Parker takes punt on standing another term

03:53, Aug 25 2012

Embattled Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker says he will fight to keep his job at the next elections. He explains to JOHN McCRONE how he is providing the right leadership the city needs.

The answer comes even before I can properly finish the question. Absolutely, says Bob Parker with a hard smile. He will be seeking re- election in October next year, standing for a third term as mayor of Christchurch City Council.

Given the year Parker has just had, and the year ahead he faces, you might have expected at least a moment of hesitancy or reflection.

But high in his spacious mayoral office, his day already running late following an urgent council meeting about the red- zoning of rockfall properties and, still with a full evening of engagements to go, Parker seems surprisingly chipper. Back in control. Focused on the long term. Unblinking in his principles. Tough on his foes.

Is this display of confidence just for show?

I felt I had witnessed a telling off-camera moment back in June.


Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee was hosting the great and the good of Christchurch politics at a Crusaders' home game against the Highlanders.

In the corporate box at the top of the stands, MPs, city councillors and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) officials were mingling, drinks in hand, crowding the bright-lit bar area. It was a group of people in motion with plenty to talk about, jokes to crack, catching up to do.

Parker was there too, but he had taken himself off to sit alone in the empty row of reserved seats in the dark below. He was happy to be absorbed in the game and not part of the jolly party. Or certainly he gave the appearance of being so.

Parker looked a politician cut adrift. Sidelined in the game of power, just as the entire council seems to have been sidelined this year as Brownlee, Cera, and Cera's Central City Development Unit (CCDU) have swept in to take over the running of Christchurch and its earthquake recovery.

Parker may have been the man of the moment, the calm eye of the storm, during the emergency when the quakes first hit, but in the recovery phase - when the council actually needs to be asserting robust leadership - it appears that Parker and his controversial chief executive, Tony Marryatt, are increasingly being treated as a hindrance, even an irrelevance.

Parker's critics are finding it easy to construct a story of a politician simply awaiting his coup de grace.

He had become the famous control-meister who in fact allowed his council table to spin out of control, disintegrate into directionless squabbling, creating the void that forced the Government to step in.

Parker was a show pony, not good at forging relationships, intolerant of dissent, continually a victim of a desire for the mayoralty to run as a seamlessly staged television production.

Just look at Parker's two- fingered approach over the plans for a ratepayer-funded jaunt around six of Christchurch's sister cities, remarks one councillor in confidence. It seems like the behaviour of a person who is beyond caring, who knows his time is up and now just wants to play the 'earthquake mayor', having his ego massaged at a succession of foreign civic receptions.

So it is a surprise how fast Parker confirms he will be standing again - and how convinced he also seems that he is providing the strong leadership that Christchurch requires in these most disrupted of times.

There is little doubt about the low point. Last Christmas, the wheels nearly did drop off the council, Parker admits. But he reiterates that it was he who called in the Government, and not the other way round.

Parker believes his second term of office got off to a rocky start because his team of councillors never had the chance to bed in. Christchurch was in the middle of the trauma of the earthquakes. With some of the many new faces around the table, working relationships failed to form.

The friction came to a head over the reappointment of Marryatt then, salt in the wound for Marryatt's opponents, the council chief executive gets a 14 per cent performance pay rise.

What Parker could not stomach - a thread running through all his assessments of his own performance, and that of others - is those on the losing side of the argument did not stick to the proper process, the formal rules of the game.

In particular, closed-door discussions about Marryatt's contract were leaked to gain a political advantage.

'I don't like people who leak information. They're destructive and awful,' says Parker.

It was a cut-and-dried issue, he says. Marryatt had rights as an employee that needed to be honoured.

'If you can't abide by the simple principles of trust and the majority rules, then you're in the wrong place. As a councillor, you have a right to have an opinion, but you must respect the people you work with, and you must respect the people who work for you, otherwise you are simply a figure seeking to undermine a process that has served a city well.'

Regardless, he acknowledges that by January the council table was self-destructing.

One councillor had already resigned, complaining of division and dysfunction. Citizen groups were rallying outside the door, calling for Marryatt's sacking and emergency elections. Other councillors were saying the Government probably did need to step in with commissioners just as it had done with Environment Canterbury (ECan).

Parker appeared to have failed the leadership test. It was his job to forge a governing consensus yet he had allowed it to become all too poisonously personal. But Parker says instead he showed leadership because it was he who eventually swallowed any pride and brought in the Government.

'I picked up the phone and asked for help. Isn't that a good thing to do? If you're in a difficult situation and you want to see democracy continue in your council, do you stand back and watch it fall over, or do you actively engage in the process of trying to make it continue.'

