Speaker by Various Artists


11 ways the Opposition has failed Christchurch

by Barnaby Bennett

In a recent article,  I highlighted some of the reasons why I thought Gerry Brownlee was no longer fit to lead the recovery in Christchurch, and this article was going to be a follow up to add another 10 - more structural reasons why I think it is time for him to let others take over.

On closer examination, what struck me about this list is how it highlights the extraordinary failure of the Opposition parties in parliament to impact positively on Christchurch. Any one of the issues below should, or could, be a national debate. Anyone of them could, and should, have brought inquiries, resignations, and reviews and improvements as a result. In other times this collection of failures would, or could, have brought a government down.

I’ve been a critic of the government down here – and they have on many occasions turned the screws unfairly on Christchurch (see below) – but at least they’ve been active and present.

The local MPs, including Ruth Dyson, Megan Woods and Eugenie Sage, have worked tirelessly and through huge workloads, but the Opposition en masse, the leadership, along with the national media, have failed to represent the scale of the issues here.  It’s all been seen as too hard, too detailed and too boring. The result of this is that the people here have not been well represented, or protected, throughout the biggest disaster in living memory in New Zealand.

The really unfortunate thing is that not only has this isolated Christchurch and extended the suffering of people here, it has also isolated the country from the joys, the excitement and the bonds that have grown in this time.  The particularly stupid part of this is that because so many of the mistakes that have happened here will not be articulated and will not be made public, they risk being repeated when the next disaster happens in Wellington, Auckland or elsewhere. (This is one of the main reasons we produced the book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after disaster in Christchurch)

People in Christchurch have – since the quakes – felt like they have been living under some kind of inept dictatorship, a big part of the reason for this is the lack of an Opposition to hold the government to account. So many deeply problematic issues and so little national debate.

It’s telling that Russell Norman’s goodbye email listing the big things they’ve achieved in the last seven years makes no mention of Christchurch. While I don’t agree with the way they have gone about it, the National government has at least made the Christchurch recovery a priority of their time in office. I wish we could say the same of the Opposition who have largely seemed confused about what to do.

At the moment we are having a national discussion about the things that make up our identity as a country – through symbols like flags and actions like letting in refugees from other countries. There is a dangerous kind of shallow patriotism to much of this discussion, but at the same time it offers an important opportunity to stop and reflect on the values that we live by, or at least that we claim to live by.  

In this context I ask people who aren’t from Christchurch to read the list below and ask themselves whether the following stories represent the kind of country they want to live in. Do the decisions and actions of the government and the Opposition reflect our identity, who we are, and how we like to treat each other?  

Please read through these 11 points:

1. "Panoply of procrastination" insurance delays: with complicit permission of Brownlee and how this differs to Queensland

The insurance industry has been accused of using a strategy of delaying agreements to push for better financial outcomes for their shareholders. The idea is that a longer a client waits the more likely they are to get tired and accept a lower value offer.  Author of the book The Christchurch Fiasco Sarah Miles calls this a "panoply of procrastination".

When similar tactics were being used in Queensland after floods in 2010-11, the Australian media and government attacked the insurance industry. A government review followed and recommended a four-month settlement limit. The Gillard government changed the legislation and by the beginning of 2012 more than 85% of claims were resolved.

Of course, the Christchurch situation is more complex and a different strategy would have been required. But the National government’s approach has followed Brownlee’s early words: "it’s all over to the insurers." (Note: Brownlee was deputy head of the National Party in 2005 when it received a $1 million donation from the Insurance Council to support privatisation of ACC.) [NB: The Insurance Council of New Zealand advises that it has never made a donation to the National Party at any time – and has not and does not make donations to any organisation, including political parties – Ed.]

Contrary to what a lot of the country seems to believe, it is not the central government paying for most of the rebuild, but insurance money that is providing the vast majority of the cost, so keeping them in the loop is sensible. The trouble is the government defers to those companies and appears to treat the inflow as some kind of act of generosity, not the simple fulfillment of a contract that people have been diligently paying for decades. A similar tone is noted when the government includes the EQC contribution in its rebuild figures like it is something extra they’ve decided to do, not a legislative requirement –  let alone a social agreement.     

