Speaker by Various Artists


Why all the fuss over six trees?

by Rhys Jones

Auckland Transport’s decision to remove six mature pōhutukawa from Great North Road near the SH16 interchange has got many Aucklanders fired up. Protesters have adorned the trees with signs, online petitions have been set up, vocal opposition has been expressed at public meetings, and social media is buzzing with people determined to save the ‘Pōhutukawa 6’ (including, apparently, the trees themselves). Campaigners have promised to take legal action unless Auckland Transport changes its mind.

So why are people so up in arms about an issue that, on the face of it, seems somewhat trivial? Aren’t there bigger problems to worry about? Sure, those trees are valuable in many ways, both tangible and intangible, but shouldn’t we be more concerned about kids going to school hungry or people being unable to afford housing?

Part of the answer is that the process has been appalling. At the resource consent hearing, the vast majority of submissions (mine included) were deemed invalid as they had the wrong reference number. More recently, in the face of public discontent, Auckland Transport has shown a belligerent attitude with a ‘my way or the highway’ response (or should that be ‘my way is the highway’?) There is certainly a sense among many commentators that unelected officials have been given far too much power and that the views of ordinary people are being ignored.

But still, it’s only six trees. What could explain this level of public outrage?

Perhaps it’s the recognition that, in a sane world, this decision could not have been reached.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone looking at that vast expanse of tarmac and saying to themselves, “you know what this area is crying out for – another lane of road”. Or, “gee, I wish someone would get rid of those trees – they’re ruining the uninterrupted asphalt landscape”. And yet that is the decision that has been made – to destroy six 80-year-old pōhutukawa, planted by our forebears so that future generations could enjoy their amenities – in the name of progress.

And what is the incredibly valuable social goal that requires such a sacrifice? Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s so that in about ten years’ time motorists can save a few minutes going through that intersection at certain times of the day. And even that is based on a hypothetical future scenario, using traffic projections from a parallel universe in which current trends are reversed and we inexplicably decide to drive our cars a lot more.

How could this possibly have happened? Surely, when senior Auckland Transport officials were presented with the plan, the response would have been something like, “sorry, that’s not what we had in mind. The aim wasn’t to see how many traffic lanes you could fit into that space – we’re actually trying to achieve a functional, vibrant and attractive area that is designed for people. After all, our city has aspirations to be the most liveable city in the world. So I’m afraid it’s back to the drawing board.”

That is how one imagines our transport leaders would have responded in a sane world. Yet that was not how things transpired – the plan for the intersection was approved, along with the requirement to remove the six pōhutukawa. That is despite the plan being unfit for purpose, having been roundly condemned by transport commentators as being entirely out of step with 21st century design principles.

So we stand to lose these valuable taonga, “the only bit of civility in this area”, for the sake of a negligible time saving for motorists in a distant scenario that, in all likelihood, will never eventuate. Have our priorities really become so distorted that social ideals such as healthy and safe environments, vibrant communities and quality spaces for people are trumped by the desire to drive from A to B more quickly? Has ‘liveable’ really come to be synonymous with ‘driveable’?

In a sane world this decision could not have been reached, so the implication is that we live in an insane world. That is, a world in which decisions are made that go against the best interests of its inhabitants and disavow the values that have allowed human societies to prosper for thousands of years. A world in which power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of privileged elites who exercise that power in ways that make things worse for the majority of us. And that is something that strikes a nerve with people, whether or not they would ordinarily care about a few trees by the side of a road.

It is extremely heartening to see so many people engaged in active citizenship in an attempt to save those six grand, old pōhutukawa. It is undoubtedly a worthy quest: those trees deserve to be cherished and protected. But they also represent the tip of a deeply troubling iceberg. Their planned removal provides a very palpable example of a society moving in direct opposition to the values and aspirations of the people. If we can sit idly by and let this happen – something that is so clearly wrong – what else are we prepared to tolerate?

The fight to save those six trees is symbolic of the broader struggle to save our values, our decency and our humanity in the face of powerful opposing forces. I believe that is why we’re seeing an outpouring of passion and determination seemingly out of all proportion to the issue at hand. That is why so many people are pushing to have the decision reversed – such an outcome would offer hope that the voices of the people can be heard in finding solutions to other, arguably more critical problems. We need to believe that sanity has a chance of prevailing in what increasingly feels like an insane world.

Dr Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a public health physician and Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland.


Once in a Lifetime: Unofficial versions

by Barnaby Bennett, James Dann, Emma Johnson, and Ryan Reynolds

The issues around the Christchurch rebuild are dense, manifold and inevitably localised, and it can be hard for people outside the city to understand how or why its citizens might be unhappy with the decisions made on their behalf. Decisions about what kind of place people will live in.

