Is this election a game changer?

01:10, Sep 28 2013
Ali Jones
VICTORY: Ali Jones.

It has got real now. The voting papers have arrived. People have just over a week or so to make a decision, get their ballot back in the post, before the October 12 local government election count.

In Christchurch there is going to be a new mayor, a new chief executive, and with five of the 13 councillors bowing out, and a few more liable to miss out, a new look council table.

Four names in particular - Raf Manji in Fendalton-Waimairi, Vicki Buck in Riccarton-Wigram, Erin Jackson in Spreydon- Heathcote and Ali Jones in Shirley-Papanui - appear to be the ones to watch if you want to know whether the power has shifted along with the ground in the new Christchurch.

erin jackson std
YOUNG RUNNER: Erin Jackson.

The four, standing as a loose alliance rather than a traditional party, don't have a handy label, although some are calling them the "indies". However they are co-ordinated, connected and represent something very definite about the city's earthquake recovery.

It is being pitched as the old politics versus the new. Or even the Baby Boomers versus Generation Y.

Out with the top-down command and control model of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. Out with the siloed corporate style "business as usual" governance of departing council chief executive Tony Marryatt.

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VICKI BUCK STD
ANOTHER TILT: Vicki Buck.

There is a new constituency in town represented by all the things that seem youthful, community spirited and self-organising - the Student Volunteer Army, Gap Filler, Ministry of Awesome, Greening the Rubble. The whole transitional city movement.

This constituency is saying that with its first post-quake election, Christchurch has the opportunity to re-invent local politics. The city could become a test-bed for participatory democracy, social entrepreneurship, citizen activism - a bunch of new ideas for how community decisions get made.

There is something in the air all around the world because of the way the internet and social media are rewriting the rules for institutions. Controlling hierarchies are out, collaborative networks are taking over.

RAF STD
NEW APPROACH: Raf Manji.

Christchurch simply has the chance to get to that future a little sooner.

Or so the rhetoric goes.

It could be just the froth on the latte that inevitably accompanies this kind of talk down at the C1 cafe, the Tuesday lunchtime coffee and jam sessions at the Epic innovation hub, or wherever else this particular crowd meets.

So really there are two tests coming up. First have the indies, as a political alternative, created enough of a groundswell of support through their Twitter and Facebook following to be voted in?

Perhaps they should have gone for the greater visibility of a more traditional party structure.

Then second, can their ideas be turned into reality?

Open door e-democracy is fun and exciting to theorise about, but how might it fare in practice given the economic and social realities that post-quake Christchurch is going to face over the next three years?

Monday evening at Aikmans Bar in Merivale. Raf Manji has the microphone and is joking about his London currency trading days and dealings with Prime Minister John Key, then just a fellow trader.

"I was a market maker and had the Prime Minister on the other end of the phone quite often, down in New Zealand in the middle of the night - helping him out of some difficult situations, but I don't want to talk about that," says Manji with a self-deprecating laugh.

As a political novice, up against incumbents like Jamie Gough of the right-leaning Independent Citizens and Claudia Reid who has shifted across from her Banks Peninsula ward, Manji is having to sell his credentials.

And he does turn out to have an interesting back story. The career in finance that made him a lot of money but eventually soured. The return to university for more degrees. The growing involvement in environmental sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

The move with his young family to Christchurch in 2002, after having fallen in love with the city on a gap year in 1988, then the involvement with charities, like Pillars for children of prisoners, and dishing out financial advice at Christchurch Budget Services.

That was an eye-opener he says - "Going from dealing with million dollar trading positions to helping somebody struggling with a $3000 debt."

Looking around the crowd at his launch party, Manji has gathered some impressive support. There is a good slice of business folk, including rich listers Philip Carter and Humphry Rolleston. Old Christchurch appears to be listening.

And there are, of course, his mates from the Ministry of Awesome, the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) and the other post- quake groups.

SVA founder Sam Johnson, in his best suit, does the honours of opening the speeches, lending his mana to Manji's campaign. "He's someone I've got to know over the past few years who has a real business mind but genuinely cares about the community," says Johnson, to warm applause.

