[Prologue: As mentioned in the previous post, most of that post and this one was written prior to Bob Parker announcing that he would not be contesting the mayoralty in the upcoming local body elections. I've indicated where in the writing I learnt about his announcement.]
The Politics of Politics
So far, the local elections in Christchurch have been intriguing to watch as they have slowly incubated over the past six months or more.
They began, proper, when Bob Parker confirmed that he would try for a third term in August last year. The big question was ‘Who would be the challenger?’ And that’s where it started to get interesting.
Lianne Dalziel was tipped but – at that time – ruled herself out because “she has her eyes on Gerry Brownlee’s job as Canterbury earthquake recovery minister“. But, strangely, she was “believed to be pushing prominent businessman and rich-lister Humphry Rolleston to stand“.
I don’t know Humphry Rolleston but I know his family has one of Christchurch’s famous ‘four avenues’ named after them. He’s a member of the proverbial ‘old money elite’. Rolleston represents – almost embodies – Christchurch, in its most traditionalist form.
Yet, Dalziel – a Labour MP and ex-Labour Minister – was lobbying for him to run for mayor.
What’s going on?
The earthquakes and, more particularly, the central government political response to them clearly changed things in Christchurch local body politics.
Further unexpected alignments have become the ‘new normal’.
Since Parker’s declaration of his intention to stand again there was considerable interest in – and manoeuvring around – a ‘dream ticket’ between left-leaning People’s Choice first time Burwood-Pegasus Ward Councillor Glenn Livingstone and first time Independent Hagley-Ferrymead Councillor Tim Carter, son of Philip Carter – Christchurch property magnate and rich-lister.
Late last year John McCrone wrote a perceptive article for The Press - written before Parker announced his candidacy - ’Who wants to be the next Mayor?‘ that nailed the reasoning behind the cross-ideology (and cross-city) re-alignment:
‘I’m hearing the call for people to work together and be smart about the new council. People want to avoid splitting the vote.’
Livingstone says the way the numbers are, if both Left and Right put up their own candidates for mayor, there is every likelihood of Parker slipping through the middle. And stopping Parker has become the name of the game.
Carter says he is not sure he would even want the job of mayor. It is a tough one. But his concern is to see the city unified and he would back any option that could make it happen. ‘No matter who it is, the next mayor must be able to repair relationships with the council table, with the residents and community, and with the business sector.’
The exact motives on each side of the political spectrum for this ‘grand coalition’ to defeat Bob Parker are no doubt complicated but part of it, according to McCrone, is that:
Christchurch needs to be sure it returns a strong and capable council at the next elections – one able to stand up to the Government and speak out for local interests during the earthquake recovery.
Of course, that assumes that “local interests” themselves are – and will remain for the next few years – aligned and unified. That’s not obvious.
The assumption, that is, is that there is a clear, common interest or set of interests that unite everyone in Christchurch against potential government decisions or desires. It also assumes that there is no ‘divide and conquer’ strategy available to central government in such an alignment. Both seem unlikely.
Yet, opposition to Bob Parker has continued and the clarion call remains for a ‘united city’ to face the future challenges.
People’s Choice, left-leaning - and “the largest political grouping in Christchurch’s local government scene” – seemed to have even left the door open to back Councillor Tim Carter for Mayor:
He [Paul McMahon, Chairman of People's Choice] said the selection panel was conscious of the need to work with mayoral aspirants outside of People’s Choice if it wanted to avoid splitting the vote and giving Parker another three years in office.
Livingstone is considered the group’s most likely contender for the mayoralty, but there has been speculation it could back Cr Tim Carter for the job, even though he is not part of People’s Choice.
“We want to run a united campaign and are willing to work with people outside our group who are committed to change and share our goals for the future,” McMahon said. “We want to make sure that we are talking to other people and not just working by ourselves.”
Continuing the left-right coordination, Tim Carter announced in April this year that he was endorsing a run for mayor by Lianne Dalziel (and putting himself out of the contest). In fact, he called upon her to run:
“In my opinion Christchurch needs and deserves better leadership to repair the council’s damaged relationships with its stakeholders and to govern the city in an open and engaging way.
