Painting the town red

Last updated 09:11 22/12/2012
labour

LABOUR'S FORCE: Ruth Dyson, Lianne Dalziel and Megan Woods.

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Christchurch was long regarded as a Labour town, but since the earthquakes and the 2011 election, the picture has changed. So, how does Labour intend to take the city back? PHILIP MATTHEWS asks three of its local MPs.

On a Monday night, sometime after 10pm, Christchurch East MP and Labour's Earthquake Recovery spokeswoman Lianne Dalziel sends a series of messages from her Twitter account. The four tweets come in quick succession, suggestive of a release of anger or frustration, as rhetorical questions thrown into the ether.

The first: "Just back from Brooklands & feel miserable - I remember PM going there & promising the world - now they can't even get a reply from him."

Then the second: "Why does anyone think it's fair that government forcing people to sell red zoned sections for half the rating valuation? What's wrong?"

Then the third: "Why does no-one outside chch know that so many people are being ripped off by PM with threat of compulsory acquisition to force sale?"

Then the fourth: "Last rant for the night - there are not enough brick walls left standing in chch for me to bang my head against - PM won't listen."

Five hours earlier, Dalziel is at the St Asaph St Kitchen and Stray Dog Bar in central Christchurch. It is a bright, hot afternoon in early summer. This part of town, the Manchester-Tuam-St Asaph quarter, is one of the most unrecognisable parts of post-quake Christchurch, where a new city is clearly taking shape.

The notion is to put Christchurch's three Labour electorate MPs - Dalziel, Ruth Dyson and Megan Woods - around a table at the end of another unusual year to take stock. All three drink coffee; no one touches alcohol. Fairfax offers to pay the bill but Dyson beats us to it.

The impetus for the meeting is a survey from Labour to 135,000 Christchurch households in October. The education ministry's controversial school closure proposals were the catalyst, and the survey asked about education, earthquake recovery and heritage buildings.

That was a couple of months ago. What results, if any, have come back? How will the information contribute to the revival of Labour's fortunes in the city?

One: Schools are almost the only issue

Certain names recur in the conversation. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) chief executive Roger Sutton. Prime Minister John Key.

Talk ranges broadly, but the city's biggest issue keeps rearing its head. Schools. The semi-mythical Christchurch question used to be about the school you went to. Now it's about whether your local school is closing down and whether the Ministry of Education has given you a satisfactory reason.

Port Hills MP Ruth Dyson remembers a meeting with former Education Minister Anne Tolley, after the February 22 earthquake but before the election. There were innovative ideas.

"It was about how education was going to be delivered instead of where," Dyson says. "I actually got really excited by that. I thought it was a big chance. We've got some damage, we've got a big population shift, we can do it better."

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Are people now looking back fondly on the days of Anne Tolley?

Dyson: "No, I didn't say that. But I did think it was a really good chance and suddenly it all went to pieces."

Wigram MP Megan Woods: "So many good ideas have come up at the school meetings. Everyone knew there was going to be change. No one wants everything to be exactly the same. But there is no sense that it is a consulation. People feel like it's being done to them. There is real tension between people who are desperate for hope that the consultation is genuine and people saying the Government won't take any notice."

Political life is a succession of meetings. Meetings with advisers, with opposition, with volunteers, with your public. There are meetings within meetings: at one point, Dyson removes herself from the interview to take part in a conference call. She is within another, virtual meeting a couple of tables away. Dalziel is both here and elsewhere too, as she taps out a press release about the just- released CTV building report on her phone while answering a question about something else entirely.

That something else is the Government's quick backdown on the proposals to merge the city's two boys' schools and two girls' schools.

"Why do you think that was?" Dalziel says, looking up. "Because the Christchurch Boys' High old boys' network went nuts on emails and telephone calls to Gerry Brownlee. 'We don't want them coming over here.' They used the excuse of having no geotech report.

"They never expected it to go out into the public arena the way it did. That's because they didn't think."

Two: so much unexpected anger

Meetings and more meetings. In the evenings, when back in Christchurch, there have been packed meetings in school halls over proposed school closures. Observe the community response and note how suddenly anger flares up.

There was a school meeting in the east over the Shirley Boys' and Avonside Girls' proposals. It was the last audience question of the night, Dalziel remembers. Things had been going quite well and then, out of nowhere, "the guy completely lost it. He went 'blah blah blah blah' and then started screaming".

Dalziel: "People are like that here. I keep trying to explain to people from out of Christchurch that I've got people coming into my office every day that range from abject despair to incandescent rage."