Then demonstrating the indies are indeed an alliance, the others - Buck, Jones and Jackson - are introduced.

Buck, as everyone knows, is the former three-term mayor of Christchurch, a champion of youth and environmental causes. Jones is a former talkback radio host, busy since the earthquakes with insurance advisory services and other community action groups.

Jackson, whose father was mayor of Hurunui, is a law student who stayed on after helping organise the Student Volunteer Army to work as president of the University of Canterbury Students' Association.

Earlier, over a coffee, Manji explained the coming together of this group and its ethos.

Manji admits the expectation had been that the city's dissatisfactions with the old council over the past three years would have spawned some kind of official recovery party with a whole slate of high profile candidates - maybe a couple for every ward and people to stand for the community boards too.

This never happened, even though there were plenty of discussions. Many considered but backed away. Actually putting your hand up to be elected, promising to make a difference, is damn daunting, he says.

"There is a real reputational risk for people."

Even Sam Johnson turned down the offer to be Lianne Dalziel's running mate, and indeed has given up his Riccarton- Wigram community board seat, believing he needs more life experience - a real job - before venturing any further in politics.

So there was no super-party with the power to endorse a collection of candidates. But also, says Manji, setting up this kind of party organisation, something to rival the Independent Citizens, People's Choice, or even the breakaway "non-aligned" City First party of councillors Ngaire Button and Aaron Keown, just struck everyone as old hat.

It is the way politics used to work. "A political party is a power structure to represent vested interests. We're going into this with a different mindset."

Instead, it was agreed to operate as a network of the like-minded. Manji says the group got organised enough to be sure of standing in different wards. And they have been meeting fortnightly to share ideas and tactics.

Tips like there being no point starting your door-knocking too early on a Saturday because everyone is out and about. Or the advantages of spending on a postcard campaign, a more personal touch, rather than buying billboard space on every street corner.

But Manji says the last thing they wanted to do was recreate the past with party hierarchies and prescriptive manifestos.

He believes there is a historic inevitability about a big change in the way local government operates because the internet allows communities to interact quite differently.

We have seen the era when cities were run by town clerks. Rates paid for basic services. Local democracy was direct and uncomplicated because much of it was face-to-face.

Then came the era of corporatisation. Councils grew into large technocratic institutions where officers shaped the decisions and councillors acted as if they were the governing board of a business.

Engagement with the public became stage-managed. With the world having become so complex, the bureaucrats felt a city's key choices were in fact best left to themselves.

But now, Manji says, we are at the start of a third era of open data and self-organising systems. Social media allows face-to-face interactions to happen with scale. And there has developed a "high tech start-up" or rapid prototyping approach to solving the problems of life in general.

This is the dynamic which has thrown up so much that has been positive in post-quake Christchurch - the Volunteer Armies and Gap Fillers. Someone has an idea that fills a need and gets on and does it.

The first attempt does not have to be perfect because with the immediacy of social media, good ideas go viral. Strike a chord and the support and money will flow. It is all about the creativity of entrepreneurship. "If you try it and it doesn't work, you just close it down, move on."

Manji says the Baby Boom generation approaches life differently. It became expert at being "anti" - at protesting and calling for someone to change the world for them.

Some of that has been seen in Christchurch during the recovery, but the negativity has not gone down well.

So how can the social enterprise mindset be applied in local government? Manji says it is about opening up the decision processes, creating the possibility for communities to solve their own problems.

An obvious priority for Christchurch City Council would be to devolve much more responsibility to the community boards.

Manji would like to see Christchurch bring in participatory budgeting where a certain percentage of the rates is spent on a neighbourhood vote.

Porto Alegre in Brazil started it 20 years ago and bigger cities like Seoul and San Francisco are now adopting it. The decentralisation of spending sees less grand follies - the kind of big ticket projects like stadiums - and more of what people feel matters within their own communities.

Manji says the community boards need greater political power too - perhaps becoming larger forums with co-opted members from local business and community organisations.

Certainly as the earthquake recovery has started to kick into gear in earnest, people are discovering how many big decisions have been made with little opportunity for genuine engagement.