“Lianne has the passion, experience and vision to unite the different factions of the city and lead Christchurch through the next phase of the recovery,” Carter said.
From the beginning of June all manner of rumours and speculations began to vie for media attention (alongside those criticisms – often from the government – of the council and its management – see previous post). On 2 June it was rumoured that Bob Parker would pull out of the race for mayor – incorrect, as it turns out [Edit: But now correct.].
In the same link is the statement that,
Earlier this year, Glenn Livingstone and another first-term councillor, Tim Carter, considered running against Parker but polling revealed Dalziel would have more chance of unseating the two-term mayor
which suggests an unprecedented, combined, coordinated and concerted effort to block Parker gaining a third term.
The politics in this instance is fascinating. Parker seems to be considered an unpredictable and damaging ‘loose cannon’ on the local political deck, owing no allegiance to any of the previous political power blocks and, in addition, operating in a way that effectively shuts out all but his own curious band of political waifs and strays.
That band – sometimes referred to as the ‘A Team’ on Council – included Deputy Mayor Ngaire Button who recently set up a grouping called ‘City First’:
Deputy Mayor Ngaire Button yesterday launched a “non-political allegiance” called City First in a bid to get independent people elected to local government who were not affiliated with any political party and did not have hidden agendas.
Button, who was supported in the group’s forming by fellow city councillor Aaron Keown, said the allegiance would help Cantabrians have confidence in their city.
City First is distinctive in having,
no leader, no political philosophy, no stand on any particular issue, no caucus meetings, no party politics and there would be no block vote.
This is one thread of a common theme that has emerged in local body politics in Christchurch – the notion that there is a non-political way forward for Christchurch that focuses purely on the ‘pragmatics’ of recovery and rebuild. (I’ll return to this thread of thinking shortly.)
On 6 June it was reported that ex-mayors Vicki Buck and Garry Moore may seek election to council after being spotted having coffees with Lianne Dalziel. Since then, Garry Moore has confirmed that he won’t be standing (as this link about Paul Lonsdale – manager of the Re:Start Mall and Central Business Association – thinking of standing, details) and Vicki Buck that she will be (see below).
On 19 June Lianne Dalziel announced her candidacy. As is inevitable, it came in tandem with a presumably well-prepared series of endorsements from the CEO of Foodstuffs, Steve Anderson, Councillor and Tim Carter. The former is not that surprising, given Dalziel’s previous role as Minister of Food Safety and, as this link shows, previous goodwill over the reopening of a Pak’nSave in Wainoni in the east of the city.
Since Lianne Dalziel announced her candidacy the message of those opposed to Parker remains around the need for transparency (financial and procedural) and bipartisan unity.
Mike Yardley, who attended Dalziel’s announcement event, had this to say about the race to come:
But the Parker-Dalziel showdown won’t be fought along traditional political lines, nor can their respective support bases be neatly carved up into Left and Right-leaning camps.
The battleground is far more nuanced this year.
I attended Lianne Dalziel’s formal launch on Sunday at Canterbury University.
What was most conspicuous was the presence of leading business figures, notably the Chamber of Commerce boss, Peter Townsend. Dalziel has clearly signalled that financial prudence, transparency and integrity will be a central plank in her mayoral platform.
And Dalziel’s announcement speech itself was pitched partly at just such an audience. It was remarkable for its explicit signal to business that she would be on their side:
People have commented on my decision to run independently. As a Labour MP for nearly 23 years I didn’t expect anyone to suggest that I could shake off my Labour Party affiliation in the public eye. And in truth, Labour values will always be my values but this election is about so much more than political affiliations. We need to have the right people with the right skills at the council table from across the political spectrum and that is why I decided to stand independently – to make that bipartisan intention clear. As a successful Minister of Commerce who was able to work collaboratively with business and with the National Minister of Commerce who succeeded me, I have the track record to show I can unite people from across the political divide.
My track record as a Minister means I understand the needs of business, I understand central government and I understand what it takes to get this city back on track.
