Council must earn it

The desire expressed recently by Mayor Bob Parker for Christchurch City Council to take back more control of the city's affairs echoes the feelings of many Christchurch people. The mayor spoke of the matter two weeks ago, when he said he was looking forward to the council regaining control of the central business district from the Central Christchurch Development Unit "sooner rather than later". While acknowledging the important role the Government had in the rebuild, the mayor said: "We think [the city centre rebuild] is something that should be driven by the people in the city and council."

Until that comment at the beginning of this month the mayor had kept quiet about the sidelining of the council in the aftermath of the earthquake and any friction that might have occurred between the council and central government officials. It is clear, however, from Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos, Parker's candid and illuminating book about the aftermath of the earthquakes, that strife with Wellington occurred early. In the book, Parker tells, for instance, of tussles with the national Civil Defence organisation as it sought to take control, with not always happy results.

The greatest interference with the council's functions, though, came from the creation of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority as a government department and then later the CCDU as a unit within Cera to plan the reconstruction of the central city. This, according to Parker, has left the council's elected representatives feeling "politically impotent" and accounts for the dysfunction ("so-called dysfunction", according to Parker) on the council.

Here, Parker has got his analysis backwards. The creation of Cera did not cause ructions among otherwise efficient and smoothly functioning councillors to erupt. Cera was necessary for several compelling reasons. But one of them, surely, was a fear, among other things, that councillors would not be able to put aside their differences to face the mammoth task before the city without petty distractions.

Whatever the cause, councillors certainly proceeded to live down to expectations when in the midst of the calamity, and egged on by irresponsible outside elements, they plunged the depths of mindless backbiting and bitchery in an ultimately trivial row over the chief executive's salary.

Power over the city's affairs will of course eventually be returned entirely to the council. So far as the CCDU is concerned, Parker is holding discussions with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee. In order for him to be able to make a persuasive case, however, the council must show that it is capable of doing the job. Whether that is the case yet is far from clear. It is alarming, for instance, to hear that it is in danger of losing its accreditation as a building consents authority because of 17 identified shortcomings.

As to councillors themselves, they must turn their minds not just to the rebuild but also to the shape and governance of a greatly altered wider city. Huge budgetary problems will have to be dealt with. Whether councillors are up to it, especially in the year leading to an election when the temptation to engage in foolery would anyway be strong, will be a test. But until they do show they can operate without adult supervision, the case for regaining full control over matters so vital to the city's future will be hard to make.

The Press