A good deal of light has been cast on the matter by the book Once in Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, published by Freerange Press and edited by Barnaby Bennett, James Dann, Emma Johnson, and Ryan Reynolds. The book features a foreword by Helen Clark and its 55 authors include Kevin McCloud, Rebecca McFie, Eric Crampton, Giovanni Tiso and Raf Manji.

The book is still available from Freerange for $45, but the editors have kindly granted Public Address permission to to run its introduction in full in this post. It explains some things.


What a day it was

It began with a sharp jolt at 4:37 a.m. on 4 September 2010. Radio New Zealand shifted to their emergency broadcast (which unfortunately was the Beach Boys’ song Good Vibrations) and a collective thought emerged from New Zealanders that would be repeated endlessly over the next few years: ‘Christchurch isn’t supposed to have big earthquakes.’

When dawn rose and the dust settled after this first quake in September, it felt like a bullet had been dodged. The damage was significant; buildings were evacuated; there was talk of widespread demolition. Yet somehow, almost magically, no one was killed.

The quake altered the political landscape, and the previously unpopular mayor Bob Parker surged to a second term in the November local body elections. Local MP and Minister Gerry Brownlee was given the new role of Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (CER), and Parliament passed the first version of the CER legislation to enable a coordinated response to the destruction. Little did these leaders or the people of Christchurch know what was still to come.

At 12:51 p.m. on 22 February 2011, a violent aftershock centred in Lyttelton shook the city, causing extensive damage to buildings and land across the region. The city’s power, water, sewerage, roading and governance systems were overwhelmed. The next day the New Zealand government declared the second-ever national state of emergency. It would emerge that 185 people from seventeen different countries died as a result of the quake. The majority of these deaths were due to the collapse of two relatively modern central city buildings: the Canterbury Television and Pyne Gould Corporation buildings. The heroism in the hours and days after the quake was extraordinary – involving thousands of volunteers, police, fire service, armed forces and urban search and rescue teams from around the world. This book looks at what happened next, as the people of Christchurch were forced to recreate their broken city.

It was immediately evident that the post-quake demolition and planning processes were going to be long and complex. Shortly after the February quake, the Government reconfigured its portfolios and chose Minister Brownlee to lead the official response as Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, alongside the mayor, Civil Defence and other officials. At the end of March a new government organisation, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), was created to oversee the reconstruction processes. A few weeks later a major piece of legislation was passed that gave the Minister extraordinary powers to bypass most other New Zealand laws to accomplish the reconstruction.

That legislation obliged the Christchurch City Council to undertake a process to determine the planning of the central city, and present it for ministerial approval or revision. Pre-quake, the city council had already sought recommendations to improve the liveability of the city, engaging internationally recognised Gehl Architects. Gehl Architects were utilised again post-quake, and helped facilitate the large city-wide consultation campaign that became known as Share an Idea. Through digital media, snail mail and in-person workshops, more than 100,000 ideas for Christchurch were garnered from a population that was still reeling from the impact of the February quake just three months prior, and experiencing regular and often violent aftershocks. In total, Christchurch has suffered more than 13,000 aftershocks, including two more large and damaging shakes on 13 June and 23 December 2011.

The abundant ideas were recorded by Council and analysed for commonalities and patterns. This led to the development of five overarching themes: a green city; an accessible city; a stronger built identity; a compact central business district; ‘a place to live, work, play, learn and visit’. These themes in turn informed the urban design in the Council’s draft Central City Plan (CCP), which was revealed to the public and opened for feedback in August 2011, less than six months after the fateful day.

In November 2011 a nationwide general election was held, and the National Party – including Minister Brownlee – was re-elected to government for a further three years.

The next month, as per the legislation, the Christchurch City Council presented a revised CCP to the Minister for his approval, having digested public feedback on the August draft. The Minister opened the opportunity for further submissions to be made regarding the Council’s plan.

After what had felt like the rapid development of the Council’s plan, it took the Minister four months to announce that, while the principles of the plan were solid, the spatial layout was not well enough defined and the rules that underpinned the plan were too restrictive. On 18 April 2012 the Minister announced the establishment of a new unit within CERA, called the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), and appointed former Timaru District Council Chief Executive Warwick Isaacs to lead it. His most recent experience had been coordinating the building demolitions programme for CERA. The first task of the CCDU was to pull together a team of designers and come back with a more developed design – a blueprint for the city – within 100 days.

New Zealand-based planning and design consultants Boffa Miskell led a consortium of designers and architects from firms in Christchurch and Sydney: Woods Bagot, Populous, Sheppard and Rout, RCP, and Warren and Mahoney.

