(Communication) Breakdown?


It was all too predictable.

After voting for a controversial 14.4%, $68,000, backdated salary increase for its ‘CEO’, Tony Marryatt, a few weeks before Christmas, the Christchurch City Council – or, more precisely, Mayor Bob Parker and Tony Marryatt himself – were always going to be on a loser when they said they were embarking on a 3 month, $80,000 review of ‘Communications’ at the Council.

This proposed review was their response to the growing public anger over Marryatt’s salary increase. And, to be honest, that anger should have been no surprise either.

As well as being well in excess of the 2-3% increases with which other council staff members were ‘rewarded’ after an admittedly stressful year it was also very curious in being backdated prior to Tony Marryatt’s equally controversial and divisive re-appointment to his role. That re-appointment was back in September. The salary increase was backdated to July.

It’s an interesting quirk in the process. Someone can agree, presumably, to a salary in a renewed contract and then have that increased a few months later and for the increase to come into effect prior to the new contract’s commencement. Why wasn’t a larger salary negotiated when the new contract was signed? Was that thought to be ‘politically’ difficult, given the controversy of the re-appointment?

There’s a long tradition in politics, business and bureaucracies, of course, in establishing reviews to quell public disquiet over a decision making, performance or process issue. The tradition is so long it has become part of normal business or ‘business as usual’ in batting away what are primarily seen as PR issues by organizations.

Someone should have told Parker and Marryatt, however, that these are not ordinary, business as usual times in Christchurch. They should have also been told that the public is wise to this game.

Politicians, business people and bureaucrats may like to refer to ‘communications strategies’ and ‘communication units’ or ‘departments’ but the rest of us just see ‘communications’ as another word for ‘PR’, ‘spin’ and ‘propaganda’.

One letter to the editor (23 January, 2012) of The Press newspaper simply referred to Council “propaganda” without – figuratively – blinking an eye. Given the public’s general disdain for PR and spin and the similarity in size between the $68,000 pay rise and the $80,000 review, there was every chance that the protracted review would be seen as a case of throwing good money after bad.

Sure enough, since the communication review was announced the Council’s communication strategy has suffered real body blows. There has been a renewal of the seemingly endless avalanche of critical letters to the editor about the continuing controversies at the Council.

Also, there have been accusations, from Councillor Tim Carter, that Felicity Price – who is to conduct the review – is “well known” to Mayor Parker and Tony Marryatt.

Finally, the same Councillor earned himself top story billing in today’s edition of The Press with his call for the CEO to be sacked and – interestingly – replaced with a Commissioner.

Tim Carter, the councillor now calling for Marryatt to be sacked, was not one of the councillors who voted for Marryatt’s pay rise but he has an interesting pedigree.

Tim Carter is a younger member of the well-known Carter family in Canterbury.

Tim Carter

David Carter (Agriculture Minister) is perhaps the most widely known, but as developers, property owners and local politicians, the Carters have long been influential in Christchurch.

Maurice Carter – who died recently – was a long time Councillor and Deputy Mayor, as well as a Canterbury Regional councillor. One of his other sons, Philip, was also a councillor and is Tim’s father.

In fact, Tim Carter’s full name is Timothy Maurice Philip Carter. This is very much a “political dynasty“. And they have extensive property and land development interests not only within the central city but in many areas that have, over time, been designated as likely for residential development or intensification – as this submission to ECAN from Tim Carter clearly details.

As mentioned, an interesting aspect of Carter’s call is for a commissioner to be appointed to replace the CEO and work with councillors. It is interesting because Marryatt, in defending his pay rise, argued that the ‘campaign’ against him was driven by those who wanted to have commissioners appointed.

And, now, we have Sue Wells – a self-professed ‘independent’ councillor and ex-TV host – calling for the government to appoint commissioners to replace the entire council.

The elected members of the Christchurch City Council cannot do their jobs properly and should be replaced by a Government-appointed commission, senior councillor Sue Wells says.

Wells, who has served on the council since 1998, said she no longer had confidence in councillors’ ability to work together for the good of the city.


Wells said the city needed to have a “big talk” about integrating the council, Cera and Environment Canterbury into a unitary commission responsible for citywide governance.

But, perhaps the most interesting aspect of all of this is the way in which the fracture lines in the Christchurch City Council run.

In some eerie mimicking of the various ‘hidden’ and ‘dormant’ faults that appear, now, to create the geological mosaic underneath Christchurch, the political alignments and ‘triggering’ going on around the Council table are impressively ‘unpredictable’.

Yani Johanson, one of the Christchurch 2021, left-leaning group reacted to Carter’s call with the following comment:

Cr Yani Johanson said he understood the frustration being expressed by Carter and the public, and he supported the urgent need for improvement and change.

However, he believed councillors should deal with the issue first and the Government should intervene as a last resort.

Something is going on here that is extraordinarily important for the people of Christchurch. Pre-earthquakes, there was a long-standing battle (fronted by property owners and developers such as the Carters and Goughs) to do something about what was seen as an inner city in decline.

Since the 2010 local body elections in which Parker was re-elected, he has been fighting on two fronts, as I see it. On the one hand, he has the opposition of the 2021 councillors – Yani Johansson, Jimmy Chen, Glenn Livingstone and Chrissie Williams (who resigned last year partly in despair at the way the Council was being operated).

