above the usual three-year electoral cycles to get people talking about the long-term 30 to 50 year vision for a region.
"One of the founding planks of the 'committee for' movement is that we need to be politically aware, politically conscious. But it's not about being part of the political scene," Cox says.
However Cox sees it is going to be easy to be misunderstood. The CfC intends to build a public debate. Yet its workings will not be exactly public. The main conversations will be taking place within its own sponsoring businesses and institutions.
And he knows the political geography of Canterbury is in a delicate state. People are on high alert.
With first the water wars that saw the replacement of Environment Canterbury (ECan) by commissioners, then a Government-dominated earthquake recovery, and most recently, the emergence of the Canterbury Mayoral Forum as a force, there is a nervousness about who precisely is deciding the province's priorities.
It is a sensitive time for everyone, Cox agrees. So a new player – one so well-connected and already welcomed as a stakeholder by the Mayoral Forum – is going to come in for special scrutiny.
The governance of Canterbury does feel very much up in the air. Will the province ever get back ECan as a fully-elected regional council? Does Christchurch still harbour the quiet desire to become a unitary authority like Auckland, swallowing up the satellite districts of Selwyn and Waimakariri?
The new organisational chart waits to be drawn. Yet also post-quake, there seems a real difference in the province's mood. The 10 local councils in Canterbury want to work together as a collective force. Indeed, they understand they must.
In August, the Mayoral Forum – under the firm guiding hand of ECan appointed chair Dame Margaret Bazley – came out with its Canterbury Regional Economic Development Strategy.
Individual mayors are each heading up one of seven strands of a joint work programme. For instance Timaru's Damon Odey is pushing broadband and digital connectivity, Kaikoura's Winston Gray has tourism strategies, Waimate's Craig Rowley is focused on planning regimes for rural production.
Waimakariri District Council chief executive Jim Palmer, who heads the CEO group within the Mayoral Forum, says Canterbury realises it needs a collaborative growth plan because the boost of an insurance-driven earthquake recovery is going to end in a few years. The province has to be ready with something to take its place.
Then longer term, there is the threat of the Golden Triangle, says Palmer – the way that Auckland, Tauranga and the Waikato are coming together as an economic super-region in New Zealand.
The predictions are that the Golden Triangle will be home to 60 per cent of the nation's population by 2030. The map of voter power, and consequently political attention, is going to tilt ever-faster northwards.
Palmer says unless Greater Christchurch and rural Canterbury unite behind a compelling business plan, Canterbury risks falling right off the government's radar.
So there is a mood for stronger regional thinking. And Cox says this is just the conversation that the Committee for Canterbury has been set up to promote.
Yet unlike what Trotter implies, the CfC's approach will be broad-based, Cox says. Economic development certainly matters because it pays for everything else. However social and environmental goals must be central to any 50 year strategy.
"We want to drive higher prosperity. But we need that debate of do we mean just dollars in the bank, or do we mean also our clean water and clean air?"
To wind it back a bit, Cox tells how the CfC idea started for him when he got involved in one of Canterbury's typical inter-district disputes. Christchurch needed a new municipal rubbish dump. Hurunui quite naturally did not think that it had to go in its Kate Valley. Cox as new chair of the landfill operation was up against then Hurunui mayor, and now fellow Committee trustee, Garry Jackson.
To cut a long story short, Cox says over a few wines in 2008 he and Jackson agreed what was really needed was a "Forum for Canterbury" where such issues of general interest could be thrashed out. "I've still got some bits of paper with forum written all over them."
Then in 2010, Cox and Jackson stumbled across Australia's Committee for Cities movement. "We jumped on a plane, met the people behind the Committee for Melbourne, and came away thinking that's exactly what we need."
Cox says the Committee for Melbourne is apolitical and non-aligned. It just uses its corporate sponsorship to pay for good research – top class thinking about the long term.
"If you go back 30 years – and I'm sure Melburnians would hate me saying it – but it was a bit of a dog of a town." Cox says the Committee was responsible for setting the agenda which saw Melbourne building good transport links, pursuing a central city revitalisation plan, and avoiding a fragmentation by satellite towns. All the ingredients in its current success.
Australia now has similar committees for most of its major cities. Auckland started its own in 2003 and the super-city shake-up was at least partly an outcome.
But just when Cox and Jackson were promoting the setting up of a branch of this franchise for Canterbury in 2010, the earthquakes hit. "The project had to go to sleep for a few years."
Now the time is clearly ripe to revive it, he says, as everyone is asking the same question of what the long-term proposition for Christchurch and Canterbury actually is.
The CfC has in fact been "soft launched" for about a year. The trustees have been meeting, the founding membership was being gathered. But Cox says the group did not want to go public until it had something concrete to say.
Its first strategy statement is the Case for Canterbury, a report commissioned from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER). And the basic message contains no great surprise, he says.
