Economic strategy for recovery aspirational but useful

Last updated 05:00 08/12/2012

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OPINION: Hard times call for leadership if they are to be overcome, and leadership requires the setting of goals and the instilling of inspiration. That amalgam dominates the Economic Recovery Programme for Greater Christchurch, Te Whakaara Tahu, unveiled on Thursday.

The plan, in its own words, provides an overview of "20 key economic recovery projects" that can best drive the rebuild and should be regarded as high priority. The Government, local bodies and business groups - but no citizens, it seems - have been consulted about the plan and drawn it up.

The result of those deliberations is a document infused with management-speak and management theorists' thinking - that goals must be defined, lines of authority must be delineated and as many abstract nouns as possible used. The plan is thus difficult to read. It might be a document devised in the Kremlin and written on Wall Street. Most critically, its aims lack legislative backing or secure funding. Thus, the aims are only aspirational.

Gerry Brownlee, Earthquake Recovery Minister, who spoke at the launch, might be secretly pleased about that because his liking for improvising, imposing his will and market solutions run counter to the plan's liking for regimented actions. Brownlee certainly sounded lukewarm when he characterised the document as an "important touchstone", but he is correct in doing so. The plan will not be backed by legislation and is dependent for implementation on co-operation between its begettors - co-operation that has been patchy in the difficult days since the catastrophe of the earthquakes. The mere existence of a list of projects and their leading players will not guarantee greater unity.

One of the few aspects of the plan that might concern Brownlee is its insistence on monitoring the progress of the 20 projects it says are key to economic recovery. But those charged with leading the individual projects - including Brownlee's Cera - have an out in the vagueness of the specifications upon which progress and success are to be judged.

For instance, Cera is charged with leading the reconstruction of infrastructure and will be measured in its performance by the injunction to "match the rebuild of critical infrastructure to objectives for greater Christchurch's long-term economic growth".

That is so lose an imperative that Twinkle Toes, the mammoth destroyer of Christchurch's high rises, could manoeuvre through it and leave every word untouched.

For all that, the recovery programme has value. Its aspirational nature will help motivate those with their hands on the levers of key projects, and it delineates the disparate challenges that Canterbury's economy faces.

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That, though, will not much hurry the day when Cantabrians confidently say they are back on firm foundations. Neither will the confidence of Steve Wakefield, the author of the plan, that the province is "well-poised for an economic boom for the next five to 10 years".

No doubt the rebuild will pump money into the local economy, creating jobs and boosting businesses, but more than that is needed to create sustainable wealth, especially as the cost and timing of the recovery remain uncertain.

Moreover, the city council and other local bodies are on the slate to provide substantial but as yet undetermined funds for the recovery projects, which will put stress on rates revenue - a potential dampener on citizens' spending.

Citizens will also be affected by the performance of the wider New Zealand economy, which is predicted to be sluggish for years. Christchurch businesses and people will not be immune from the nation's employment rates, inflation or expert performance.

Canterbury can help itself to regain what it has lost by ensuring better meshing between the Government and the city council, restoring full people participation, building for quality in infrastructure, homes and the CBD, letting entrepreneurship flourish, encouraging investment and remaining resolute.

It is that final human contribution which is helped by the Economic Recovery Programme. Its aspirations outline how to restore a prosperous future. That increases confidence.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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