Five years on and the result of this is thousands of people still waiting for resolution, an unknown quantity of botched repairs, two major class action suits against EQC and Southern Response, and widespread calls for a Royal Commission.  

A strong Opposition would have been all over this, pressuring the government, publicly shaming poor insurance behavior, and providing support to those such as the elderly who have needed it over the past 5 years. A strong Opposition in this context would have helped the government be harder on the insurers and improved the speed and quality of the rebuild.

2. The residential red zone: bad processes leading to huge delays in court battles  

The government made some BIG, bold and expensive calls post-quake. One of these was the decision to buy out thousands of properties on land that was deemed to be at high risk of suffering damage again in the future (note: this didn’t mean all the houses were damaged). I think it was a good decision that sets a powerful precedent.

However, the legal process they chose has seen them lose a string of court cases (including getting the entire thing declared illegal at one point). After five years of foot-dragging and repeated expensive returns to court, finally the government has agreed to make a just payout to people they’d excluded from the original decision.  There is a big difference between making the right decision and making sure the process is robust, fair and just. They failed on the latter, causing no small amount of mental and emotional harm to thousands of people.

At one point when the government lost a Supreme Court case the PM said, and later apologised for saying: “one option is the government says: ‘thanks very much, it's been a lot of fun.’” Great statesmanship for a PM dealing with a population recovering from a disaster.

In the end the government lost several rounds of return cases at the Supreme Court, and were forced to make further consultation and a full offer to the excluded parties. This case has had the support of the Human Rights Commission, who in the end were "delighted" by the decision.

Thank god for the court system. But this whole thing could have been easily avoided, or addressed much earlier if we had a government that was interested in making lawful decisions, and an Opposition that held them to account.

These cascading court cases have also severely delayed progress on considering and consulting on the residential red zones out east and north of the city.  This is the area six times the size of Hagley Park that was once full of houses and communities, now sitting empty and with a promise to consult but no plans about when. Almost five years after the quakes there is no progress on this land and the government is entirely to blame for the legal mistakes and poor processes that have caused the delays. The government wrote new laws for itself and then hasn’t even been able to follow the incredibly generous allowances it afforded.

3. The Earthquake Commission (EQC)

Its good to see the Opposition MP for Wigram, Megan Woods, putting some pressure on Brownlee in relation to EQC. But why has its taken five years? None of the problems are new. All of the rumours about Fletchers, about the fear of an asbestos crisis, poorly trained staff, allegations of bullying from EQC staff and nepotism have been rife (and many of these rumours have been borne out). To top it all off the main concern now is that thousands of houses may need re-repair. If thousands need repair, then tens of thousands of house hold owners are now worried and concerned about their homes.

This has led to a call for a full and independent Royal Commission into EQC.

Lawyer Duncan Webb wrote this scathing critique of EQC recently:

Homeowners do not trust EQC, do not believe that it deals with them fairly, doubt that its agents are competent to undertake repairs, and do not believe that it meets its obligations under the EQC Act. This is a fundamental breakdown in the fabric of the relationship between citizen and this important organ of the State. Ironically the very organisation which was set up to relieve suffering and cushion catastrophe has done the opposite. It has acted in many cases as a barrier to people recovering from disaster, increased stress, prolonged hardship and increased costs.

The Minister (Brownlee again) maintains there is little wrong and that there is no need for an independent inquiry.

Yet stories such as this are common:

Tai Tapu homeowners Rob and Rose Spijkerman, who attended the meeting,  said they would "totally and utterly" support an inquiry because "it has to be done". The couple were at the meeting to learn more, in order to have their case resolved fairly, Rose Spijkerman said xxxx Five years after their home was first damaged in the 2010 quake, they are still waiting for a resolution.  "We're a rebuild and [EQC] think we're a $70,000 patch-up job," Rob Spijkerman said. The experience had been physically and emotionally devastating, he said. "I've had a mental breakdown and I'm still on anti-depressants – my wife has had two strokes."

We need a Royal Commission desperately, if nothing else to restore confidence in the EQC and the important contract it offers NZ people when disaster strikes. But we also need to ask whether this ongoing delay and mistreatment of people is something we think is okay in New Zealand?