Boiling it down, it starts with the economic truth that the fates of Christchurch city and its rural hinterland are absolutely intertwined. "Christchurch is a market town," says Cox simply. "Christchurch would struggle even to have a reason for being if Canterbury were not there. The economic driver is not the city but the region."
This is why it ended up as the Committee for Canterbury rather than the Committee for Christchurch, he says. The divergence from the "committee for" movement's city-based template was quite deliberate.
Cox says before the earthquakes, Christchurch had become somewhat politically disconnected from this fact. It had dreams about being a world-class small city riding the high tech "knowledge-wave" – a mini-Copenhagen at the bottom of the world.
Of course, says Cox, Christchurch should still want to do its best on this score. But really, as a long-term strategy, it just pits the city against every other city in a better position to do the same.
As the Golden Triangle logic show, Christchurch might well grow its IT businesses and creative industries. But Auckland and Tauranga will be growing even faster because they already have the clear demographic edge. Meanwhile Sydney and Melbourne will be doing better still as city economies.
So Christchurch has to concentrate on its true natural advantages, says Cox. And when it comes to NZIER's analysis, these are simply the two things that Canterbury can be a premium-quality food basket for the world, and that Christchurch can get a free ride in being the tourist and freight gateway for the South Island.
Again, news that is no surprise for those who are in business in Canterbury. But Cox says our politicians and the general public may not have the same tight focus on how the region's bread is buttered. The job of the CfC will be to get people to think through the actions and policies needed to make the most of the advantages the province does have.
Cox says it is easy to point to some of the failures of foresight in the past. A topical one, for example, is irrigation. What if 50 years ago, Canterbury had asked the question of who should own the region's water?
The value of Alpine dam storage to offset the summer dryness of the plains was obvious back then. The solution in those days could have been the Crown deciding to pipe the plains as a national initiative and delivering water to the farm gate for a tariff.
Instead a disorderly regime of "first come" water consents developed. Farmers gained water rights to local rivers and aquifers as a private asset which then became wrapped into their land values. Now the opportunity to use water charging to pay for the desired new irrigation schemes has been lost, creating a troublesome funding gap.
Another example highlighted in the NZIER report is agroforesty. Back in the 1980s, Lincoln University was experimenting with paddocks of trees mixed with crops and stock. The idea was that trees grow deeper roots that fan out underneath the pasture level and catch the water and nitrates which might otherwise get away.
If the trees were planted in spaced rows, far enough apart to let sunshine through inbetween, farmers could have shelter belts to reduce erosion and evaporation, together with a second income stream. A double dip with environmental benefits.
Lincoln's researchers reported productivity gains of 30 per cent plus from their trial fields. But probably because trees are an upfront cost and farmers are pushed for immediate returns, agroforesty never took off. Cox says a 50 year view of Canterbury might lead to the public policies needed to promote just this kind of strategic farming change.
It is about thinking things through, he says. If Canterbury is serious about farming being its future, then Lincoln and its research institutes need better funding. "There's no reason why the Lincoln hub can't be the centre for research and development for temperate climate agriculture in the world."
Likewise, if the profits are in high end produce, the food basket approach, then there needs to be investment in a Canterbury brand. The province should have a strategy for selling itself to the world as the home of top quality, safe and traceable food.
The internet means much of Canterbury's future success could lie in small home businesses selling their niche products direct internationally. The next manuka honey or deer velvet. So who is going to ensure there is the entrepreneurial training and export infrastructure to support that?
And really thinking it through, says Cox, if agriculture does double and triple in scale, what is that going to mean when the rapid job growth is in rural towns rather than inside Christchurch?
"Look at where Fonterra, Oceania or Synlait now put their processing plants. It's not the city. So you are going to get a demographic shift. And what are the consequences of that over 50 years?" he asks.
It is the same with Christchurch and its role as the South Island's gateway city. Some serious blunders have been made because Christchurch has gone through a time of being distracted by other more fashionable economic possibilities, Cox says.
The airport is a classic. Christchurch does own its airport and has invested heavily in its expansion. With the South Island such a hot tourist destination, it was sure to be an earner, anchoring a whole ecosystem of local freight and visitor businesses.
But then, helped by the disruption of the earthquakes, Queenstown has been allowed to sneak up on the outside as an alternative. Auckland Airport took a partnership stake in Queenstown, giving it the cash to develop. And with Air New Zealand now wanting to hub all its international services out of Auckland, Christchurch risks being cut out of the best part of the market.
Taking the ruthless business view, Cox says the city should have foreseen and controlled this situation by getting in and buying into Queenstown Airport first.
Much the same story with Canterbury's two ports, says Cox. Christchurch understood Lyttelton was critical to the city's gateway role. But then parochially that set it against Timaru's PrimePort as the big competitor.
Cox says the longer-term "good for Canterbury" view would have seen having two ports as an important regional safeguard – insurance for events like earthquakes.