The designers and consultants were pulled together to substantially revise the spatial framework of the Council’s CCP and largely rewrite the regulatory framework: the zonings, consent obligations and other foundational rules. The group’s major task was to find sites for the series of anchor projects that the Government had decided would comprise their recovery plan.

On 30 July 2012, almost a year since the Council’s first draft plan and seventeen months since the worst quake, Prime Minister John Key joined Minister Brownlee and Mayor Bob Parker to launch the national Government’s new Christchurch Central Recovery Plan (CCRP) and Blueprint at the Council’s Civic Offices. While the city’s politicians, businessmen and leaders applauded the occasion, people outside could be seen protesting the slow progress of repairs and lack of attention to housing.

Christchurch now had the controversial plan that was to become the primary document in the reimagining of the central city.

The new Blueprint placed a series of major buildings and precincts across the city. Most of these were carried over – in a slightly different form or scale – from the Council’s draft plan, such as a Metro Sports Facility, the re-design of the Avon River and surroundings, a large children’s playground, a convention centre and a new central library.

A handful of significant new projects emerged in the Blueprint: the Performing Arts Precinct, Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Innovation Precinct and a new stadium in the city. The most notable change was the formalisation and extension of the desire, expressed in the Council’s plan, to have greenways along the edges of a more compact central city. The new Blueprint entailed the purchase of large areas of the central city to develop a massive green edge called The Frame, encompassing around twelve entire city blocks. The goals of The Frame were to create a government-owned land bank to protect property prices in the city, to create an edge to prevent the central city from bleeding into the light industrial areas to the east and south and to provide future opportunity for inner-city residential development.

The integrated public approach, seen in the earlier Council plans, was now gone. The Council’s CCP had proposed large publicly-funded projects, but also included incentives and regulations, with frameworks for how to incorporate education, housing, public art, high-quality streetscapes, character, identity and heritage. The Government CCRP removed environmental standards for buildings in the city, directives to investigate light-rail for the city, and any strategic approach to how to manage the city’s diverse and important heritage stock. It progressed from a framework that encapsulated a wide range of community ideals to a minister-led masterplan.

The differences between the Council plan and the new Blueprint are evident in the process as well. The Council draft plan was developed from a city-wide consultation exercise. They sought feedback on the draft plan, with a travelling roadshow that more than 6000 people visited. A further 4700 submissions were received on the draft plan, and 427 people presented in person to the Council over eight days in October 2011. The government-led Blueprint was launched on 30 July 2012 and became law the following day ­– with no further feedback or review process. The new government-led process does, however, continue the significant and historic relationship with Ngai Tahu.

It soon became clear that many of the anchor projects in the ambitious Blueprint were placed where there were existing buildings that had survived the quakes. Thus, it was unstated but insinuated that the Majestic Theatre would be demolished for a proposed road to be widened; the old council offices for a new transport interchange; the Centennial Pool complex for a large family playground; the NG Building of art galleries, shops and offices for the new stadium and so on. Other controversial aspects included the apparent assumption that the Christchurch Town Hall would be demolished and the inclusion of a Cricket Oval in Hagley Park.

The transport-related aspects of the plan had been excluded from the Blueprint and postponed to a separate addendum. It was to be another fifteen months before the transport plan, An Accessible City, was released and adopted into the larger planning law of the city. This long process did, however, give stakeholders and the public the opportunity to submit feedback. The main aspects of this plan were to retain the people-focused urban design of the spatial plan and to restrict travel speeds to 30 km/h in the central city. Controversially, most of the one-way streets were preserved, a decision that overturned the Council’s proposal to remove the one-way system that, it claimed, encourages people to drive through rather than to the city.

The new plan required significant investment from local and central government. It led to tense negotiations between these organisations, behind closed doors, with many of the city’s own elected councillors excluded. The negotiations were only publicised once a deal was signed between the two agencies – despite involving billions of dollars of public money. On 27 June 2013, a deal was announced: $4.8 billion of funding for the rebuild was to be split, with $2.9 billion coming from central government and $1.9 billion from local government.

In October 2013 Council elections were held and Lianne Dalziel – who stepped down as Member of Parliament for hardest-hit Christchurch East to stand for the role – was elected mayor, along with nine new city councillors and only four incumbents. They rode a wave of public enthusiasm to clean house, to revitalise the dysfunctional bureaucracy with a stronger council that could both work with, and stand up to, central government. Changes to the local government had already transpired prior to the elections, with the CEO resigning amidst controversy around his salary and his handling of an issue that resulted in the Council being stripped of its accreditation to issue building consents.