Dyson remembers similar scenes at a "terrible" local government and environment committee meeting about ECan last month. It was chaired by National's Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner.

Dyson: "One guy, actually one of my constituents, was really angry and he was trying to hold it together and there were only about 20 people in the audience. And then he just slammed his fist on the table. He started yelling: 'This is outrageous!' It was as though he gave license to other people. Next minute, people were shouting and yelling.

"Nicky didn't know what to do. She got up and said 'Get out, get out!' It made people more angry that she was just going to close it all down. When they went out, Lianne and Nicky talked to them and everyone except Sam Mahon agreed to come back."

It was at that meeting that Mahon famously told Government officials to "f... off back to Wellington".

This anger: is it entirely post- earthquake?

Dyson: "When they made the original ECan decision in 2010, the protests were massive, for Christchurch especially. This is not a demonstration city. It's not like Wellington central, where it's sort of their job."

Anyway, what can be said about the survey of Christchurch households? It is too soon to say much. The results will be finalised next year. The online survey is still running and questionnaires are still coming in. But Dalziel can offer a quick preview: "The overwhelming message thus far is that the Government's not listening to the people."

Woods: "But you're picking that feeling up everywhere. In Hornby on the weekend, I had 11 people in total come up and volunteer to deliver leaflets. It might not a sound a lot but 11 new deliverers in one weekend without hounding anybody is quite something. And Hornby is a place that you could argue has had very little earthquake damage."

That said, the earthquake has had different, less predictable effects there.

Woods: "If you live in Hornby, your rent's gone up from $280 to $360 because everybody wants to live in Hornby, as it's solid ground. These are people who were going to be struggling whether or not there was an earthquake. They don't have any money. They haven't had a pay rise in a long time."

Three: new maps of Christchurch

Was the 2011 election lost in Christchurch? Former Labour Party president and political commentator Mike Williams is fond of saying that the swing to National in Christchurch won the Government re-election and that a swing against National here in 2014 would be decisive in tipping the Government out. He uses it to illustrate the consequences if Brownlee and Key mess up the recovery.

But is it true? To Labour MPs on the ground here, it seems like a simplistic reading of election results. If you look at the 2011 party vote, Labour's share in Christchurch was in line with Dunedin and the rest of the South Island. It seems less like a localised endorsement than part of a wider trend.

That said, there is a truism that leaders are returned to power after a disaster if they are seen to be generally doing the right thing.

Dalziel: "Bob Parker got re-elected, for example. But a lot's changed in 12 months."

The gains and loses at the electorate level are harder to interpret than party votes. Dalziel and Dyson's majorities stayed more or less constant from 2008 to 2011. Labour's Clayton Cosgrove lost Waimakariri in 2011 but Dalziel thinks he won against the odds in 2008. Woods won Wigram in 2011, coming in as the preferred candidate of Jim Anderton who held the electorate since 1984, when it was called Sydenham, but the majority was reduced.

The hardest to understand is Christchurch Central. Since it was formed in 1946, it has been a safe Labour seat, and the idea that the heart of Christchurch would ever go from red to blue seemed impossible.

For example, Dalziel won Christchurch Central in 1990, during the biggest swing against Labour in more than a generation. She had to ring former Christchurch Central MP Geoffrey Palmer and break the bad news: Labour had lost one booth. Palmer told her that had never happened before.

But since MMP was introduced in 1996, it has been more marginal, Dalziel says. In 1996, the old Christchurch Central seat merged with St Albans, which swung between blue and red. Tim Barnett built the Labour vote back up from a close result and Dalziel thinks that Brendon Burns was on track to do the same until the earthquakes shifted populations and closed polls.

Electorates seem to be ever- evolving. Expect the boundaries to change again, and more dramatically than usual, before 2014. But where and how? The next census, in March 2013, will determine how the population has shifted. By the end of 2013, there should be provisional boundaries, and final ones early in 2014.

Between now and then, Labour would have to pick a new Christchurch Central candidate, with Burns out of the picture. But will there even be a Christchurch Central?

There is a theory that the city could lose an electorate. Dalziel: "Christchurch Central, in my view. But I don't know. I just say this because it annoys Nicky Wagner."

But it is plausible. Dalziel's Christchurch East boundary can only go west. In this scenario, Christchurch Central would disappear and Christchurch North could be reinstated.