On the other hand, the lack of transparency in Council decisions in Parker’s first term, appears to have turned the city’s ‘old money’ families and many business people (including the Carters and perhaps Goughs) against him.

When John Key ‘all but’ endorsed Bob Parker prior to the 2010 elections it was, therefore, an ‘interesting’ political call.

It may well have been motivated more by the need to prevent Jim Anderton from becoming Mayor – which looked very possible, even likely, prior to the September earthquake. A Christchurch City Council with Jim Anderton at the helm would, I suspect, have presented quite a different proposition for the government over the past year and a half.

An alliance – or at least alignment – of sorts had formed, then, between the ‘left’ on the council and the new, young councillors who are members of influential property and construction company families in Christchurch.

It is a remarkable feat on Parker’s part to have achieved such ‘cross party’ opposition to his Mayoralty. But that anti-Parker coalition may evaporate over the call for Commissioners and new alignments may coalesce.

It has become even more fascinating now that Sue Wells – a supporter of Parker and Marryatt – has upped the ante and called for Commissioners to replace the entire Council (not just Marryatt) – which would include Tim Carter, of course. This follows Parker calling Carter’s call to sack Marryatt a “very destructive game“.

It was not so long ago that Christchurch was (usually proudly) called the ‘People’s Republic of Christchurch’. Under Vicki Buck some semblance of public ownership and control both of assets and, even more importantly, political destiny was maintained.

Since the ‘shock’ of the earthquakes, Christchurch residents have experienced a real-time battle straight out of Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine‘ book. Canterbury has resources – water (obviously), potentially off-shore oil and gas reserves, and frackable hills – so it should be no surprise if a mini-version of the ‘Great Game’ is being played out in the South Island’s own ‘People’s Republic’.

Trapped in a live, ‘free to air’ version of Treme, people here could be forgiven for grasping at a lifebelt from central government, in the form of Commissioners. But where will they be pulled once they grab hold? What might be left of their ‘Republic’ once central government has finished its tenure at some indeterminate point in the CERA-designed future?

The disestablishment of the elected ECAN Council was, of course, pre-earthquakes and so gives a sense of the frustration at the national level with the operation of democracy in Canterbury that pre-dates those events.

Now we have a major push to replace the Council – a council in which, if Sue Wells is correct,

There [is] “real confusion” about the overlap between the council and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), which was “effectively” carrying out four-fifths of the council’s normal duties

In an update to the article about Wells’ call, Nick Smith, Local Government Minister has said the government has no plans to “interfere” with the Christchurch City Council – but, clearly, this saga has not ended.

For their own sake it has to be hoped that the people of Christchurch realise that the political agendas driving the city and its recovery are as labyrinthine and fractured as the uncertain earth beneath their feet.

As was the case with the earthquake, the one remaining hope for any worthwhile recovery and renewal is the people of Canterbury. And there are clear signs that that ‘great beast’ is awakening.

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7 Responses to (Communication) Breakdown?

  1. the idea of mid-term elections appeals more than appointing commissioners

    • Puddleglum says:

      Agreed, Armchair Critic. It appeals far more.

      Would that be like American ‘mid-terms’ where there are ‘staggered’ elections and, therefore, staggered terms? Or would you just see it as a one-off, for this occasion? If it were a regular set of ‘mid-term’ elections, though, I’d be worried about turnout – it would likely drop from an already low local body turnout.

      Something I’ve never thought about before is that we’re familiar with ‘snap elections’ at national level but not at local level. I guess that’s because there is no ‘governing’ party because of the position of Mayor??

  2. PGM says:

    From what I can tell what people mean is “recall” elections like they have in the States. Although I would really like to see this current Council, stacked with right-leaning and populist “independents” as it is, replaced with a Labour/2021-led Council, I am not sure that a recall election would necessarily yield positive results.

    • Puddleglum says:

      You’re probably right, PGM. It’s anybody’s guess what the make up of a new council would be.

      At local government level – and at national level, too – there seem to be a lot of people who make their voting choices on some pretty peculiar criteria.

      Many people I talk to – and that includes people from right across the education and income spectra – don’t seem to have a clear framework for understanding politics, interests, and the general operation of power. Their opinions are often bafflingly ad hoc and contradictory to me (but maybe I’m the one who’s out of step?!).

      Aaron Keown, for example, seemed to get in on the strength of advocating for car parks at the hospital. Anyone paying attention would have realised that he was an ACT candidate at the previous election. I doubt whether he would be a councillor if he had run under that banner, locally (if ACT are into that).

  3. PGM says:

    Aaron Keown is one of the most ideologically confused and incoherent politicians in NZ…

    He campaigned against Bob and criticised Marryatt, but as soon as he was offered directorships and being part of the in-crowd he becme their number-one fanboy. It’s sickening.

  4. Yarp says:

    Could anyone do a search on Cr owned or controlled companies that killed?
    The Goughs have been in the dock already (Jamies Daddy & Uncle), do we expect to see Timmy & his Daddy anytime soon?

  5. Pingback: Spotlight on Christchurch: Epilogue – ‘Trickle up theory’ a confirmed success | The Political Scientist

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