There is considerable tension between the local and central governments with overlapping areas of planning and governance in the central city, and competing views on financial priorities. This leads to complex power relations. Central government can impose a new stadium in the city that the local government must partly pay for; Council can assert some autonomy and decide to repair the Christchurch Town Hall, which contradicts the CCDU plan for a Performing Arts Precinct. In this post-quake tangle, every issue has become thornier.

While the central government is covering a significant amount of the costs they also stand to recoup a considerable percentage of this through taxes from increased economic growth as a result of the rebuild. The local government on the other hand has large debt problems and is in danger of not being able to meet its commitments to the large projects.

By 2014 it was abundantly clear that the rebuild was going to take longer than most initial projections. The cost, complexity and scale of the whole process continue to surprise everyone. Most major projects are running behind schedule; it is likely to be at least ten years on from the first quake before all the major projects are completed. The entire earthquake recovery is estimated to cost around $40 billion, the majority of this coming from insurance companies, with central and local government contributing significant amounts, and comparatively small amounts of new private investment emerging to support the city so far.

Two years after the launch of the Blueprint, onsite work has begun on just four out of the eighteen government-led anchor projects: the Cricket Oval, Justice and Emergency Services Precinct, Te Papa Otakaro / Avon River Precinct and the Bus Interchange. Many are in various stages of tendering, designing or documentation with little public discussion or presence.  A number of projects such as the Arts Precinct, the Stadium and Te Puna Ahurea Cultural Centre are contested, or there has been little progress to date.

Like the land, the people of Christchurch are well-surveyed. Coming up to four years after the first quake all data still indicate that people here are suffering considerably more hardship and stress than normal. The quakes that at first united everyone and brought together communities of people from different economic and class backgrounds now risk amplifying those differences as the well-off and financially independent are able to adjust and adapt more readily. Amid these many controversies and complexities, it is important to acknowledge that much that could have gone wrong hasn’t. There has not been a collapse in land value, mass emigration, a ruined local economy, widespread fraudulence or a general lack of basic provisions. There has been significant adaptation and innovation by government institutions in health, justice and economic support. And many of the unplanned activities in the city – private developments like C1 Espresso; community groups like Addington Action and the Student Volunteer Army; cultural inventions like the new Festival of Transitional Architecture, the Ministry of Awesome and the many Gap Filler projects – have been both inspirational and influential.

In short, it’s all very complicated.

There is no clear dividing line between the disaster and the subsequent plans, actions and developments. The city’s character is saturated with the disaster; the earthquake remains an inescapable daily presence and topic of conversation.

Alongside the continuing trauma, this crisis has helped form profound friendships and a collective sense of purpose. In a complex web comprising multiple layers of government, local and external developers, community groups, NGOs, architects, planners and all the residents of the city, we have the daunting chance not just to rebuild, but to reimagine our city.

Once in a lifetime

The title ‘Once in a lifetime’ indicates both an opportunity and a threat: the unparalleled occasion to grow, develop and explore, and an imperative not to miss our collective ‘only chance’. This phrase captures something of the simultaneous liberation and pressure felt in Christchurch in the past few years.

In an interview about the Talking Heads’ song of the same title, writer David Byrne said: ‘We're largely unconscious. We operate half-awake, on autopilot. And we end up with a house and family and job and we never stop and ask how did we get here.’ Thus, his song actually implies that every moment is a once in a lifetime opportunity and burden – though people don’t often think in this way.In nearly every facet of our lives – work, relationships, home environment – humans are constantly navigating between fully investing ourselves in the choices we’ve already made and opening ourselves to new possibilities and ways of being. We may reveal these inner struggles to our friends and family, but it is rare that these personal considerations take collective form.

In times of crisis, many issues that were previously hidden, unknown or private become temporarily communal. Whole societies of people must suddenly debate their collective values and future. Balancing, on a city-wide scale, the inevitable sense of urgency and need for decisiveness with the sense that meaningful change may be possible is one of the most daunting tasks that individuals and societies can face.

The real once-in-a-lifetime prospect in Christchurch, then, is that these questions – of whether and how to re-assert our old values and choices or take time to flirt with rare new possibilities – are unavoidable, shared and city-wide. A few years on from the major earthquakes many key decisions and plans have been made, including the crucial final Government Blueprint for the recovery, but the consequences have not been fully reaped. The purpose of this book is to reflect on these issues while it is not too late to make informed changes.