4. The massive change of scope with SCIRT without any public discussion

A brilliant article by John McCrone in July this year carefully analysed the financial commitment the government has made to Christchurch as well as its often touted $16.5 billion dollar spend on Christchurch. It turns out half of this is EQC money, so was always going to be spent, and the new commitments were closer to $6.7 billion, and by the end of 2014 only around $2 billion had been spent - four years after.  (There is also good evidence the rebuild is largely a cost-neutral exercise for the country because of the significant tax revenue)

Accountant and government critic Cam Preston echoed the feelings of many people with this comment: 

You just need to take a walk around the CBD or cycle around the suburbs to witness the reality of this low Government cash investment in Canterbury to date. There's lots of talk, but not much cash. Perhaps not much more than it would spend on schools, roads and hospitals in any normal year.

McCrone documented the profound shift that occurred in the repair strategy near the end of 2012 - a revelation. SCIRT is the agency of contractors and government departments organised to manage the repair of the city’s horizontal infrastructure, the water, sewerage, roads, footpaths and other public amenities.

… by late 2012, it was realised the bill was likely to be double the early estimates. The damage was always worse once the ground was dug. So the Government changed the rules. Scirt was told to recost the repairs based on what it would take to get the infrastructure back to an average pre-quake level of service, not what it would require to fix completely. Brownlee said Christchurch shouldn't expect the Government to pay for betterment. This allowed the Government to cap its infrastructure contribution at $1.8b – a sharp reduction on the $2.3b CCC had been expecting.

Another article from early September backs up the claims of SCIRT short-changing the city with the government refusing to repair a badly damaged road in Spencerville claiming it’s not earthquake damage:

There's major pot holes. When it rains for 10 minutes, it floods. We've got extra speed bumps that formed in the road that weren't there before.The road is crumbling and cracked ... cars are getting their wheels damaged ... it's just a bit dangerous for kiddies riding their bikes.

Nothing apart from an earthquake could cause it.

Preston suggests that the government’s desire to get the country back in surplus, - a largely symbolic gesture – led to them to putting the handbrake on basic spending that was promised after the quakes. Hence the pressure on EQC and SCIRT to fight for every dollar and make sure there was no accidental or unnecessary maintenance, upgrading, or non-eq work.  With the Opposition buying into the fiction of ‘surplus at all costs’ they also inadvertently contributed to the short-changing of Christchurch’s recovery.

Perhaps this change in strategy was a fair one in the face of tough economic times. But it was made without even discussing it with the people here who’d been promised that their roads, rivers, and systems would be repaired after the quakes, and certainly the rest of the country was never asked what they thought should be done.

Again the Opposition seems to have missed this massive shift, and it was one that, at the least, deserved a debate in parliament.

5. The (mis) management and governance of the CCDU

In 2012 Brownlee responded to pressure from developers and others lobbying behind the scenes by rejecting the local Council’s plan for the central city and creating an agency with CERA to direct the planning and management of the rebuild. This move also excluded and rejected the input of one of the great urban design firms in the world Gehl Architects who had worked closely on the Share an Idea campaign and on plans for Christchurch both pre and post quake.

In what turned out to be one of the great mistakes of the rebuild, Brownlee appointed an accountant, and former CEO of Timaru Council, Warwick Isaacs to what was probably one of the most demanding and complex jobs in the rebuild. The recently released film The Art of Recovery illustrates how Isaacs was a nice guy completely out of his depth and how Brownlee himself, with no professional training in this area, personally oversaw many of the central city planning decisions.

Comments I’ve heard from within CERA suggest it was always about pleasing the Minister rather than doing the best thing for Christchurch. Planning and disaster recovery needs to be consultative, transparent, and develop from rich conversations with experts and communities, not from the whims and wishes of a minister trying to carry the entire thing on his own shoulders.

It is now only belatedly, after years of incompetence and bad news, that the government has acted on the poor performance of the CCDU and are going to re-brand them into a new organisation called Regenerate Christchurch. But they are missing the point, almost completely, and claiming that the problem with CCDU was a "lack of commercial focus". The misunderstanding of its role as a government authority in a city recovering from disaster and the continual ignorance of the enormous imaginative capacity of citizens to drive this will, if given the chance, continue.