The Government installed former Nelson mayor Kerry Marshall as a Crown observer to sit in on meetings and restore discipline. Parker says this was a far better outcome for the city than appointing commissioners, or calling emergency elections, which would have stalled any recovery.

Still, it was a humiliating time for Parker. And the very worst moment came in February when Brownlee publicly called him a 'clown'. 'That really cut me up,' Parker says.

The comment was specifically aimed at a claim by Parker that Cera's extraordinary powers might be used to compel the council to raise rates, or sell assets such as the airport, to fund the recovery. Brownlee said Parker had simply got his facts wrong because the Cera act did not allow that.

But the word still stung because it signalled how low Parker had fallen in people's political estimation - in the list of people it was felt safe to offend.

'I thought then, God, have I failed? Because if the minister doesn't have confidence in me, if that's what he actually thinks, then I should resign. I'm in the way of my city's recovery.'

However, Parker says he talked to Brownlee. It was accepted the earthquakes were putting everyone under a great deal of strain and Brownlee did have a tendency to shoot from the hip. What was more important was to keep the long-term objectives of Christchurch in sight.

'Why do we occasionally have to eat a bit of humble pie and take the odd flick from the minister? It's because there's a bigger picture here. This isn't about individual councillors or the mayor, it's about what is the best ultimate outcome for our city,' says Parker.

The council survived its New Year crisis. But the internal differences around the council table look to have been only patched over. Despite the five months under an observer, one councillor describes the situation as 'simmering volcanoes'.

He says nothing will be really sorted until the next elections. If people are quiet, it is only because they are keeping their powder dry.

And also the Government, through Cera, was forced to take on much more of the responsibility for steering the recovery. That is why it set up the CCDU to lead the rebuild of the central city.

'It's been like a reverse sacking. Rather than getting rid of Tony Marryatt, they've left him where he is and taken some of his best staff off to form the new unit. Effectively [CCDU director] Warwick Isaacs has become the city's CEO - the town clerk from Timaru. That must really hurt Marryatt.'

Sidelined and powerless? Parker believes this is a wild mis- reading of the situation.

Parker agrees Cera might be playing the dominant role. But its authority only lasts five years and, in the longer run, it is still the council that must speak for the city and its aspirations.

'They won't be here in three years' time and we will be here in 300 years' time,' says Parker.

'The Cera legislation has a ticking clock and, in order to transition, that means they're going to have to start packing up before the end. So this all ends up back in the hands of our community.'

Parker says the CCDU's existence is being painted as a result of the council's failure to deliver. Yet, in fact, the new central city blueprint is based directly on the council's Share an Idea consultation exercise and the draft city plan that followed.

Look closely, he says, and the CCDU has retained 70 per cent of the planning regulations that in April Brownlee dismissed as unworkable. And even the creation of an investment unit such as the CCDU was envisaged in council thinking.

So, in the end, it seems a ringing endorsement of what the council wanted to do, says Parker. The Government just had the ability to make it all happen on a rather more ambitious scale.

Parker says it was with some glee at the blueprint launch that he could throw back at Brownlee another earlier barb about the council's draft masterplan. 'Slightly tongue in cheek I said to Gerry: 'Great wish-list.' I think he got the joke.'

To achieve the next stage of the central-city plan, Parker says Cera will have to work closely with the council. The CCDU has made strong suggestions about the size and position of anchor projects such as a new rugby stadium and library, but the council will have the final say on anything it is expected to fund.

With the Christchurch Town Hall, for example, the CCDU Blueprint sees it being bulldozed and the insurance money going into a smaller 1500-seat auditorium as part of a performing arts precinct off Cathedral Square.

However, the council has already said the town hall needs to be preserved as a heritage landmark if possible. Parker says that decision awaits more detailed geotechnical reports.

He says the council also sees aspects of the blueprint as 'undercooked'. Christchurch still needs a debate about a new traffic plan - all those choices about cycleways, bus routes, light rail and one-way systems. And much more focus is required on the residential elements in the central- city plan.

'In both of those areas . . . there is a lot of knowledge, a lot of intellectual property, that resides within the council. And I think what we'll find in the months and years ahead is that the CCDU and council will become effectively the one body.'

Looking wider, says Parker, the council will be deeply involved in the recovery of the suburbs, the rebuild of the roads and the sewers, and the revival of tourism and the local economy. It is going to have to be a full partner in the political process and he expects this will steadily be formalised in the various decision-making arrangements.