City of dreams

In late 2013, the editors of this book felt that what had been a fairly widespread optimism about the rebuild – for both the official plans and the unofficial activities and developments – was steadily wearing away. This seemed to be the occasion to examine whether we, collectively as a city, might be missing our chance to make this new city the best representation of our shared values, to make the most of this awful situation. We put a call out, seeking contributions on a wide range of urban recovery topics from planning, economics, arts and health, to anything else people wanted to propose. The fact that most of the authors transcend their disciplinary boundaries may indicate the convolution of this unprecedented post-quake scenario: nobody is an expert and no discipline can work in isolation. This process yielded a unique collection of multidisciplinary essays by professional journalists, politicians, students, planners, academics, publicans, artists, designers, economists and much more.

Recognising the diversity of the submissions, we opted to group the essays not by topic or discipline, but by their underlying theme or consequence. The chapter sequence tells a story of the past few years, from exploring different methods and philosophies of Making Plans, to the marketing, politics and genuine consultation involved in Selling the Plans to the general public and investors. Implementing the envisioned change requires Rewriting the Rules to permit new ways of acting. During this process, we have been Considering the Common Good, asking how we might shape our city to reflect our shared values, and debating what those values might actually be. Along the way there are repeated reminders of the importance of Thinking Big, Acting Small and Meeting in the Middle, which refer not only to the scale of responses, but also to hierarchies and power relationships. This cognisance leads to many real and imagined possibilities of Building Back Better, and culminates in Reimagining Recovery, dreaming of ways in which we might yet enact deep-seated change.

Within each of these chapters there are at least two different currents, revealing perhaps the most persistent theme of the book: the relationship between the official responses of those in power and the many and varied unofficial responses. As an example, the chapter Rewriting the Rules focuses on the Government’s extraordinary powers and the legislation that granted them – but also on the ways certain developers, community groups and concerned citizens have been subverting conventions to reshape some of the unwritten rules and habits of our city. Similarly, the chapter Making Plans includes pieces representing both ‘sides’: the tendency of the official architects’ and politicians’ plans to concentrate on the finished product, and the tendency of the unsanctioned approaches to emphasise who’s involved and the process by which the eventual plans are made or enacted.

This leads to the next most prominent, and multifaceted, theme of the book: means and ends, or the correlation between process and product. Are closed-door decisions necessary in order to act quickly and guarantee quality outcomes? Or will exclusive processes inevitably lead to an exclusive city? Can deep and meaningful consultation occur once and inform many subsequent plans, or must consultation be a recurring and iterative process to be valid? Must every process begin with the people, buildings, resources and activities that already exist? Or does starting from scratch allow for more innovation?

There is also a third current coursing through the book: anger.

Of course, anger has been present from the very first moments the quakes disrupted the lives of people in Canterbury. Like the issues that radiate from the earthquakes, anger and frustration have spread to other aspects of life in the city such as traffic problems, dealing with insurance companies and government agencies, school closures, rent increases, political decision-making and more. But it is belittling to treat this anger as simply an emotional consequence of the quakes to be mitigated by holidays and relaxation. Much of this anger is justified. It can be the motivating factor for people to clearly articulate difficult issues, and it’s certainly part of the creative process that leads to new solutions.  

Living through the past few years has been difficult here, but it has also provided moments of joy, engagement and a sense of collective effort rarely experienced in the routines of normal daily life. We’ve tried to capture some of the liberating potential of the city through the range of visual essays throughout the book, many of which document and celebrate things – sanctioned and unsanctioned – that have been happening in the city. Along with the anger we hope that some of this excitement and adventure comes through the pages of Once in a lifetime.

Though this is undoubtedly a book about Christchurch, there are contributing authors from around the country and the world. Partly, this is in recognition that for those who’ve been living in Christchurch, we editors included, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. External eyes, voices and calm minds are more important than ever. We also draw upon parallel situations in post-disaster New Orleans and Italy, post-riot UK, and even find key similarities in ‘healthy’ cities in Australia and the USA. As with the multiple meanings of the phrase ‘once in a lifetime’, we must recognise the singularity of this state of affairs and simultaneously learn from its many precedents.

In addition to the themes discussed above – official versus unofficial responses, tension between means and ends, and the anger and joy beneath the surface – is one last idea that has been prominent in much of rhetoric here in the past four years: putting people first. While cities are extraordinarily complex collectives of systems, objects, infrastructures, ecosystems and other unnamed things, humans are the glue that holds them together.

 Hutia te rito o te harakeke, kei whea te korimako, e kō? 

 Ka rere ki uta, ka rere ki tai.

Kī mai koe ki au, he aha te mea nui o te ao?

Māku e kī atu,

He tangata! he tangata! he tangata!

Pluck out the flax shoot and where will the bellbird sing?

