Race to decide who's the boss

Last updated 10:00 22/06/2013
dalziel parker

WHO WILL WIN? Bob Parker and Lianne Dalziel will face off in the race for the Christchurch mayoralty.

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What sort of mayor does Christchurch need and does Bob Parker or Lianne Dalziel measure up? JOHN McCRONE reports.

The battle is on between the 16th and 17th most powerful people in Christchurch. Well, at least going by the ratings of The Press Power List, compiled in May.

Mayors always used to rank an automatic No 1. So it shows that whether it is Bob Parker returned for a third term in October, or Christchurch East Labour MP Lianne Dalziel who has the dangly gold chain of office around her neck, both have a mountain to climb.

There has been a government takeover of Christchurch and the question is can the next mayor stand up for the recovering city, take charge of its direction once again.

It is telling that the first response of most people on hearing Dalziel has finally declared her candidacy was: "Will she be able to work with Gerry?"

Parker has certainly had a rough ride. Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has been the charging bull, sweeping along with his team of personal advisers, expecting city folk to keep up as best they can.

Parker and his council table have been kept off-balance - most likely deliberately - by Brownlee's disconcerting mix of support and criticism.

They have had the minister praising them for their stout co- operation in the morning, blasting them as buffoons by mid- afternoon, then being back to a matey "we're all in this together for the good of Christchurch", at some evening social do.

It has not been Brownlee's style to slow down for cross-party consultations, consensus building sessions, or anything else that might suggest other than that he is the boss and the only really critical bit of information others need to know is how high to jump.

So Parker has continually found himself in front of the cameras with gritted smile, explaining how Brownlee's latest "media missile" is basically another miscommunication between friends.

Hence the question of how Dalziel would fare as mayor given the way she and her parliamentary colleagues have been repeatedly snubbed by Brownlee, often quite publicly and humiliatingly, in their attempts to make themselves part of the recovery process.

What level of pent-up anger lurks there? What potential for relationships to turn really sour?

Christchurch needs to make a choice. Many say this is the most important mayoral contest in the city's history, hands down. So who is better suited for the role - a conciliator or a fighter?

What qualities, what ideas, what tactics, will each candidate bring to the next three years of the Christchurch recovery?

*****

It is a big day for Dalziel. Not only has she given up on a long parliamentary career, officially announced her mayoralty bid after being "99 per cent sure" she would not stand, but the workmen have finished laying the carpet in her ensuite bedroom.

Dalziel, 52, married to lawyer Rob Davidson, lost her Bexley home in the earthquakes and has been a year in her new house in Burwood. Proudly she shows off the just completed bathroom conversion and walk-in wardrobe. At last, a feeling of settling back in after so much disruption.

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In the lounge, a pellet fire gives off a warming glow. Congratulatory messages are arriving on her iPhone. That is a chore to add to her checklist, Dalziel reminds herself. She needs to go buy her own phone and laptop as her parliamentary ones will have to be returned soon.

Dalziel says it took arch-Parker critic, councillor Tim Carter's decision he would not run for mayor, to finally force her hand. However, now she is in the race, she is all in - win or bust - and relishing the prospect.

So what is her core campaign message? Dalziel says she simply wants a complete revolution in how the council is handling the recovery. She wants the doors to be thrown open, the people of the city given the chance to lead the way.

"This is what I've learned from having studied resilience and recovery elsewhere. We have been disempowering communities.

"It's not deliberate, but central government and local government have taken responsibilities off communities, taken them on for themselves, then wonder why communities keep asking us to do everything for them."

Dalziel's diagnosis is that under Parker and his chief executive Tony Marryatt, the council was well adapted to the pre-quake world of parks and libraries, flower shows and rubbish collections.

The city's residents were mostly content with a lip-service consultation on public issues because there were council technocrats making the decisions and life seemed to tick along.

But then the council never managed to shake itself out of this "business as usual" mindset after the quakes.

Dalziel says she can understand Brownlee's displays of frustration and lack of trust as the council has just not proved itself capable of stepping up to the tasks in hand.

"I'm very clear that the council failed to play its proper recovery role from the first September earthquake. There was a huge problem of a lack of leadership, a lack of any strategic plan."

So Dalziel says what happened was the council left a power vacuum which needed to be filled.

"That inaction, and the extent of the financial contribution the Government was going to have to make, were the two driving factors for why it chose to use a government department rather than an independent crown entity to oversee the recovery."

Dalziel says the latest ructions over the council's consenting demonstrate the problems continue. Over the past fortnight it has become known that International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) has been threatening to strip the council of its ability to issue building consents after a failed audit.

"Is there anything more fundamental for the council right now than the consenting process for the rebuild?" Dalziel asks.

Yet she has been over the reports and council minutes and sees no trace of alarm bells having been rung anywhere along the way. "The IANZ investigation was last September. But from August to December, there is no mention to the councillors or planning committee that I can find which mentions there was even an IANZ accreditation process going on and that they'd asked for 17 corrective actions."

