ECan, the government and the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’

It is hard to understand why it appears to have received so little attention or commentary nationwide (with some honourable exceptions).

The extension of the rule of the ECAN Commissioners announced by David Carter (Local Government Minister) and Amy Adams (Environment Minister) has created what may be a political ‘tipping point’ in Christchurch, if not Canterbury as a whole.

Saturday’s editorial in The Press – titled ‘Black day for democracy in Christchurch‘ – is astoundingly blunt:

 The brief statement announcing the continued suspension of democracy at Environment Canterbury will take a place in New Zealand history. It outlines the most radical denial of voting rights that this nation has experienced in recent times – a fact that disadvantages Cantabrians and besmirches the Government.


That the Government has prolonged this system – it is called dictatorship – is deplorable and foolish. It not only denies the province healthy administration but it strengthens a backlash against National in the province.

And again,

At the time of the original appointment of the commissioners, people were outraged, even though ECan was not popular and regarded as partly paralysed. Cantabrians hated a main branch of their democracy being removed. Had the earthquakes and the difficult and prolonged recovery not diverted the anger, National would have paid a penalty here in the 2011 general election. The anger will return now, this time with an added intensity.

The Government,

relies on the assertion that the commissioners provide efficiency, strong governance, effectiveness, problem-solving, stability.

Those are the justifications of every tin-pot dictator, echoing the sentiments of Suva.

It is true that The Press has a new editor – Joanna Norris a former chief reporter at The Press and, most recently, the former digital editor for the Dominion Post –  but this is a startling and laudable commentary that stands in stark contrast to recent editorials (e.g., here) that have been generally favourable to the Government and its handling of post-earthquake issues.

Importantly, the editorial’s sentiment has been echoed by the bulk of letters to the editor over the past few days.

Here are some extracts:

The Orwellian contempt shown for democracy by our government … It seems incredible that in jujst two years we went from nanny-state foolishness in the last term of the Clark Government to a much more sinister experimental police-state in Canterbury under the Key Government in 2010, and we are now expected to tolerate a pay-and-suffer regime by decree for another four years.

Government ministers Carter and Adams have displayed contempt towards Canterbury voters and have shown an arrogant disdain for democracy.

It doesn’t matter how well the commissioners who replaced our regional councillors may have performed in the eyes of the National Government and its minority local hangers on, democracy has once again been denied to the people of Christchurch.

It is appalling that this so-called Government has taken away our democratic right to elect our regional council, on the recommendation of David Carter and Amy Adams.

As has now become something of a mantra, in Canterbury we have had CERA taking over most of the functions of local government, the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery able to rule by edict, the CCDU rapidly established and then gifted the responsibility for the Central City Recovery Plan, taking it out of the hands of the Christchurch City Council.

Prior to the earthquakes we had the removal of ECan councillors – and now the further deferment of elections.

It is as if we here in Christchurch have been made privy to Dorian Gray’s locked room; that we have seen the purple draw pulled away to reveal the “loathsome visage” of this government’s true character:

He went in quietly, locking the door behind him, as was his custom, and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome–more loathsome, if possible, than before(Chapter 20)

As well as being roundly rejected by political opponents, the decision by the Government also goes against advice received from the Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of the Environment.

The DIA-MfE report recommended a mix of appointed and elected councillors to take over from the commissioners (the same advice was received from Dame Margaret Bazely, Chair of the commissioners, in April). That report found that,

extending the commissioners’ governance conflicted with the fundamental principle of local government communities to decide their local affairs through local representatives.

The arguments used in justification for the decision to further postpone the Regional Council elections in Canterbury and to reject this advice are, in fact, entirely consistent with the Government’s overall ‘policy settings’ and previous behaviour. As I pointed out in that previous post [which is really a ‘pre-quel’ to this post],

This time – with this government – public opinion [now, with this latest announcement, read ‘democracy’] is being over-ridden not for ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ reasons (e.g., protecting children, human rights, national sovereignty, public health, lower energy use, etc.) but for ‘rational’ economic reasons (e.g., economic efficiency, foreign investment, reducing debt, etc.).

I guess someone needs to ‘keep their head’, assert a bit of economic rationality and ‘make the tough decisions’ (1984 redux anyone?).

And again;

The pattern is plain: This government thinks that the New Zealand public is too economically illiterate for its own good. En masse, New Zealanders just don’t know what’s good for them when it comes to economics.

The economic imperative is, of course, not some neutral, technical matter that requires only objective, scientific determination by those who ‘know about these things’ – it beats at the very heart of modern political conflict since the dawn of industrial capitalism.