 It flies inland, it flies seawards. 

Ask me, what is the most important thing in the world?

I shall reply,

It is people! It is people! It is people! 

 The last three lines of this whakatauākī (proverb) have been widely quoted in post-quake Christchurch. In a place where there has been such significant grief, hardship and radical change, it is easy to understand why the focus on humanity in this message has resonated.

Yet, when used post-quake, the first two lines of the whakatauākī are almost always missing, and these are important to understanding the latter half. The saying – credited to the Te Taitokerau (Northland) region – tells us that if the young flax shoots are not protected the bellbirds will leave. While the proverb is interpreted a number of ways – as all good proverbs are – all versions utilise the sophisticated mixing of human and natural metaphors. Flax grow in a radial fashion, with the need to protect the young fresh shoots at the centre, and the harvesting of the older mature leaves for production.

It is a reminder that to truly care for humans we must also care for the environment – in all its forms – that supports our wellbeing. It is clear that we all share a desire to care for people in post-quake Christchurch, but how to cultivate the wellbeing of the places, ecologies, and institutions that support and care for all the humans that live here is less often discussed.

How do we use this rare and unique, this terrible, opportunity to (re)make a city that cares and provides for the things we hold important? It is a question that has many different and competing answers.

This collection of 55 essays spans arts, economics, ecology, architecture, planning, philosophy, health and much more, and introduces the complex problems and opportunities this situation has provoked. Reflecting from the midst of this entanglement is essential for the future of Christchurch and New Zealand, and what emerges should be of increasing interest to cities worldwide as the challenges of the twenty-first century confront us. 


UPDATE: Jimmy's best films of 2014 (now with bonus least-liked!)

by James Rae Brown

As you may know, my son Jimmy has been reviewing movies as an extension of his work for the Bridgeway Cinema and you can always see those on the Bridgeway YouTube channel. But he also still makes video reviews on his own account, and his new My Favourite Movies of 2014 round-up is well worth watching. (RB)

UPDATE 301/1/15: Jim has now rounded up his least favourite films of 2014, including, yes, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies ...


Inequality: Too big to ignore

by Max Rashbrooke

For years now, one of the main reasons given for dismissing inequality as an issue has been about economics: you need income gaps to generate growth. Without a wide gap between rich and poor, who would have the incentive to work harder and do the things that generate income for everyone?

That argument, which had already looked flimsy, was dealt what looks like a final blow with the report out yesterday from the OECD, which found unequivocally that growing income gaps are bad for the economy.

New Zealand, which had the developed world’s biggest increase in inequality from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, has seen more economic damage than most. According to the OECD’s calculations, our economy grew about 30% in the last two decades – but it would have grown by 45%, or half as much again, if inequality had stayed at 1980s levels.

So the defences for inequality are falling rapidly. As the OECD report points out, the ‘trickle-down theory’ has already been pretty thoroughly discredited; the evidence of the  last 30 years is that the income generated at the top tends to stay there, under the current settings. The OECD also rejects another argument in favour of inequality – that the standard remedy of tax and spending would hurt the economy – by saying explicitly that redistribution is good for the economy, if done well.

The OECD report could, of course, be challenged, and some economists were already asking last night where the detailed calculations were to back up its findings. But the report is hardly the first to make these points (though the most high-profile, and the most emphatic); and that makes it harder to ignore. Earlier this year, IMF researchers argued exactly the same thing, providing detailed evidence that more equal countries have better economic growth.

It’s not even a very counter-intuitive idea. After all – and this is broadly the point the OECD makes – if you have a society in which a large chunk of the population are starved of the resources they need, their economic contribution is unlikely to be huge.

When families lack the income they need to pay doctors’ fees and keep healthy, or to fix their car so they can travel to a new job, or to give their kids the equipment and clothes they need to succeed at school, it’s obvious that economic growth will suffer. You could argue that these are problems of poverty, not inequality, but really the two are inseparable; the reason some people have so little is that the fruits of economic growth are going largely to our richer citizens.

Of course, inequality matters for reasons that are far greater than economic growth. But the economy is paramount in the minds of many who still need to be convinced that growing income gaps are a problem. So this report – demolishing a key argument against inequality, backing redistribution, and pointing out New Zealand as the country worst affected – is a landmark one, and may represent the moment when inequality really became too big to ignore.

Max Rashbrooke has written for national newspapers and magazines in Britain and New Zealand, including the Guardian, the National Business Review and the Listener. He was the recipient of the 2011 Bruce Jesson Senior Journalism Award. He is the editor of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis.

This blogpost is cross-posted from Max's website, Inequality: A New Zealand Conversation.