And again because Christchurch chose to compete rather than strategically partner, it was the Port of Tauranga that swooped down South to grab a stake – a move which will take Christchurch out of the equation if eventually international container ships decide to hub their services out of a single New Zealand port.
Cox says it is the Golden Triangle effect in action once more. Christchurch needs to be focused on the long-term economic trends – where it fits into the larger picture and what it must do to protect what really matters.
Fortunately the political pendulum has swung back towards a whole-of-Canterbury approach when it comes to the region's development, he says. The Committee for Canterbury has come along at the right moment.
Still there will be the need to prove itself. One of the suspicions will be around how the Committee does manage its public debate.
Cox says it is important that even the Case for Canterbury is meant to be open for discussion. The CfC is looking around to see who agrees. But the "committee for" model is not a free-for-all. The group will publish its research, however it sees much of the active debate taking place inside its membership organisations.
"What I'd like to think happens is that our members take the Case for Canterbury and encourage their staff to talk about it around the coffee table or wherever. Maybe even set aside a couple of hours a month and say let's consider what this means."
In the same way, the "committee for" model has an emerging leader development programme. Gesturing towards his grey hair, Cox says an important part of what it does is groom the next generation of a region's leadership.
"It's not much point me being involved in making those decisions about the future. It's not my future. So part of my passion about the Committee for Canterbury is that you get the younger leaders stepping up and saying this is what we want in the next 30 to 50 years."
By young, Cox means the 30 to 45 year olds who have a good understanding of life, but are usually too busy with careers, or disengaged from local politics, to contribute.
CfC will recruit about 20 a year and run them through a $5000 Future Canterbury programme complete with residential courses, evening workshops and one-on-one mentorship. But once more, it will be membership organisations that get to volunteer the names. It could look a charmed circle.
Cox replies that the members pay for the programme. And anyway, the high flying talent is going to be found within local organisations almost by definition. The task of the CfC is to get people to step outside of their own immediate world and take that Canterbury-wide, long-term social perspective.
To address the concerns over being properly representative, Cox says he has insisted CfC strikes a strict 50/50 membership split. Half business, but half also civic, community and charity organisations.
The corporate members have to cough up $10,000 a year. But for small firms of less than 25 staff, the fee will be $2000. Then for community representatives, it is just $1000.
So the Salvation Army, Christchurch City Mission, Lincoln University and University of Canterbury are all foundation members of the CfC, Cox points out. The initial board of trustees is also half drawn from community organisations.
The goal is a balanced discussion – one giving full weight to social and environmental views. And the rigorous approach to creating that balance is another way the CfC is departing from the template, Cox says.
So no big business agendas or shadow governments. Instead, Cox says the CfC fits the mood for Canterbury to get organised as a region, concentrate on its natural advantages and develop a multi-decade vision that everyone understands and buys into.
Get that part right and the organisational chart, the political framework to implement the vision, should follow along of its own accord.
The Case for Canterbury – its five pillars
★ The food basket: In a world more and more pressured by climate change, population growth and increasing demand and social affluence from the emerging middle class in Asia-Pacific markets, and from Australia, Canterbury will be well placed as the food basket of choice.
★ Technologies and business in a new world: Canterbury will look to new opportunities driven by technology and research, innovation, engineering and food processing to extend the traditionally important employment and economic activity role of the business sector.
★ Lifestyle, education and a healthy balance: Education, knowledge and health are the critical enablers for the Case for Canterbury. Whilst already well regarded for its high quality secondary and tertiary education, Canterbury has the potential to pursue wider and far reaching learning for all.
★ Tourism and visitors: Traditionally, the region's tourism strategy has been heavily focused on Christchurch as the gateway to the South Island. This was challenged by the 2010/11 earthquakes, and more recently by the emergence of Queenstown as a direct arrival destination. What are the new opportunities ahead?
★ Cantabrians for the future: We want to tap into the energy and insight of the region's emerging leaders, cultivate their passion for Canterbury and help channel it into making the region the best possible place to be.
Who's who at the CfC – the trustees.
Gill Cox, chair, charted accountant and professional director.
Erin Jackson, chief executive, former Canterbury University student president.
Garry Jackson, former Hurunui mayor and Ford Motor marketing executive.
Janie Annear, former Timaru mayor and local government commissioner.
Trevor McIntyre, former Christchurch Boy's High headmaster.
Abbas Nazari, Canterbury University post-grad student and Afghani refugee.
Emma Twaddell, NZer of the Year local hero for post-quake community work.
Andrew Priest, chief of Ngai Tahu's farming operations.
Darren Wright, chair of Cera Community Forum and Sumner residents association.
Mark Christensen, partner at Christchurch law firm Anderson Lloyd.
Neil Cameron, manager of Christchurch advertising agency, Harvey Cameron.
Grant Edmundson, Christchurch commercial lawyer and businessman.
Who's who at the CfC – the founding members.
University of Canterbury
Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu
Anderson Lloyd law
The Salvation Army
Christchurch City Mission
Canterbury Young Professionals