Every Christchurch resident, every business man and woman needs to know the council is on their side.
And at the same time we need complete transparency and financial integrity.
It is not acceptable that we read in the papers that we are grossly under-insured.
It is not acceptable that we are taking on debt to 2% short of the maximum allowable ratio, giving us no room to manoeuvre should any calculations fall short of budget. It is fiscally irresponsible.
This ‘independent’ stance outlined in the speech echoes David Shearer’s comments on a visit to Christchurch in early 2012, shortly after he became leader of the Labour Party. He said that the situation in Christchurch was “way bigger than politics“.
Yet, of course, it is clear here in Christchurch that the ‘bipartisan’ alliance has one primary aim – to get rid of Bob Parker. That is a very political aim.
Further, while many may agree with Dalziel over the need to be “fiscally responsible” and not to take on debt, that stance, too, is very political.
To argue that it is not would also be to accept that the Fiscal Responsibility Act (brought in under Ruth Richardson’s tenure as Finance Minister) and the Local Government Amendment Act (which has a fan in Bruce Wills, President of Federated Farmers but is criticised for restricting councils to expenditure on undefined “core services“) are also ‘not political’ or are ‘bigger than politics’. Both essentially have the aim of limiting the role of elected, democratic governments (central and local) to determine their expenditure.
Here’s another example of the same message. Shortly after Dalziel announced her candidacy, ex-Mayor Vicki Buck confirmed that she would be standing for Council in the Riccarton-Wigram ward as, once again, an independent. She offered the following analysis as explanation for her independent stance:
Buck said she was not a “political party person”, having quit her Labour membership more than 20 years ago [i.e., in the early 1990s].
“I’m not in any way joining any political party and I can’t imagine that I ever will.”
It would be “crazy” for the new-look council to indulge in party politics, Buck said.
“If you look at it logically, what is the left or right view on sewer renewal, footpath repair or bike lanes? I can’t find a place for it.“
“I can’t find a place for it.” I can.
First, it’s noticeable that the examples Buck provides are – with, who knows, the possible exception of bike lanes – what would probably be defined as ‘core services’ by the Local Government (2002) Amendment Act (2012). That Act was politically controversial just because it sets limits on the role of local government. It was and is a very “left or right” issue.
Second, it’s important to distinguish between what Buck calls “party politics” and what she seems to see as synonymous, a “left or right view“.
As the history of ‘party politics’ in New Zealand over the past 30 years has shown – for example, in the case of the far right policies followed by the 1984-1990 fourth Labour Government - political parties and the ‘left-right divide’ are increasingly independent phenomena.
Third, and most importantly, the essence of politics doesn’t disappear by determinedly wishing it away.
Take sewer renewal. Where should it start? Whose ‘need’ is most dire? Should council services be repaired first for commercial uses (e.g., to ‘get the local economy up and running’) or for residents in areas worst hit by the earthquakes? Both, but more slowly for each?
The same questions could be raised for footpaths, bicycle lanes or any other seemingly ‘technical’, ‘practical’ issue. The point is that all of these questions are political ones. They are about priorities, needs, what is being valued (and what isn’t) and are subjects for political debate that cannot be decided on some supposed ‘technical’ grounds.
Consider why so many completed EQC claims have been, disproportionately, located in the least affected areas of the city (in the west) where there has been minimal damage. Technically, they were often the easiest cases both to settle in insurance and EQC terms and to fix in practical terms.
Meanwhile, those in most need with the most complicated insurance and EQC claims and the greatest damage had to wait – on purely technical grounds (and, perhaps, on the PR desire of EQC to show publicly how it had settled thousands of claims and not been sitting on its hands). And consider that the populations in the affected versus least affected areas are – with notable exceptions in the hill suburbs – distinguished not just by the ground underneath them but by their socioeconomic status and, in fact, by ethnicity.