Why churches should marry same-sex couples

by Colin Jackson

I am Colin Jackson, a middle-aged married father of two and until recently a long-term adherent of Wellington Central Baptist. Early in 2013, I wrote to the New Zealand Baptist national leader Craig Vernall criticising his public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Bill (now Act). When he did not reply I wrote publicly about my disappointment.

Subsequently, I wrote this submission, which argues that New Zealand Baptist churches should treat those of all genders and sexualities as people, and in particular that churches and ministers should not discriminate against same sex couples by refusing to marry them in circumstances that they would have married a heterosexual couple. The submission makes three main points: that loving all people, especially minorities, was a hallmark of Christ’s ministry on Earth; that biblical injunctions against male on male sex are specious; and that by being judgmental against classes of society the church is tarnishing Christ’s name and reducing its own relevance to people’s lives. A concluding section discusses how the modern church should address same sex marriage.

1. Christ’s Attitude to Minorities

The bible does not record any meeting between Jesus and a gay person or any statement of his about gay people. Presumably the mores of the time were such that Jewish gay people would have concealed their sexuality for fear of ostracism or worse. While male and female homosexual love were common in the Greek culture of the day, Jesus did not leave Palestine and would not have been directly exposed to it.

We can, however, reasonably presume that he would have treated a gay person just as any other marginalised person he came across, like the tax collector or the prostitute who washed his feet with her hair. The parable of the Good Samaritan, and many of his other stories and actions, contrast the negative and judgmental behaviour of the religious leaders of the day with the loving kindness displayed by the people they would anathemise. Jesus’s anger with religious hypocrites is shown in several places in the gospels; indeed these are the only people he is recorded as having got angry with. Given that Christ was kind to all manner of people whose ethnicity or behaviour made them completely beyond the pale for the synagogue of the day, we can be confident that were he alive today he would treat gay people and people of alternative genders in the same way, and might well criticise religious leaders who judge them.

2. Biblical Injunctions

The bible has many lists of injunctions. There is the Ten Commandments (both versions); the prohibitions of Leviticus; and under the new covenant, the precepts of St Paul. The main thing these lists of instructions have in common is that none of them are wholly observed and never have been. The commandment against killing was exuberantly broken as soon as the Israelites reached Canaan. Most of the Levitical injunctions seem quaint or incomprehensible and it is hard to form any other conclusion than that they were products of their time intended to reinforce Hebrew exceptionalism. To take them all at face value in modern times would place a church in an extreme and probably illegal position.

To take New Testament examples, we never read in the newspaper about a man plucking out his own eye after finding himself looking with lust at a woman – this behaviour is not expected by even the most dour of churches. In the Baptist church, as with most other modern churches, we do not require women to wear hats lest their hair compete with God’s glory, neither we do not expect them to remain silent in church or to ask their husbands later if they did not understand the sermon.

Clinging to scripture as the sole source of wisdom – sola scriptura – is not something that is achieved by any church today, regardless of any assertion to the contrary. All churches and individual Christians are selective about the injunctions they consider relevant to living in the current age. Given this, it is unreasonable that they should choose to discriminate against an already marginalised group on the claimed basis of a few “proof texts” when equally strong arguments could be mounted against other perfectly normal behaviour. Compared with Christ’s own behaviour on Earth, it looks positively un-Christian.

The biblical injunctions that are used to justify discriminating against people who do not fit the mould of one man marrying one woman are those that explicitly prohibit men from having sex with other men, and say nothing for instance about lesbian relationships or those involving transgendered people. Furthermore, any view that preventing marriage would prevent sex is fanciful. Rather, attempting to prevent marriage between loving partners will further separate them from the church and act to alienate them from faith in Christ.

3. Relevance of the Church

I am writing this submission out of a strong sense of injustice being committed against a minority, but there is another serious matter at stake: the relevance of Christ’s church to the society it lives in. What looks to church leaders like moral purity or appeasing older church members looks to society like hypocrisy, bigotry and even hatred.

Over the years, churches have used injunctions in the bible to justify discrimination against powerless groups in society. This is nothing to be proud of. I give two overseas examples and one New Zealand example below.

The Baptist church in the Southern states of the US supported slavery until the end of the American Civil War. At the start of that war, four million human beings lived as slaves in the US, greatly outnumbering their European owners. Many were abused by their owners; in particular women slaves were treated as possessions and were raped entirely legally. The church provided justifications for their support of slavery from the Old and New Testaments. The Southern Baptist Convention finally renounced racism in 1995, almost 150 years after the end of the war.