As Chris Trotter argued, the question is always for whom such ‘economic rationality’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ works:

What, precisely, is the nature of ‘the gains’ that its Government-appointed commissioners have made?

Cantabrians might well ask. They might also ask which individuals and groups have benefited most from the ‘progress’ Canterbury’s appointed rulers have (allegedly) been making?

‘Canterbury’s appointed rulers’ now includes a long list, as mentioned above: CERA (with CEO Roger Sutton); The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (Gerry Brownlee); the Central City Development Unit (with CEO Warwick Isaacs); the ECan commissioners (profiled here) led by Dame Margaret Bazely.

The justification of ‘rule by the experts’ (in this case, the commissioners) – if we take the justification at face value (i.e., as genuine) – is the assertion of technocracy over democracy. It is the view that expert opinion is the best way to provide what Trotter correctly identifies as ‘governance’, as opposed to ‘government’. Governance is just the technocratic – and mutated – rendering of the democratic notion of government.

As Andrew Feenberg has put it in his book ‘Questioning Technology‘ (p. 131):

The very right of the public to involve itself in technical matters [and here I would include the supposedly ‘technical matter’ of how to run an economy] is constantly called into question. In the technical sphere, it is commonly said, legitimacy is a function of efficiency rather than of the will of the people, or rather, efficiency is the will of the people in modern societies dedicated above all to material prosperity.

Sound familiar?

When we ‘bought’ the neo-liberal turn that began in the 1980s we also bought into the notion – whether or not we realised it at the time – that New Zealand, as a society, was “dedicated above all to material prosperity“. Even though those reforms may well have not achieved that end (i.e., material prosperity), the significant point is that that was used to legitimate them – that economic activity was, ultimately, what New Zealand, and New Zealanders, were all about – and we bought it.

At that point, democracy took a back seat rhetorically. It also, potentially, could take a back seat in reality.

Over the past two years that potential has played itself out in Canterbury.

This is why David Carter and Amy Adams could say, with a straight face and believing that they would not be challenged in any way that might threaten their decision – that democracy had to be abandoned. They could be assured that a significant proportion of New Zealanders bought the argument that (supposed) economic efficiency trumps democracy.

Amy Adams – under this rhetorical cover – could explain to us all that,

“The Canterbury region has significant economic growth potential but also faces significant challenges,” she said.

”It is critical for New Zealand that the planning governance structure for Environment Canterbury is stable, effective and efficient.

“To keep the freshwater management work on track, we intend to retain the limited appeal rights on decisions made by Environment Canterbury on plans and policy statements relating to freshwater management.”

And it’s also why John Key could engage in what is now his trademark, exasparatingly self-contradictory form of prose,

[John Key] said he had confidence in the people of Christchurch to pick the right people, but keeping the commissioners would deliver the best results for Canterbury.

In a more plain-speaking manner, Key ran this technocratic justification for the subordination of democracy right the way up the flagpole:

“In reality, with the Christchurch earthquakes coming along, it was our view that if we wanted to have an operative water plan and the issues of water resolved once and for all for the Cannterbury [sic] region, it was important to have another three years of commissioners,” Key said.

An “operative water plan” (the ‘technical matter’ of a ‘plan’), you see, cannot be achieved democratically. Resolving the highly politically-contentious “issues of water” “once and for all“, significantly “for the Canterbury region” – and not for the Canterbury people – requires, in the government’s judgment, “another three years of commissioners“.

And Key continued,

“We want to go back to democracy, we understand the issues and we considered them very closely, but in the end the primary factor was that we thought there needed to be a successful outcome and the job wasn’t yet done.

This “job” that “wasn’t yet done” is clearly one that democratic processes cannot be guaranteed to achieve.

But, this rhetorical argument has received focused attention – at least here in Christchurch. An article by John McCrone in the Weekend Press implies that the ECan decision is just the latest that flows – quite naturally – from the assumption that New Zealand is little more than “New Zealand Inc.“:

Listen carefully, say commentators like University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards, and the Government is speaking quite openly about applying an “NZ Inc” model of economic development – the country run like a business with the prime minister as its chief executive and the voters as stockholders looking for the best possible return from the national enterprise.

It is not an anti-market approach. Instead it recognises that neo-liberalism has indeed remade the world, removing the barriers to the flows of trade, capital and skills to create a globalised economy. So now, especially for a small country, it makes sense to play within this great marketplace as a tightly- organised business with a clear market strategy.

