Editorial: English must be open
Bill English is proving himself a hit-and-run politician, and in the process risks further destabilising Christchurch's fragile recovery.
The minister's assertion that Christchurch City Council is not being open about its finances, does not understand its budget predicament, may not be able to reach its 40 per cent share of the infrastructure repair bill and risks insolvency signals a serious fracture between the two most important bodies in the city's rebuild. That is worrying because without their close co-operation and mutual trust the recovery will be threatened: the Government's drive and the council's on-the-ground expertise are vital to the revival.
The concern is increased because English refuses to justify his comments. They were made without supporting evidence and he remains mum in the face of inquiries from The Press and Mayor Bob Parker's annoyance.
It is annoyance that must be shared by many citizens as they contemplate the precariousness of their city's position while they are being denied the detail of the Government's pessimistic estimate of the council's budget. They need to also take on board the fact that English did not comment off the cuff and so his message must have been considered and therefore serious.
Therefore, Christchurch people should be told the facts as English sees them if they are to be fully informed about an issue vital to their future and not to feel more disempowered in a recovery process that too often sidelines them.
They also need to know because the council's money is theirs, and they should be told the detail of its handling as a matter of democratic right.
The city council's main financial documents are in the public domain and the mayor and councillors are satisfied that they allow for the rebuild without the imposition of a withering rates bill, excessive borrowing or the risk of insolvency. English evidently knows more.
In aggressively questioning the council's confidence in its economic management, English must be taken notice of. He is the finance minister and no doubt is taking advice from the Treasury, a department containing some of the nation's best brains.
Their concern perhaps is based on the nightmare possibility of the Government having to commit much more money to the rebuild if the council's finances collapsed, and on the unknowns that bedevil Christchurch's budget. Rating income projections are based on perhaps optimistic assumptions about how many people remain in the city and how quickly the exodus will be reversed. That, and the reliance on borrowing, exist while the council refuses to sell any of its assets - a refusal counter to the Government's and the Treasury's ideological stance.
It may be that English and his colleagues are taking their chance to force sales by painting the council's financial prospects as bleak - a chance that might not come again given the strong opposition to asset sales among Christchurch people.
If that is a too-conspiratorial scenario then English has brought it on himself and it is within his power to dispel it. A frank statement about Christchurch's accounts would clear the air and help restore the city's eroded confidence.