Power must again come back into local hands.

? ? ?

So what of Parker the man, the leader? Politics can be a cruel business and Parker does seem to have a thinner skin than most.

Possibly this stems from operating somewhat in isolation - most politicians work within a party machine, with colleagues on hand to lend emotional support.

And probably also because he expects the world to be a fair place, run on principles and logic rather than connections and back- scratching deals.

The easiest charge to throw at Parker is that he is superficial, that the former TV frontman of This Is Your Life is a light entertainer who applies the same glib presenter skills to managing New Zealand's second city.

Because he avoids a definite political label, the feeling is Parker does not stand for anything and is just mayor to feed his ego.

Somewhat testily he says: 'I can't see why the fact I spent 15 years in the media should be a reason why I should not be involved in this job. I don't accept the shallow psychological analysis of me that comes from those who dislike me.'

Parker's own view is that a modern city has to be run on strategies, not ideologies. 'That old Left/Right thinking is like a dinosaur. It's dead.'

Parker says Christchurch used to be a blue-collar town. 'The city I grew up in was a very working class, manufacturing-driven, city. An industrial place with chemical factories, slaughterhouses, railway workshops.'

Now, however, it needs to be a city focused on its future with politics driven by facts rather than beliefs.

One of those key facts happens to be scrawled out in blue felt-tip on a whiteboard in the corner of Parker's office. 'In 20 years, the average age in Christchurch will be 65,' it reads.

Think of the consequences of that when it comes to local economics and city planning, he says. Likewise, think of the impact of the population of greater Christchurch swelling from half a million to 700,000 people over the same time.

Parker says politics becomes straightforward - it is easy to know what you stand for - when you are looking to the long-term needs of a city. It is also why he may seem impatient about certain councillors who appear to play the game of disagreeing just for the sake of being seen to disagree.

'I don't really give a damn what your politics are. It's about what's your level of respect and trust for the process we are engaged in. There's nothing that someone sitting around my table that by and large wants to achieve that I don't also want to achieve. So that's what I find frustrating.'

The controversy over the sister- city visits is an example. Christchurch has civic relations with seven - Adelaide, Seattle, Wuhan and Gansu in China, Songpa-Gu in South Korea, Kurashiki in Japan, and then Christchurch's namesake in England.

Parker's opponents found it convenient that council officials delivered a report that argued both the mayor and mayoress should travel to each at least once during a mayoral term.

Parker says it's another case that comes down to plain principle. Does the city value the potential commercial benefits from these overseas ties? If it was just about him having free trips, he has already turned down 50-plus paid international speaking engagements since the earthquakes.

'Look, I didn't invent sister cities. I think I've only been on one visit in all my time as mayor.

"So the only question I have for my council is that you either support the sister cities, or we need to be honest and tell them we're not going to do it.'

It is a valid stance. Parker, the non-politician, being guided by what is right and proper rather than being swayed by popular opinion or representing some political clique. And he expects others to act the same.

Every story has two sides, though. Parker hates mention of the Henderson properties, the council's hasty $17 million buyout of a distressed developer's central- city assets, or other pre-quake decisions that strained most people's notions of due process.

It seems obvious that another reason why Parker has struggled to control the council table in his second term is quite a few councillors felt he should never have been re-elected. Until the September 4 earthquake gave him a chance to shine, Parker was well behind former Wigram MP Jim Anderton in the polls.

But Parker disputes the claim that his has been a lame-duck mayoralty, never able to deal with the earthquake recovery adequately because it was always mired in its own council-table dysfunction.

He accepts the past year has been tough and says the scale of events would have overwhelmed any council and it is natural the Government has taken the leadership role it has.

But he now feels more upbeat. The central city has its blueprint, the land issues are being sorted in the suburbs, and the council will come back into the frame as the authority in charge of the city's long-term direction.

'I've been through two years of the most challenging personal and professional stresses in my life and I'm still here. I've still got a majority around my council table who are passing most of the decisions we make. I've still got my chief executive. We're still functioning. We're still delivering in our community.'

And next year, once the rebuild starts in earnest, Christchurch is going to seem a much more optimistic place, Parker says.

'We will have an incredible return of insurance money, real genuine cash, coming into the city. We'll have full employment. We'll have levels of growth of around 8 to 10 per cent in this province that you'd be getting somewhere like China. We'll be an economic bright spot compared to a lot of the world.'

So looking ahead, there will also be plenty of time for judgments to change and for perceptions of his leadership to take an upswing again.

A third term as mayor of Christchurch City? Absolutely - why not? Parker says.

The Press