It shows a basic problem with governance, she says. "They ought to have been having weekly reports on something like this."

For Dalziel, it confirms a picture of an insular, inward- looking, patch-protecting organisation, beleaguered and even now not responding to the situation it finds itself in. If she is elected mayor, it is the council's culture she most wants to change.

So Brownlee and his jet-in Wellington bureaucracy is not the issue, she says. Brownlee has got up a head of steam largely because there is so little effective alternative. The answer, says Dalziel, is for the council to mobilise the people again. A beam suddenly replaces her frown.

Dalziel says, remember the radical, adventurous spirit Christchurch was feeling around the time of the council's Share an Idea exercise after the February 2011 earthquake?

"It was amazing. That's when we had Sir Richard Leese from Manchester and Doug Ahlers from Havard, wonderful people who came to our city wanting to help."

There was hope because the community felt involved. And it could be that way once more.

Dalziel says she understands how to construct political processes. She has been a cabinet minister herself. She handled a broad range of portfolios - justice, education, women's affairs, senior citizens, immigration, small business, regulatory reform.

For the past year she has been studying recovery in particular because of her appointment to the United Nations advisory group for disaster risk reduction. "That has really opened up my eyes to what the rest of the world is doing."

Her grassroots participatory approach is going to start with her mayoral campaign, Dalziel says.

Rather than launching with a set of prepared policies, she is calling for a community sounding board that will focus public opinion about what the policies ought to be. She hopes to tap a mix of business people, the young, leaders from across the city. "It's got to be diverse otherwise you get the problem of groupthink, a narrow view forming."

If it works, this forum could evolve into a post-election think tank for Christchurch along the lines of the Committee for Melbourne, a non-political steering group for the city.

Then as mayor, Dalziel says she would be looking to host a series of recovery events. "To me, it is core critical to know what you are doing. So early on I would want to have a recovery conference for all councillors, community board chairs, residents' associations, business leaders, the whole lot, where people can learn the process that we are going through."

But most importantly, says Dalziel, she wants to make communities more responsible for their own recovery plans.

Recently she visited Kaeo, the Northland town affected by repeated floods. There people have been allowed to develop their own bottom-up response.

"Kaeo has a liaison committee with official status that represents all of the different local interests. The regional council, the local authority, roading, iwi, farmers, shopkeepers, health - they're all on board.

"So they've got 17 people meeting twice a month. Decisions are made about what's done and what gets rated for. The community has a say in how its money should be spent."

Dalziel says in Christchurch, the central city has had plenty of attention, but the suburban recovery is being neglected.

A few communities, like Sumner and Lyttelton, have been able to pull together their own plans, yet they are not well supported. The council is still nervous of letting go and wants to remain in control.

Over the next three years, she would like to see a consensus- based recovery become the norm everywhere in Christchurch. It just takes a different mentality, she says - a switch from a corporate "we know best" council to one prepared to devolve power as much as possible.

"Leaving people out of the recovery process is incredibly damaging, but bringing them into the process is incredibly powerful. We've got to reignite that hope and excitement we were feeling."

And this is the best way to push back against a top-down, command and control-style recovery, says Dalziel. The council's job is to be the facilitator. Just give communities the access to the information and the right to formulate their ideas, then let them speak. That will create the counter-force that any government will have to listen to.

*****

The lift glides to the sixth floor of the civic offices. On arrival, I am warned Parker's mood might be a little flat this afternoon.

What with that consenting business and another week of locked doors negotiations over the central city blueprint anchor projects, anyone could be excused for flagging.

But in fact Parker appears chipper - stage ready. With Dalziel's entrance, his campaign for re-election has started in earnest. The 2013 mayoral race looks like it will revolve around qualities of trust, leadership, unity and positivity. So is Parker still the man for the job?

Like Dalziel, Parker says he wants to see the community spirit come back. The past three years have been dominated first by the emergency and then by the increasingly heavy-footed presence of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

"Before Cera became the key organisation, we just had the most remarkable people beating a pathway to our door, offering all sorts of help. They were so inspired by a city that wanted to rebuild itself in a green, sustainable, 21st century, people- focused way.

"But after Cera took up the reins with 100-day plans and all that, the enthusiasm just fell away. To me, one of the saddest things was how the Government's approach essentially burned a lot of that off."

However, Parker says by the end of this year, Cera's job will be essentially done. The next three years is going to be about the implementation of the decisions and the steady handing back of power to the city.

"The Government has put a lot of funding in and been doing a good job. Everyone's grateful to them. But it's natural we want them to leave now. We want to have our city back. The structure needs to change. The people of Christchurch need to be closer to the process of the rebuild."

Parker flinches at the accusation he has been too passive, too conciliatory, in the face of a bulldozing Brownlee.