In these areas the Opposition has said little and seems as ideologically confused as the government. Big credit in this area should go to the Mayor who studied the situation, talked endlessly to the community, developed her own skills, quit her job as an MP, and grabbed the reins of local government.

6. What they plan to do now with the Convention Centre is even worse than before.

I’ve previously written at length about the proposed Christchurch Convention Centre; how it is way too big and in the wrong place. Also how the argument for the centre has never been made in public and the financial model doesn’t seem to stack up. Similar problems have been recently reported about the Metro Sports facility, where a site was chosen in a rush and bad land has massively forced up the cost of the projects. For the convention centre similar problems have led to major delays and re-inventions of the project.

The latest I hear is that CERA has canned much of last four years’ work. Rather than delivering a integrated and well-designed precinct that includes a convention centre, it has developed a new approach that sees the large company in charge of the project given the land – but the only obligation is to develop the convention centre on part of the site. The rest will be master-planned, but with little incentive to deliver projects or new buildings by any particular date.

This is bad news. As I explained in my long piece it is a highly unusual place to put a convention centre and the only way it’ll work spatially is if there is a strong and clear commitment to building rich and active edges around with a variety of types of space and scales. By changing the target of the project to be about just the convention centre we risk a worst-case scenario in which a  boxed-out centre is built first  (and at great expense to the taxpayer) and there is then another decade or so of empty sites before further construction, with the possibility of the developers land banking big, critical parts of downtown Christchurch.

In the 90s, Wellington almost ruined its waterfront with a development agency in the 90’s that resulted in the terrible Queens Wharf event and shopping centre. Why aren’t we learning from their mistakes?

The convention centre is widely regarded as an expensive joke down here and is a big political liability for the government. Again, where is the Opposition on this? This is between $250 and $400 million dollars of public money being spent ruining one of the central parts of Christchurch.

That the Opposition can’t make a  constructive argument to stop this project and pressure the government to make more reasonable plans says a lot about its priorities and values. This isn’t pocket money.

7. Micro-managing Minister and poor governance structures at CERA.

In 2013 there was news article here in which Brownlee decided that a charity set up to recycle and re-use materials from the residential red zone could not store goods on a vacant government-owned site. This was after intially saying they could do it but it’d cost $22,000 a year. For a charity. Trying to help people.

Spokesman Brian Parker, already "absolutely livid" at the planned charges, said he was still processing the latest development. “I was not expecting this. My biggest question now is why would he [Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee] make a decision like this when so many people believe in this project?" Using the land was a "no-brainer", he said, as all CanCERN was asking for was "to store some stuff in a garage"

This is firstly crazy because CERA was set up first and foremost to facilitate the recovery of the people and economy of Christchurch. Helping charities do their work, and protect and store perfectly good materials, is clearly a this. In fact its the entire reason the law exists. Secondly, why is the Minister making micro-scale decisions like this? Why are hundred and thousands of small but crucial decisions like this going to a minister who surely has better things to be doing?

In the legislation that has enabled so much of the post-quake badness, it was very clear that some decisions were supposed to be the minister’s and others were the CEO’s. Legally this means the minister can not overrule the CEO. Yet, this is what has happened frequently in the past 5 years, and so we’ve had subsequent CEOs unable to do their job of assuring a recovery for Christchurch, and with a Minister making micro-management decisions that just should not be his job.

Some of these decisions, like the storage story above,  would probably have lost in a court as the legislation is clear, but this requires enormous resource to keep taking CERA to court.

Again a robust Opposition would have used its position to make it clear what the law states and have developed strategies to deal with the bad process of government. Instead we’ve had a minister rampaging through the city for five years.

8. Using emergency earthquake powers to force the council to fast track District Plan and negative consequences for people still out east.  

For many residents out east who have faced a wave of post-quake problems such as large population shifts, shops closing down, red zone decisions, massive roading problems, school closures, insurance battles, arguments with council, the sudden confrontation of dealing with new property laws  that respond to climate related sea level rises – and the impact of these on their property prices – has been the final, stressful straw.

An article published in September states that:

... submissions show widespread anger at the council's move to place 18,000 properties throughout the city within coastal erosion and coastal inundation zones and to limit new development within those areas.