New Zealand as a business. You may not have thought about it, but most corporations are not democracies – they are, to use a phrase beloved of Noam Chomsky, “private tyrranies“. You may be able to leave your job, of course, if the ‘tyranny’ gets too much for you – but your country?

Where are all those people – often on the political right – who like, at similar such times, to quote Winston Churchill’s famous dictum,

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


There’s one more particularly ugly aspect to what has been unveiled behind the “purple draw” by this latest announcement.

John Key mentioned it: “with the Christchurch earthquakes coming along“.

It was mentioned by David Carter during the announcement:

“The disruption caused by the earthquakes has made the Canterbury situation unique and the focus must now be on ensuring the region can maximise its full economic potential as Christchurch rebuilds,” Carter said.

If the near complete over-riding of democratic processes in Canterbury and Christchurch over the past two years has not been enough to bear, it rubs heavy and stinging doses of salt into the wounds to enlist the earthquakes as justification for this latest decision. It is morally appalling.

To enlist the deaths of 184 people and the anxiety and stress of tens of thousands in support of a politically imposed ‘solution’ to political conflicts over water in Canterbury is despicable in the extreme.

It is especially so given that many of those who continue to live dislocated lives also feel passionately about just these political issues over water in Canterbury. To wrench away from them what meagre influence the people of Christchurch and Canterbury may have been able to exert over the water allocation decisions when what they need most is a sense of control over their lives and their province amounts to the grossest form of bullying.

It is yet more so given that any economic benefit that may accrue from the decisions that flow from implementation of the (currently draft) Land and Water Management Plan will  likely be a decade in the making – far too late, hopefully, for the rebuild of Christchurch and the recovery of Canterbury. ECan commissioners will have very little to add to that process while it happens over the coming years.

The situation, post-earthquakes, is clearly a foul little excuse to enact an entirely separate agenda.

To then claim it is for their own good – to ‘recover’ – is as ignorant of what is for their ‘good’ as it is patronising.

It’s important to be clear about this: the dispute over allocation of water in Canterbury pre-dates the earthquakes, as did the installment of the commissioners. This government should have the decency to leave the suffering that has resulted from the earthquakes out of the justification for this decision – the decision would have been made in this way irrespective of that supposed earthquake-related need, as John Key’s comments (just quoted) make abundantly clear.

I am angry.

Do these people not understand – or do they simply not care – that the most important aspect of any recovery is not ‘business’ or ‘economic activity’? It is – since they clearly need reminding – collective cohesion and the sense of some sort of power and control that a people have in relation to their future.

It surely is no mere coincidence that appointing ECan commissioners for a further three years puts it conveniently beyond the 2014 date for the implementation of the Land and Water Plan. That plan would have been potentially amendable – by a newly elected council – should an election for councillors have been held in the second half of 2013, as previously promised. But, now, with this latest announcement it will become a cemented-in ‘fact on the ground’ that any subsequent Council will no doubt decide it has to live with – for better or worse.

As John Key put it, by then the “job” will be done. ‘We’ will be faced with a fait accompli.

Anyone who has seen – and experienced – the anti-democratic essence of this government beneath its supposed ‘centrist’, ‘pragmatist’ makeover, can only hope that one day soon its politically loathsome acts will lead to a Dorian Gray-like downfall, so that all we will be left with is the curious memory of a shiny image that no longer corresponds to the ugly reality evident to all:

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.

(Chapter 20)


This entry was posted in Democracy, Earthquakes, Economics, Fascism, New Zealand Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ECan, the government and the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’

  1. just saying says:

    Brilliant. Just brilliant.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks just saying – all compliments gratefully received (and all criticisms actually, too)!


  2. Raf says:


    This also gives truth to John McCrone’s piece on “NZ Inc”. The current government sees NZ as business and simply applies business principles to any particular issue. There is no sense of the politic and democracy is seen as a stumbling block to efficient decision making. It is, in a sense, a very Asian approach, with Singapore touted as the model (and look, China hasn’t done too badly!), and gives rise to the idea that perhaps it’s time to move beyond democracy to the ultimate benign dictatorship. Perhaps people are just too shattered to care anymore but I sense that democratic principles, in good times and bad, are still cherished. We shall see.

    Will you be joining us next week?



    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Raf,

      Agreed and, yes, I’ll be there – I was going to mention it in relation to Trotter’s complaint that Cantabrians had not taken to the street. My wife and daughter should be there too.

      Thanks for posting the link.


