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Christchurch: We're not "apathetic", just busy rebuilding

by Greg Jackson

This year’s local body elections are as weird as Christchurch life in general.

Incumbent Mayor, Lianne Dalziel will romp back in with a few bites on the bum from challenger, John Minto. Four incumbent Councillors and a smattering of Community Board candidates face zilch challenge and are effectively back already.

There is a slight spark of life at ECAN, run by commissioners since National took democratic control away in 2010, where the government  is letting us vote for some seats this time.

I’ve been biting passing pundits on Twitter this week as they roll out their Christchurch reckons, underpinned with the predicate that the voters are  dumb, apathetic and provincial. These “dumb” voters handed out a terrible, informed and clinical whipping to virtually all of the former Council at the last local body elections.

The apathy is relative. As a Christchurch-based three-term mayoral advisor and campaign strategist, I learned to leave the quixotic quest for the youth vote to the idealists and deal with the people who vote. Old people.

Now, "old" is still a pejorative that plasters over the reality that the old have generally learnt a trick or two. Back in 1996, as a reporter, I interviewed the daunting ladies of Ashburton’s retirement community about the national elections and realised that they could see through just about all spin and bullshit. Christchurch’s local body voters are cut from the same parsimonious and flinty-eyed cloth. If you want to get their hearts and minds, speak the truth and use large print.

They also tend to cleave to old Kiwi values like fairness. If they think someone has done a good job they rarely tell them to their face. But they will let it show in the ballot box.

I believe this group has the nous to understand that the first time Dalziel put up her hand for the job it was obviously out of commitment to her home town. In 2013, politically, the mayoralty was a Fukushima-scale poisoned chalice full of very little other than Dick Cheney’s “unknown unknowns”.

Nothing other than an informed decision to risk total burnout turning around a gutted shell of poor governance and failing competence made sense of her decision to stand. The previous council had even lost the power to issue building consents – a ghastly failure in normal times and a tragic one when the need for consents had never been higher.

Dalziel got very lucky in that she also got two major gifts amongst the intake of “new” Councillors.

One was Vicki Buck was an outrageously popular former Mayor who returned from private life to become Deputy Mayora nd help clean up her city. She and Dalziel are both well versed in the political skills of public life and equally in how to manage, deflect and override the Sir Humphries and Humphrenas of the not-so-civil service.

This is hugely important. Dalziel inherited a Council structure where the management had long ceased even pretending to have anything other than contempt for elected officials. Council management needed a very firm internal hand.

Add to this the other windfall,  former markets maven and financial free thinker Raf Manji, and you have the very strong skill base that helped form a robust, results-focused centre of gravity for the new Council.

In a very rough form (and doubtless slighting others) this gave them the capacity for Dalziel to manage, Buck to provide the public heart and Manji to out market the business community and do the numbers.

People elsewhere in New Zealand also tend to forget that since the quakes Christchurch and Canterbury have been firmly under the jackboots of central Government.

The present City Council has but to look across town to the remnants of democracy at ECAN, run by commissioners and technocrats, to see what fate lies in store for anyone who gets too independent.

Nor has Minister Brownlee been slow, or reticent about being willing to whack out a Council that gets too far out of line.

It makes the fact of the present Council’s achievements all the more impressive when you realise they effectively have a gun at their heads every day.

This is also why there is no overt candidate of the right for the Mayoralty. They know that if the Council gets too far out of line they will be punished.

Against the backdrop of these brutish realities the Mayoral candidacy of John Minto is at best a naïve triumph of ideology over reality. With a policy mix that fails to understand a Mayor is just one vote on a Council, that the Council does not have control of public transport, and that swimmable rivers are impossible when the drainage system leaks like a sieve, it is hard to be overly charitable here.

Then away from the clever wee world of “players” and political junkies there are many competing calls for the attention of the average Christchurch resident. Many of us have more pressing matters. What route through the rebuild roadworks is passable enough to get the kids to their relocated school on the other side of town? What are the lawyers up to and how much will the next phase of redress cost? Do we stay or do we go once all this stuff is settled? It’s a big list and we have the mixed blessing of living with a form of chronic fatigue which precludes too much in the way of 9 to 5 working.

Faced with all these daily realities, if you can look at the Council and see nothing alarming there that’s actually a big plus. The lack of competing candidates this time round means to me that people are relatively content and/or hellishly busy and buggered or possibly deeply embroiled in Christchurch’s alt-activist network of NGOs and start-ups.

There is a huge network of people coming together to help guide people through the hideous maze of earthquake repair and redress hurdles they still need to navigate.

The evolution of Christchurch’s self-defence movement against the antics of both EQC and private/state-run insurers has finally culminated in the formation of EQCFix.nz, which offers frustrated locals easy access to answers to their many questions.

The website is professional enough to make things look easy – it's the sort of ease obtained from years of Cardboard Cathedral claimants' meetings, OIAs, number crunching and hard research.

 There are also many other groups, like the Avon-Otakaro Network, Greening the Red Zone, the Rubble, the Student Volunteer Army. The list is endless and takes lots of community time.

Former Mayor Garry Moore anchors the Tuesday Club from his son’s inner city bar Smash Palace, bringing in keynote speakers from all sectors to inspire, inform and sometimes account for themselves. I chaired Christchurch’s Tenant’s Protection Association for several post-quake years, stepping down this year to make way for new blood and to aid my own physical recovery.

Every non-incumbent person I know who was looking at possibly standing for office this year, me included, did not in the end. I suspect all the factors I have cited above were in play here.

For all these reasons and crucially because the public trust the present Council and Mayor my reckon is we should be filed under content rather than apathetic.

The moment control of our own city returns to our hands, I also predict a very different sort of election will result.

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