In Avonhead, residents suddenly finds themselves battling against plans to create industrial parks all along the route to the airport. In Redwood, the Cranford Basin motorway extension is being forced through. All across the city, accelerated decisions are being made and there is no local mechanism, like a strong community board, with which to push back.

Manji says the excuse is that the recovery needs to be done with speed. However this is old corporate era thinking. The whole point of e-democracy is that public engagement can be both rapid and smart.

New web tools like Loomio, created by a Wellington co- operative, let people start up decision making processes about anything. Consensus evolves as proposals are discussed and modified online - much like a public meeting except hundreds of people rather than two or three get to be heard, their opinions weighed in the final balance.

Manji says even if it is not Loomio, someone is going to invent the Facebook of local politics. The revolutionary software is coming. Christchurch, with a rebuild that needs to be done right, should be looking to be the early adopter of the new tools of democracy.

This is about the future, a world being transformed by the internet, and that is always difficult to visualise.

But the indies do represent a constituency who feel the first three years of the recovery have been too politically one-sided and the next three are a chance to do something with the city's considerable grassroots energy.

Many people are in fact looking to enable this change. There are projects like technology consultant Roger Dennis's Sensing City - an idea that has been enthusiastically endorsed by the likes of Brownlee, but may turn out to be far more subversive than the powers-that- be realise.

Dennis says the Sensing City appears to be just about open data - wiring a city with high tech sensors and making the information freely available and searchable on-line. But consider the political consequences, he says.

For instance, Christchurch monitors its air quality and publishes broad averages. "Yet what I might be interested in is the air quality outside my children's school between 2.30 and 3.30 when I pick them up in the afternoon - not some average indicator for the city across a month."

Technology is making such sensors and data collection dirt cheap. And Dennis says if Christchurch "baked in" the necessary hardware during the rebuild, it would allow a much more granular local politics. People would have access to the information that truly matters to them as well as the social media to mobilise.

Already, as part of Sensing City, school children have been given water-testing kits to monitor the rivers, the Heathcote and Avon, passing through their area. How long before that creates some kind of citizen action?

And if rates spending is also devolved, neighbourhoods really would have the power to tackle their own problems, apply their own intelligence rather than be dependent on the whims of council officials.

SVA's Johnson says this kind of experimentation, this new post- corporate politics, should be Christchurch's brand. The city could capture the world's imagination by discovering clever ways to put the community back in charge of its earthquake recovery.

Johnson says the feeling is that the council employs good people. The problem is not with the officers but the way they are hamstrung by old-fashioned political structures. With a different attitude around the council table, the new opportunities would be more quickly recognised.

Johnson says as an unofficial ambassador for the city, he is seeing all sorts of great projects coming down the line. He was at a Ministry of Justice conference where they were talking about a new national youth policy that would get more youngsters into community service.

"I said: 'Just test your ideas in Christchurch. Get down there.' And they're all thinking about it, collaborating an awful lot more. That's what we've got to be open for."

Johnson says there is plenty to be excited about, a second wave of transitional activity. There is an international street art festival coming to Christchurch in November, another event to put Christchurch on the world map. The art that will go up on the city's walls could in 20 or 30 years time be seen as the Warhols of their day.

Another sign of change is the decision by the Canterbury Community Trust to start a $2.5 million social enterprise fund - seed capital for these kinds of spontaneous entrepreneurial ventures. The understanding of the dynamic is growing.

Shirley-Papanui's Jones says on the campaign trail, she is finding people ready for change as well. They will be voting on what they see in the candidates, judging them on their energy and intelligence, not just ticking a box out of familiarity or party allegiance.

Jones says this is of course going to be a transitional council. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) will still be in charge of much for the next few years.

There is also going to be a coming local government review to formally decide what happens to Environment Canterbury, how Christchurch sits with its surrounding district councils. So real change cannot happen until the council elections until after this one.

However that is only all the more reason to experiment now, start embedding a stronger grassroots politics in Christchurch so someone else's good ideas are not later imposed from on high.

So roll on October 12. Whose promises will have been believed? Who will be sat round the council table and the community boards thinking, well yes, it has just got all rather real. 

The Press