  3. Elizabeth says:

    Jo Norris, Press editor appointed, hasn’t started yet.
    Key himself said on newstalkzb a while ago (pre feb 2011 quake) that he regretted the way the councillors had been replaced and he didn’t think they’d done it right. He’s changed his mind now as the commissioners need to take credit for two irrigation schemes unveiling now, (both the brainchildren of old ecan boss Bryan Jenkins who set up the water management strategy the govt and commissioners also take credit for) – Waitohi and Lake Coleridge/Rakaia (Trustpower), plus a bit for Central Plains languishing at edges with no storage still. Plus Ngai Tahu needs to get the Waitohi water to irrigate its forest lands, it’s all very simple really.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for the correction on the editor appointment. I was just clutching at any straw that might explain the tone of the editorial 🙂

      Also thanks for your take on the detail of the machinations – I’d heard that the strategy that was supposedly evidence of ‘dysfunction’ was actually in the bag prior to the commissioners being appointed.

      Did you see Kerry Burke’s letter to the editor in The Press today? He points out that even Wyatt Creech’s report ‘exonerated’ the Council of any claims of ‘dysfunction’,.

      All the best,

  4. Kumbel says:

    Good piece.

    I suspect the reason the term of the Ecan commissioners has been extended against the advice of their own head is that this government intends to extend the model to all regional councils before the next local body elections. I think they would like an appointed board for all regional councils but would settle for a DHB model (majority of directly appointed members). There is a strong argument for the disestablishment of all regional councils but I don’t believe this government has the courage to do that.

    Regional councils are a modern invention that have no natural democratic roots. They were formed out of bits of catchment boards, pest destruction boards, harbour boards, city transport departments and the Soil & Water division of the Ministry of Works and Development. While they have democratic form, in practice they are generally unknown to their ratepayers and their councilors find they have a job for life as there is little real competition for places on the councils. The one region in New Zealand where there needed to be a regional body alongside territorial authorities was Auckland and the ARC has been disestablished already.

    Ecan has demonstrated the weaknesses of the democratic form. The scuttlebutt within Canterbury local government circles has always been that the issue with the water plans at Ecan was not political but procedural. The inside story always was that the scientists spent too much time trying to devise the perfect plan. While they constantly revised their drafts the real world got away on them. For some reason the Council and senior management tolerated this. This government has discovered that replacing the random collection of farmers and career politicians with experienced managers (who probably don’t want to be there) to oversee the Council has broken the logjam. And I expect they like what they have seen.

    It’s for another time but you are absolutely right that since 1989 technocracy has been promoted throughout all local government at the expense of genuine democracy. You only need to look at the steady decline in participation in LG elections to see that more and more people have worked out it’s a waste of time putting any effort into institutions that are actually disconnected from their communities.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Kumbel,

      Thanks for a really thoughtful comment.

      The question of just how truly democratic regional councils are is a good one to ask. It’s also a good question to ask about all of our systems of government – local and national.

      The decline in voting behaviour at local – and national – level raises for me a variation on that same question: Do we increasingly have the opportunity to have a representative democracy but not the outcome of a representative democracy? (And that puts to one side the usual question about representative versus participatory forms of democratic government).

      For me, democracy is not just an ‘opportunity’ for people to govern themselves; it is people actually governing themselves. Even if the argument is made that people not voting means they are ‘happy’ not to be involved in governing themselves that still leaves me thinking that that must mean we don’t actually have a democracy (democracy that sits, unchosen, on the top shelf of the political supermarket is not something we have, so to speak).

      Thanks again for the comment!


  5. Rob Stowell says:

    Spot on. Wish more people had turned up Wednesday evening, but it was a good gathering.
    It’s going to be a long battle, but bloody hell, we can’t let the bastards win!
    Education is facing it head-on, now. Obvious that the govt want schools ‘rationalised’. Joyce has signalled he’s planning the same sort of anti-democratic moves on University Councils- elected, staff, and student reps will get chopped, and the Govt will appoint business-people.
    Roger Douglas would be proud of this lot.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yes, I was at the rally on Wednesday too. A good gathering, as you say. I think the assembled wanted to vent their feelings a bit more than they had opportunity to, perhaps. The feistiest comment came from an Avonside Girls pupil who said – I paraphrase – ‘We’re there, we’re not going anywhere, get your hands off our school’.

      I’m working on a post about the schools announcement – it was more than just a communication ‘gaffe’, of course.

      You’re right about the University Council proposals – already happened at the Polytechnics. Everything is being organised for business. There are no other discernible values operating.

      That approach will undermine ‘the recovery’ here in Christchurch, stuff up our communities (especially in the east) and turn us into a neo-liberal city whose sole function will be to serve economic imperatives and particular – large – commercial interests.


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

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