OPINION: The public tribute paid by the Prime Minister, John Key, to the outgoing mayor of Christchurch, Bob Parker, at a local government conference this week was an entirely appropriate acknowledgement of the immense role the mayor played in rallying the city in the aftermath of the February earthquake.
Now that Christchurch is on the way to a robust reconstruction and recovery it is easy to forget the deep uncertainty that lay over it as people surveyed the devastation that had been wrought by the quakes.
The gloomiest forecasts may not have been much spoken aloud, but fears that the city's economy would plummet and that there would be an exodus of residents were widespread. It did not happen and the fact that it did not owed more than a little to Parker's leadership at the time. It became smart among some of Parker's critics in the many disputes that later developed to dismiss the mayor as little more than a glib television performer, too fond by half of his hi-vis vest and the camera.
But that is shallow and unjust. The power of a single figure able to become a calming and authoritative presence in the midst of disaster cannot be overestimated and Parker for several weeks, in deeply trying times, became that figure for Christchurch. As the Prime Minister said this week: "His commitment to the city during its darkest hours will be his legacy."
His wider civic legacy will no doubt be debated for years but even here history may be kinder than Christchurch residents are at present. As is well-known, Parker had long divided opinion sharply. Among other things, many were unconvinced that his arrangements to buy the Ellerslie Flower Show and property from a financially troubled developer were the best for the city and emphatically did not like the secretive way the deals were done. In the campaign for the local-body election of 2010 he was running a distant second to, of all people, the elderly Jim Anderton.
Having survived that election, Parker and the council faced, after the earthquake of February 2011, a catastrophe on a scale faced by no other big New Zealand city before. For a time, the elected members descended into savage in-fighting. Parker bore the brunt of the blame for that but it may be debatable whether anyone amid the stress and strain then prevailing could have prevented what happened.
Parker, too, has borne the bulk of the blame for what is seen as over-loyalty to the city manager, Tony Marryatt. The jury is still out on Marryatt's performance, but whatever his shortcomings it should not be forgotten that he, along with Parker and the elected members of course, was responsible for the reasonably good financial position of the council when the earthquakes struck.
In his years in office, Parker has been fiercely criticised by many, including some in the business community. It is notable, however, that though some of those critics will not be pleased at the thought of Lianne Dalziel as mayor, none of them has so far put his or her name forward to take his place.
- © Fairfax NZ News