A technically determined process imposed atop the earthquakes will not, and has not, provide a neutral arbiter or ‘level playing field’ but, instead, will simply reinforce the existing relative advantages or disadvantages of different groups in the city. Like laissez-faire in economics, the notion of being apolitical in the recovery by pursuing ‘practical’ solutions is a remarkably political (and politicised) stance to adopt – there is nothing ‘neither left nor right’ about it.
It is not ‘way bigger than politics’; it is actually ‘way big politics’. Yes, it is not about ‘party politics’ but it is saturated with ‘left-right’ dilemmas and the very impersonal forces that have led to such things as social and economic inequality throughout history.
This year’s local body elections are also permeated with another conflict, superimposed upon the ‘left-right’ division, and the main reason for the strange realignments in Christchurch politics.
When recently interviewed by John McCrone, both leading contenders described a similar focus – the relationship with government. That relationship is summed up by McCrone in the following way:
Parker and his council table have been kept off-balance – most likely deliberately – by Brownlee’s disconcerting mix of support and criticism.
They have had the minister praising them for their stout co- operation in the morning, blasting them as buffoons by mid- afternoon, then being back to a matey “we’re all in this together for the good of Christchurch”, at some evening social do.
Dalziel paints a picture of that relationship as having resulted from a strategic failure on the part of Parker and Council:
“I’m very clear that the council failed to play its proper recovery role from the first September earthquake. There was a huge problem of a lack of leadership, a lack of any strategic plan.”
So Dalziel says what happened was the council left a power vacuum which needed to be filled.
“That inaction, and the extent of the financial contribution the Government was going to have to make, were the two driving factors for why it chose to use a government department rather than an independent crown entity to oversee the recovery.”
So Brownlee and his jet-in Wellington bureaucracy is not the issue, she says. Brownlee has got up a head of steam largely because there is so little effective alternative.
In this version of events, the government stepped in to a power vacuum in order to ensure that the earthquake recovery could proceed expeditiously, given “inaction” by the Council. With an effective Council that mobilised the support of the people, she argued, there would be such an “effective alternative” to central government:
The answer, says Dalziel, is for the council to mobilise the people again. A beam suddenly replaces her frown.
Dalziel says, remember the radical, adventurous spirit Christchurch was feeling around the time of the council’s Share an Idea exercise after the February 2011 earthquake?
“It was amazing. That’s when we had Sir Richard Leese from Manchester and Doug Ahlers from Havard, wonderful people who came to our city wanting to help.”
That may be a ‘politic’ analysis for an independent mayoral candidate to make who, if successful, will have to work with the government but that doesn’t make it a correct analysis, or an internally coherent one.
First, the Share an Idea process did, of course, happen both under the Council’s ‘leadership’ and after CERA had been established and was in full operation. That is, the best example Dalziel has of the kind of community-led “effective alternative” approach to recovery happened yet could not stop Brownlee getting up “a head of steam“.
In fact, Brownlee took swift action to regain control of that “effective alternative” by establishing the Central City Development Unit (CCDU) which he then charged with coming up with the only real ‘blueprint’ there was ever going to be – one under the government’s control. So much for ‘Share an Idea’.
Second, the establishment of CERA, complete with its overweening powers, was announced on 29 March, 2011 just over a month after the 22 February, 2011 earthquake. Five weeks is hardly enough time for the government to become frustrated with the Council’s ‘inaction’ or lack of a strategic plan.
In that announcement, the main reasoning given for the nature of the authority was that it mirrored an effective process that had been used in Queensland after the floods there:
Mr Brownlee said many of powers in the proposed CERA legislation, which will be introduced to Parliament in the coming weeks, were based on those put in place when establishing the Queensland Reconstruction Authority following the state’s devastating floods in January.
Functions relating to working closely with affected communities and collecting and collating information about infrastructure and other property, and community services, come from the Queensland Reconstruction Authority Act 2011.
Powers that relate to CERA’s ability to acquire, hold, deal with and dispose of property and the Minister’s ability to call-in the powers and functions of a local authority or council organisation are also based on those outlined in the Queensland Reconstruction Authority Act.