During the middle of last century, the Dutch Reform Church – which is active in present-day New Zealand – justified apartheid in South Africa. Under this grossly unjust system people of colour were oppressed by a white minority, and many were killed during the regime’s struggle to retain its power. The Calvinist Dutch Reform Church commissioned several theological studies to prove that apartheid was scriptural. The church declared apartheid to be sinful in 1992.

It would be wrong to assume that the majority of white people in the antebellum South or pre‑democracy South Africa were naturally bad; they must have had moral qualms. But their churches absolved their consciences and legitimated the monstrous evil they perpetrated. Instead of standing for good, these churches were a way of collectively reinforcing evil behaviour.

In New Zealand in 1986 the Salvation Army was at the forefront of the opposition to the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. People who campaigned for this reform remember with bitterness the level of vitriol aimed at them by people who claimed this was the Christian thing to do. Campaigners for the reform still speak of being spat upon by those who wished to “protect godly marriage”. Recently, the Salvation Army made peace with representatives of the gay community in New Zealand, and it did not oppose legalising same-sex marriage; but its Australian sister organisation is still vocal in its opposition. As a result, the name of the Salvation Army remains toxic to many New Zealand people despite the undeniably good works it undertakes, and this hinders its effectiveness and fundraising ability.

As things turned out, some of the church leaders involved in trying to save the moral purity of our nation by suppressing gay people in 1986 turned out to have feet of clay, as has also happened repeatedly in the case of pastors and priests with a prurient interest in the sexual behaviour of others. This happens so depressingly often that people outside the church are no longer fooled, they see unwanted sexual advice from clergy as hypocritical. As it might be put: if you are concerned about what I do with my partner in my home, perhaps it is you that has the problem, not me.

These scandals, along with the very public failings of the Roman Catholic church have brought the moral authority of the church to a low point. The survivors of clerical sexual abuse must find it particularly sickening that the church still believes that it can discriminate against people who do not fit its moral standards. So much for Christ’s exhortation to do unto others as we would have them do to us!

None of the churches described in the examples above holds these discriminatory positions now. They have moved with the societies in which they are embedded, but more slowly than most people. These churches were a force for conservatism, resistant to change, and they sought to exploit religion to justify their conservatism.

This is still the case. Any journalist seeking a reactionary quote in response to some social innovation always seems to be able to find a churchman – and it’s always a man – who will supply one, often arguing that his religious liberty to discriminate is more important than allowing others their own liberty. There are more extreme examples overseas – homosexual people are routinely killed in Uganda after the passage of a law permitting this, which was instigated by two evangelical pastors in the US.

The term Christian has become synonymous with bigot to many people. This is what has become of Christ’s church.

We need to ask ourselves whether we are like the religious leaders whom Christ railed against. Are we placing loads on others that we don’t have to bear ourselves? Would it better for us to be thrown into the sea with millstones around our necks?


I have argued that the church’s antipathy to minorities is un-Christ like, un-Biblical and at least partly responsible for evil behaviour in many times and places. It is also part of the picture of vanishing flocks and closing churches. Why, after all, would young people choose to be part of an institution that perpetuates the prejudices of older generations? Church membership becomes a self-selecting and aging group that reinforces its own prejudice. Those who do not agree leave for other churches or lose their faith entirely.

Preventing this decay is a task for church leadership. Leadership needs to take Christ-like positions on issues such as the marginalisation of minorities and exhort their members to follow them. Leadership may need to be sacrificial. Timidity is definitely not needed. Again, we need to consider the difference between the behaviour Christ modelled and that which he encountered in the religious leaders of his time.

The national Baptist website says on its front page, “You are welcome at any one of our 240+ churches”. It doesn’t add “unless you have a same sex partner”, but the national leader’s public opposition to the Marriage Amendment Act and the 2013 Assembly’s resolution amount to this. People are not fooled by the insincerity, seeing it as yet another way that the church says one thing and does another. If we change nothing else, let’s stop being hypocritical on our own website.

In New Zealand, people of different genders and sexualities are discriminated against by churches including the Baptist church. They are also routinely beaten in targeted street crime and are subject to many times higher rates of suicide and mental health problems than the general population. Discrimination by churches legitimates the violence and reduces people’s sense of self-worth. As long we refuse to treat such people equally, we bear some responsibility for their fate.

The New Zealand Baptist Church needs to recognise same-sex relationships and marriages exactly as it does heterosexual ones. And it needs to treat people who do not fit into its binary view of men attracted to women or vice versa as people of value, whose aspirations, spiritual needs and hunger for affirmation are just as valid as anyone else’s. Christ would do nothing less.

We have a chance to be more loving and less judgmental. Let’s take it.