Canterbury's political quake

What are the consequences of Canterbury's "political quake" and what role should local democracy play in its recovery, asks Dr Bronwyn Hayward.

Natural disasters have a way of exposing much more than geological fault lines. To use novelist Fiona Farrell's evocative phrase, Canterbury has experienced a "political quake", one which exposes the wider cracks in our democratic and social landscape.

The Canterbury earthquakes struck at a time of deep social and economic vulnerability.

As a country, New Zealand had experienced the highest growth of social inequality in the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development in 20 years.

The earthquakes also struck after two decades of town planning which had moved away from planning for the future in favour of leaving the urban landscape to social and economic "entrepreneurs".

It had become fashionable to restrict the role of elected councils to managing the negative impacts of the bright ideas of investors, and monitoring community outcomes, rather than detailed city planning.

These problems are not exclusive to Christchurch. Governments in all English- speaking countries have experienced rising inequality, and moved away from long-term planning in the public interest. After a disaster, however, a community needs publicly elected leadership with the flair and imagination to help plan the detailed development of a community and a city.

No one can be under the illusion that our local councillors have performed well. Public disquiet over chief executive remuneration, lack of transparency, and confusion over councillors' roles and the responsibilities of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) are widely reported.

As a democratic decision-making body Christchurch's council appears to have lost its way and its role and its future role in leading our recovery is unclear.

If a fragile truce among fractious councillors, and the efforts of a appointed mediator cannot restore public confidence, the Government seems likely to suggest commissioners, particularly given the track record of the incumbent Government (replacing the elected authority of ECan with commissioners).

Another option is to reorganise the boundaries and responsibilities of local and regional councils. Yet creating a ""super-city" of Canterbury or appointing commissioners would be a mistake at this time.

The philosopher Rousseau reminded us two centuries ago that we should always be wary of those advocating significant reform in a crisis - you need a clear head and a calm mind to make big political changes. Radically reorganising the structure of local government at present, without a strong democratic mandate obtained through open elections, would create greater public disquiet.

There is little public appetite for another round of local elections, yet it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how different our council might look today if the Government had shown more faith in the long-term recovery of local democracy.

Imagine if instead of setting up Cera, and thereby effectively creating a Wellington-styled central government department in Christchurch, we had thought to provide the same level of support to enhance our existing local government team, including advisers to support incumbent councillors from the outset?

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011 was vital to securing national resources to help support the city in the immediate response to a full scale disaster. Now, however, the wide ranging powers of the Cera legislation appear to stand in the way of renewing local democratic leadership and supporting long term community recovery.

The Cera Act sets out a new command and control model of recovery. The minister responsible for Cera retains a high degree of power but his chief executive and staff are rarely enabled to speak out, let alone respond to the community directly. Effective two-way public communication was a strength of Cera chief executive Roger Sutton in his previous role at Orion, but effective two- way communication is not the style of the new Cera organisation. Yet engaged listening, transparent decision- making and locally mandated leadership is vital to effective community recovery.

We now await decisions from Minister Gerry Brownlee and Cera about what aspects of the central city and wider community recovery plans will be implemented and when. The role of our city council in this next stage remains unclear.

In the meantime, the former local government minister mooted plans to revise the Local Government Act in ways that may limit the powers of councils on the grounds of reducing rates, and amalgamating local authorities to improve efficiency.

It is not easy for any government to argue for more local services to enhance public life. While most would agree that public bus services, parks, children's museums, libraries and small outdoor community pools are a good thing, they are highly vulnerable in difficult financial times.

However, research shows that funding public spaces and activities and services contributes very significantly to community wellbeing. Having lived and worked in austerity ravaged Britain on fellowship for three years I can attest to what a city stripped to its barest services is like - a bleak landscape punctuated only by shopping malls.

Yet finding ways to restore and maintain the public spaces and facilities that add much to quality of life of a comparatively low income city is one of many questions that will be a real challenge for Canterbury.

Add to this the growing frustration among the new, youthful leaders of the community who emerged in the wake of the quakes. The Student Volunteer Army and arts, landscape and community groups so visible in the wake of the quake, yet struggling to get a voice now. The Community Forum set up under Cera legislation seems a poor substitute for publicly accountable, local decision making.

The situation is not helped by city councillors themselves when they fail to make consistent decisions, or open meetings to greater public scrutiny. Too often, commercial sensitivity is used as an excuse for closed door discussion.

Bringing the community with you is the only effective way through a disaster long term.

When faced with the frustration of poorly performing local politicians, a plethora of insurance agencies and a new, centralised government bureaucracy, it is easy to imagine that somehow appointing a team of highly paid experts might fix things.

But at its best democracy is the form of government that most clearly supports the priorities and aspirations of a local community. As Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen reminds us, good democracy delivers great economic and social prosperity, enabling scrutiny, transparency and local voice.

Canterbury faces some very tough decisions from how we manage our water to how we establish education and economic opportunities to support a new generation. Young families and the elderly, many of whom are already struggling, face a difficult second winter post-earthquake. We also face the challenge of rebuilding a new kind of local economy, one that is less reliant on international capital, yet still provides employment, public services and long-term social wellbeing.

Not all of our young people can be builders, road engineers, painters or architects. To create meaningful long term, local employment and training will require thoughtful, on-going, and public debate.

Appointing commissioners is not the answer to these difficult problems.

Only local leadership elected with widespread public support can effectively claim the mandate to lead our community and to implement plans that enable everyone - the young, the old and future generations - to flourish.

*Dr Bronwyn Hayward is a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Sciences, University of Canterbury. She is visiting fellow at the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group, University of Surrey, Britain and a trustee of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, London.

The Press