"The reality is the Government's the top dog here. They had the power. They decided they were on the line and they would put in the support for Christchurch in the way they felt comfortable. And that meant they had to subjugate the council to a large degree."

But the relationship between the council and the Government is much closer and more successful than it might appear in public, Parker says. No-one talks about the 90 per cent of things going right in the recovery, he says.

It is council staff who are often working on secondment inside Cera and its offshoots, the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) and the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (Scirt).

"Scirt is going incredibly well. The council has almost 200 staff involved in that project, rebuilding half a century's worth of infrastructure in a five-year period."

Yes, the council table has been tagged dysfunctional and looked on the brink of being replaced by commissioners at times, Parker agrees. But the friction among councillors has been as much about the personal stress of the earthquakes and coping with the reality of the council's disempowerment, he suggests.

As to his own relationship with Brownlee, Parker says many times now he has found himself "taking one for the team". But Brownlee is as determined as anyone to see the right outcomes for Christchurch.

So the other week there was another unpleasant "flick of the towel" from the minister over the council's sitting on the consenting threat. "But then the next night, we were down at Trevinos in Riccarton for a pre-rugby do put on by the rugby union and Gerry was there. He says a few words. 'I know Bob and I are portrayed in the media as being at loggerheads all the time, but it's not really like that.' "

Parker says rather than indulge in public slanging matches which he would only lose, he and his council officers have been quietly concentrating on the negotiations with the Government over the central city anchor projects - the convention centre and rugby stadium, and the question of who pays?

The final wash-up on how the bill will be split is about to be announced and Parker believes the council will have been found to have been strong in standing up for the city.

"We have put some pressure back on the Government and in a week or so the community is going to see the results of what have been incredibly tough negotiations, which in my view have been resolved quite favourably for the city.

"I don't think we would have got that outcome if our process had been one of simply confronting the minister at every turn."

Nailing down government promises on the size of the projects and the cost sharing has been all- important, says Parker. He has had to grin and bear rather a lot.

But now that is out of the way, he believes he will have a freer hand to begin pushing for the transfer of responsibilities back to the council, a winding back of Cera's control to allow more community involvement again.

*****

So who will it be? The vote is still a distant four months off, but it is starting with the feel of being a tight race.

Dalziel may quickly gain ground if her "big ideas" talking shop, her community sounding board approach, make her seem the centre of all that is positive and forward-thinking.

She could also benefit if her decision to stand now emboldens other high-profile candidates to run for council seats.

Dalziel says since her announcement, she has been on the phone already to four or five heavyweights - some surprising names from across the board - saying it's your turn. Christchurch needs a strong and united council table that can wrestle back control of the city's destiny.

Many also will be remembering that Dalziel has been accurate about the recovery's systemic problems right from the start.

She was highlighting the council's business as usual attitude within weeks of the first earthquake. She argued Cera should have had a governance board to stand between officials and the minister.

There seems little doubt that had she been in charge, the Government would have faced a council behaving very differently.

Parker has problems in that he fractured relationships with many people in his first term of office.

With one hasty decision after another - buying flower shows, hiking social housing rents, wheeler-dealering over a music school in the Arts Centre, purchasing central city properties from a bankrupt developer - Parker managed to get offside with almost every significant power lobby in the city.

His critics still have not forgiven him.

But Parker is also the reassuring presence who helped Christchurch through the civil emergency of the earthquakes. And events like the current anchor project negotiations may prove that he has been handling a difficult recovery process in appropriate fashion.

Rolling with the punches might not always be appreciated, but it can be a strength in the right circumstances.

Much could depend on the extent to which the ratepayers of Christchurch do feel disempowered by Brownlee's "take no prisoners" approach to the recovery, the sense of it having become a government-run town.

Is the progress under Parker good enough to outweigh the misgivings over local democracy, or are Dalziel's more radical community politics needed over the next three years?

At least this is one definite decision that the people of Christchurch are going to get to make.

That Power List - again

1 John Key, Prime Minister

2 Gerry Brownlee, Earthquake Recovery Minister

3 Sir Mark Solomon, Ngai Tahu kaiwhakahaere

4 Ian Simpson, Earthquake Commission CEO 5 Dame Margaret Bazley, Environment Canterbury chair

6 Roger Sutton, Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority CEO

7 Joanna Norris, editor, The Press

8 Jacki Johnson, IAG insurance CEO

9 Steven Joyce, Economic Development Minister

10 Hekia Parata, Education Minister

11 Theo Spierings, Fonterra CEO

12 Peter Townsend, Chamber of Commerce CEO

13 Warwick Isaacs, Christchurch Central Development Unit CEO

14 Tim Sole, Civic Assurance CEO

15 Tony Marryatt, Christchurch City Council CEO

16 Bob Parker, Mayor of Christchurch City Council

17 Lianne Dalziel, Labour MP for Christchurch East

- The Press

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