There would be other shifts in the south-west, around the Wigram/ Selwyn border. New subdivisions are springing up all the way through. Woods: "That's one of the reasons why none of my constituents can understand why they have school closures. All you're seeing everywhere is houses being built."

Again, Christchurch's big topic rears its head. The Labour MPs believe that school closure proposals should have waited until we have new census data, at the very least.

Woods: "There have been no formal demographic studies done. They've relied on piecemeal bits of information from developers and local body authorities on where the consents are. There's no helicopter view of where people are living."

Dyson: "There are no projections of where people are going to live in the schools data. Which is crazy."

Four: thinking local

Anyway, the next election is slightly less than two years away.A much more tangible goal is the local body elections in 2013.

"Local body results start to be an early warning system for a shift," Woods says, meaning that council elections will be crucial.

This is grassroots politics. In Christchurch, two community board by-elections have been won by Labour-branded candidates. They were in Spreydon/Heathcote and Riccarton/Wigram. "One of which we shouldn't have won, actually," Woods says. By that she means that Bob Shearing was expected to take the Riccarton/Wigram by-election in June but People's Choice candidate Natalie Bryden won instead.

Woods: "It's not a community board that is naturally Labour. We also got the fifth seat on the Spreydon/ Heathcote community board. Now People's Choice have all the seats on that board.

"We have a lot of really strong young activists in Christchurch, which is a positive sign. Winning those by-elections was largely the work of young Labour getting out and campaigning hard. It's growing."

Who will stand for council next year? Will there be a clean-out of underperforming councillors? Will a few opt not to run again? "There are so many rumours swirling around over who's standing and who isn't," Woods says.

And for mayor? One persistent rumour is that even the Left would get behind a Tim Carter mayoral bid, in order to tip out Bob Parker. Is it that simple?

"Early days," Dalziel says. 'There might be a surprise candidate out of left field."

Five: new narratives

For most of 2012, news about Labour was dominated by questions about David Shearer's leadership. Could he last until 2014 or would David Cunliffe knife him? That appears to have been settled, publicly at least, by the party's annual conference in November.

The line is that the leadership stuff was a sideshow. The big moments? For Woods, the announcement of policy to build 100,000 new houses was the most important, as a clear ideological distinction between Labour and National.

"It's about a government that's going to be hands-on," Woods says. "In stark contrast to the National Government sitting back and waiting for the market to magically do it.

"It's about governments being brave and deciding they are going to do some big picture stuff. I'm a historian. When you look at when New Zealand has taken its big leaps forward, it's been when there has been active government, whether it's Julius Vogel and the railways or the first Labour Government."

Dalziel: "I feel like Key's been let off the hook. I look at him and I see a money trader, fresh from the global financial crisis. Being hands-off is about not having a philosophical base. I know that I can have a philosophical conversation with Shearer because I have, many times over. I brought him down here before he was the leader, to talk about recovery in my electorate before I was even the spokesperson. He gets it, whereas all Key is thinking about is what it looks like and sounds like and how much he can paper over the cracks without dealing with the underlying problems."

The second important thing the three Christchurch MPs brought home from Auckland? It was a Shearer line about earthquake recovery: "From the grassroots up, not the Beehive down."

When he said that from the stage, it was apparently close to messianic. Dyson: "People in my delegation started crying."

Woods: "It did have an amazing response. I had a banner made of it, and had it out at Hornby. People loved it. It's really touching people in a way, that there is someone that believes that. Shearer gets it. But then he should get it - he's been involved in reconstruction in heaps of places."

Do people generally get it outside of Christchurch?

Dalziel: "No. That was last year. That was so last year. Get over it. But that's where the Government's narrative has had some resonance. Their narrative is: 'This is unprecedented. The National Government is committed to rebuilding Christchurch. We're spending $5.5 billion.' Which is a message to the rest of New Zealand that says 'All your money is going into Christchurch'. Or 'We're helping the worst affected people move on'. Another line is 'There is no blueprint. We're doing the best that we can.'

"People are being told they shouldn't complain. That the Government's doing the best that it possibly can."

Woods: "Carpers and moaners."

Dalziel: "I said this in the House the other day. You're a carper and a moaner if you dare to go on Facebook and answer an online survey that Cera should be running, not the residents' association. Cera's not doing the analysis of people's situations that they should have been doing since at least the second earthquake. 'The Press is the enemy of the recovery'. 'If you're a politician, you politicise the disaster.'

"There are plenty of other examples where the attitude is almost 'How dare you challenge us on this? We're doing the best we can.' That's exactly the message I got back from Roger Sutton last week, asking about people who were getting only half of the rating valuation for their land."