It is true, however, that the announcement also mentioned that CERA was being established after:
“Lessons learned from international experience and the response to Canterbury’s September 4 earthquake led us to today’s announcement, …”
And, in fact, in her statement Dalziel was of course referencing the 4 September, 2010 earthquake not the February, 2011 one. So perhaps it was Council ‘inaction’ after that earthquake that led the government to lack confidence in the Council and to opt, after February, 2011 for the creation of a government Authority to manage the response and recovery?
It is easy to forget but, within 10 days of the 4 September, 2010 earthquake the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act, 2010 was enacted, ‘overnight’.
By the end of September, the Act received stinging criticism in an open letter from 27 of New Zealand’s legal scholars, who described it as:
an extraordinarily broad transfer of lawmaking power away from Parliament and to the executive branch, with minimal constraints on how that power may be used.
The Act put “unconstrained power” in the hands of Ministers (the executive) in the following ways:
• Individual government ministers, through “Orders in Council”, may change virtually every part of NZ’s statute book in order to achieve very broadly defined ends, thereby effectively handing to the executive branch Parliament’s power to make law;
• The legislation forbids courts from examining the reasons a minister has for thinking an Order in Council is needed, as well as the process followed in reaching that decision;
• Orders in Council are deemed to have full legislative force, such that they prevail over any inconsistent parliamentary enactment;
• Persons acting under the authority of an Order in Council have protection from legal liability, with no right to compensation should their actions cause harm to another person.
All power after the 2010 earthquake was to be in the hands of Ministers.
But wasn’t there a ‘Recovery Commission’ established as part of the legislation? Yes there was (Section 9 of the Act) and it was to be composed of the three mayors (Christchurch, Selwyn and Hurunui), an ECan Commissioner and three other government appointed people with “relevant expertise or appropriate skills“.
The functions of the Recovery Commission were to:
(a)provide advice, on request or on its own initiative, to—
- (i)the relevant Minister in relation to Orders in Council that may be required for the purpose of this Act; and
- (ii)the responsible Ministers in relation to how resources may be prioritised and funding allocated for the response to the Canterbury earthquake; and
(b)provide a central contact point between central and local government in the management of the response to the Canterbury earthquake.
The Recovery Commission, that is, was an advisory body and a ‘contact point’ for government, which was in complete charge.
It is true that CERRA did not set up a ‘government department’ but it did establish unprecedented powers of central government to oversee the response and recovery process. Further, the Commission only comprised mayors and other appointed people, not the entire, respective elected councils.
The Councils had a back seat and were subject – like everyone else in Canterbury – to the unprecedented powers of an ‘unleashed’ central government executive.
In that environment, how is a Council judged to be “inactive“? In that environment, what would be an effective “strategic plan“?
Bob Parker presumably read the writing on the wall that the government saw itself as being in control of the process from day one, after the 4 September, 2010 earthquake – that was certainly the fear of many in Christchurch and apparently amongst the legal scholar fraternity in New Zealand.
Whether or not Dalziel feels comfortable about highlighting the point during her bid for the mayoralty, it is clear that from the moment after the earthquakes struck the government wanted to be in control. This was not a case of government ‘filling a vacuum’ – it was a case of government creating one by sweeping all other bodies aside.
When Parker was interviewed by McCrone he had the same focus as Dalziel – and even directly echoed her points – on the relationship with central government, although he unsurprisingly described the causes and nature of that ‘relationship’ quite differently:
Like Dalziel, Parker says he wants to see the community spirit come back. The past three years have been dominated first by the emergency and then by the increasingly heavy-footed presence of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).
“Before Cera became the key organisation, we just had the most remarkable people beating a pathway to our door, offering all sorts of help. They were so inspired by a city that wanted to rebuild itself in a green, sustainable, 21st century, people- focused way.
“But after Cera took up the reins with 100-day plans and all that, the enthusiasm just fell away. To me, one of the saddest things was how the Government’s approach essentially burned a lot of that off.”
“The Government has put a lot of funding in and been doing a good job. Everyone’s grateful to them. But it’s natural we want them to leave now. We want to have our city back. The structure needs to change. The people of Christchurch need to be closer to the process of the rebuild.”
Parker flinches at the accusation he has been too passive, too conciliatory, in the face of a bulldozing Brownlee.
“The reality is the Government’s the top dog here. They had the power. They decided they were on the line and they would put in the support for Christchurch in the way they felt comfortable. And that meant they had to subjugate the council to a large degree.”
In the final analysis, both candidates for mayor agree that the real battle is between local and central government. Dalziel is being coy – presumably for political reasons – and also strategic in wanting to paint Parker as being as ineffective as possible. Between the lines, however, it is clear that she, too, realises what the game is about.
But, as I said in the previous post in this set of posts, this tussle is not just over who controls the recovery process – it is about who gets to re-engineer the entire city, especially in its economic guise.
The upcoming elections are crucial in that struggle, but the government currently holds all the cards. As the previous post also tried to show, the government has also been playing its cards effectively and increasingly rapidly as the elections draw closer.
To put the issue starkly: At stake is whether or not Christchurch becomes entirely recast as a ‘neo-liberal city’.
The wholesale demolition of the central city is a fundamental ‘foundation’ for that recasting. It provides the ‘blank slate’. But that slate still needs to be written on.
Will it be written with convention centres, mega stadiums and high-end retail primarily focused on the ‘global upper-middle class’?
Or will it be a more ‘organic’, local city that can show its continuity with its past, the idiosyncrasies of its citizens and the distinctive values and way of life it has generated?
Will our city be imprinted from above or generated from below? And, who will benefit most?
Elections are nearing – and not just local ones.
[At this point I learnt that Bob Parker had withdrawn from the Mayoral contest.]
Bob Parker’s decision not to stand in the local body elections puts an interesting edge to the above discussion.
Most obviously, there is the question of how the ‘left-right’ alliance that appears to be backing Lianne Dalziel as an independent candidate will be affected. Now that the ‘common enemy’ has quit will the blocks quickly revert to ‘normal transmission’?
Will the right, in particular, now feel the need (or desire) to put up their very own candidate? That becomes an interesting but awkward possibility given that it is clear that people like Tim Carter and Peter Townsend seemed to have been happy to support (explicitly and implicitly, respectively) Dalziel’s candidacy. In fact, she has been fulsomely praised by many on the right and those words can’t be wished back.
There’s also the related question of where Parker’s voter support might go with his exit. A Press poll found that only 30% of Christchurch voters supported him but, should a ‘left-right’ battle ensue that will be an absolutely crucial block of votes to lure.
That might explain Dalziel’s highly positive comments about Parker after his withdrawal and her insistence that he should have “a role in council”:
Bob Parker has removed himself from the mayoral race, but remaining candidate Lianne Dalziel is already eyeing him up for a role in council if she wins.
The long-serving Christchurch East Labour MP told The Press last night she felt “incredibly sad” about Parker’s sudden and shocking withdrawal from the race.
“He has given so much to the city. It is true that he has given his heart and soul to the city.”
But there’s an even more important question that arises and it relates to my main point: that this is all about who gets to determine Christchurch’s future form.
With Parker out and the ‘left-right’ alliance in question, the opportunities for the government to ‘divide and conquer’ and exploit the different interests of political and community groupings have suddenly increased.
Now that the main immediate goal – the removal of Parker – has been achieved, perhaps unexpectedly suddenly, the fundamental longer-term interests will re-emerge. Some of those interests will be served by siding very much with the government in its already massive control of the shaping of Christchurch.
Even if Dalziel wins, would her vision of a ‘grassroots’, community-led and owned recovery and rebuild be able to succeed not only against an all-powerful government Authority but also against a re-energised right representing some of Christchurch’s most powerful local interests?
Watch this space.
Or, put another way, perhaps it’s best to watch a literal space – the one that currently occupies, in all its staggering emptiness, the central city.
After all, it is in that still-dark heart of Christchurch that the ‘tussle’ is at its rawest, and so is at its most revealing.
Time to turn the spotlight on the media black hole called ‘The Frame’.
To be continued …