Six: not being enemies of the recovery

Are there ways in which Labour in Christchurch has been a microcosm of Labour at a national level? All year, political commentators wondered if the opposition was missing in action. National made mistake after mistake - in education, in the economy, in employment, in welfare - and Labour seemed unable to capitalise.

Similarly, as the Christchurch City Council bickered, Brownlee became increasingly unpopular and the widely liked Sutton seemed invisible, there was no sense that Labour used the opportunity.

But now Labour is starting to break its silence. An opinion piece by Dalziel in the Press in November argued that "it is time for an honest debate about the direction the Christchurch recovery is taking".

The October survey has been interpreted by some as Labour reasserting itself in Christchurch. And this month, Labour MPs combined with Greens and NZ First to deliver a letter from local community groups to John Key, presenting the Labour-Greens-NZ First alternative coalition at a local level.

The three opposition parties combined their views of the cancelled ECan elections, in a submission written by Woods that argued that the Government is "in breach of its international obligations and its commitment to protect, promote, and fulfil the rights of people in New Zealand".

But did Labour hobble itself last year? In April, 2011, it agreed to support the Government's Cera legislation which supported the top- down model that David Shearer now criticises. The Greens voted against it.

"We would have been crucified if we had been against it," Dalziel says. "We would have found it impossible to explain to people why we voted against it."

At the time Dalziel argued that a command and control model was appropriate for the disaster response but not the recovery. The Cera model risked adding another layer of disaster. But Labour was worried about being slammed as anti-recovery by National.

Labour did manage to negotiate one day of submissions on the Cera legislation in Christchurch. At the time, Dalziel wrote on Labour's blog that Cera was created under the State Services Act as a government department. The bill debated in the House did not create Cera but gave it powers. She wrote that the flaw lay in the structure, specifically "allowing a politician to lead the recovery which politicises all critical analysis of what is decided".

Dalziel believes the legislation needs to change. Specifically, the rules around compulsory acquistion for half the rating valuation.

"I believe it was placed there to put pressure on central city landowners who would be holding up a major agreed development. In fact, it's being used in the residential red zone, it's being used as a threat for the people in the frame. You talk to a small landowner in the centre of town, not that far from here, who's in the frame, who knows that the price per metre has been set by a major developer accepting half the rating valuation because all of their real properties are in the centre of town and the value of that land is going up. They can afford to take the loss on the building that they have in the frame."

She asked Key if he thought it was fair. He told her it was.

"He thinks it's perfectly fair because the alternative is compulsory acquistion at market value at the time that they purchased it. It's like a gun at the head.

"I'm thinking that we should put up a private member's bill to amend the act. The Act Party doesn't agree with the compulsory acquisitions of private property and I can't imagine the Maori Party feel very good about it either. I think that there's potential to gain a majority in Parliament for a change in the law. That has to be negotiated in a way that the original legislation never was. We were caught between a rock and a hard place."

Labour's earthquake recovery policy at the last election was to create a wartime cabinet that would put everyone around the table.

Woods: "That's not happening under National. They have wartime powers and wartime regulations essentially and aren't doing the coalition building necessary to wielding those powers."

Dalziel: "This recovery is going to outlast any government. That's why working collaboratively would be good. I'll give you a recent example. I went to see Jim Diers, who was here from Seattle. He talks about the power of neighbourhoods. I was the only MP there and I'd been invited because I'm on the Red Cross earthquake board.

"I was told the other MPs weren't invited. They weren't allowed to be. Who decided that? It was a description of someone who's rather large."

No need to be cryptic this time.

"It was either Gerry Brownlee or his offsider."

THE PROTAGONISTS

 

Lianne Dalziel, 52, has been an MP since 1990 - first for Christchurch Central, then on the list and, since 1999, for Christchurch East. She is Labour's earthquake recovery spokeswoman. She won in 2011, over National's Aaron Gilmore, by 5334 votes.

Ruth Dyson, 55, was a Labour Party president who became an MP in 1993, representing Lyttelton, which later evolved into Banks Peninsula and then Port Hills. She won in 2011, over National's David Carter, by 3097 votes.

Megan Woods, 39, is the newest of the three MPs. She came into Parliament last year as the MP for Wigram. She was formerly a candidate for Jim Anderton's Progressive Party and ran for mayor in 2007, coming second to Bob Parker. She has a doctorate in history. She won in 2011, over National's Sam Collins, by 1500 votes.

- The Press

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