Almost everyone acknowledges the need to address the issues of sea level rises and its effects on planning and property rights, but why it is being forced through now when the community is yet to recovery from the earthquakes is the question.

The CCC is copping the flak for the sudden changes, and for poor consultation, and yet it turns out it’s actually CERA and the Minister that have forced the Council to fast-track its district plan processes. It appears the district plan hearings and associated documents need to be pushed through before the powers of the CERA act expire in April 2016.

Residents are being fast-tracked through this the complex process and because it is happening under earthquake legislation that is running out of time, there is no appeal process.  Radio NZ reports that:

Because the process was being fast-tracked under special earthquake legislation, appeal rights would not apply once decisions were finalised.

The effect of climate change and sea level rises on populations is a huge issue in NZ and it needs to be carefully, calmly and constructively communicated with communities.  It’s a great shame that it’s leading to further stress, discomfort and a further erosion of faith in political processes.  

[In breaking news, the Coastal Hazards Chapter that introduced these issues has been removed and instead the government will lead the development of a national strategy in response to this problem.]

9. Dishonesty around new Regenerate Christchurch documents.

The powerful legislation that has enabled so many of the post-quake decisions - and post-quake problems - ends in April next year. In 2014 the government asked Dame Jenny Shipley to lead a group of people to develop a set of recommendations as to how to proceed after this legislation ended.

How should powers be returned to local government? What oversight does central government need still need? What is the relationship between different agencies and ministries? Should the large agency CERA continue?

All good questions.  An official report was written by Shipley and her team (that included local mayors). This was considered by the CEO of CERA and the Minister, then a new set of recommendations was sent to cabinet for sign off and released to the public.

I looked at these quite closely as part of my involvement with a campaign for a locally-led recovery and have been deeply disappointed with the quality of the documentation, the coherence of the proposals, and the honesty of the communication.

The large public document suggests the creation of the new agency called Regenerate Christchurch that will be a shared partnership with the local council, while at the same time the Cabinet papers reveal that relevant Ministers (Brownlee, Joyce) have the right to overrule the CCC if they see fit. This is Brownlee’s veto, and as it currently stands, will remain in place over the city for another 5 years. My problem isn’t only the veto, it’s the way its presence is hidden in the Cabinet papers. Another example of a fundamental pattern of dishonesty with the people of Christchurch.

Again, where is the Opposition questioning of this process? Where is its close examination of whether Brownlee should be able to direct the Council six, seven, nine years after the disaster?

10. Releasing consultation plan for the Waimakariri red zone on Boxing Day.

CERA purchased a large amount of housing on quake-damaged land in Waimakariri as part of its red zone programme. It ran a consultation (although the rest of Christchurch is still waiting waiting for theirs) about what should happen with this, and in the generous spirit of its public relations and commitment to transparency, released the results of this consultation on Boxing Day last year.  Thanks.  This is great example of the sort of cynical political behavior we’ve seen regularly here.

It’s one thing to bury information you don’t want to discuss on a Friday just as all the journalists are going out for a beer, but it’s another entire level of cynicism to drag people into work at CERA on one of the few public holidays to bury this while the most of the country is off enjoying time with family and friends.

11. Treatment of the CDHB.

The Christchurch District Health Board has responded spectacularly well to the huge disaster and the difficult recovery. The way in which it managed to reduce costs while moving many thousands of services to different parts of the city at the same time that damaged buildings were being repaired, checked, rebuilt etc has become an international case study.

Despite the enormous difficulties, the shifting populations, and real health issues with damaged housing, the CDHB has survived with a 1% increase in funding post-quake. So when the government started questioning its governance and budgets it was no surprise that angry board members spoke out in public:

Our DHB has delivered excellent services to the people of Canterbury in the face of enormous practical and financial challenges. It has more than proven its ability to competently manage its resources to keep a health system running which should have been brought to its knees by the quakes. Last week it was recognised as one of the most outstanding organisations that New Zealand's public sector has. All of this has been achieved with, at the very best, grudging and partial aid from the Health Ministry, which refuses to recognise the true nature of the challenges the people of Canterbury face.

The fact that the Minister and government would even think about reducing funding, or removing board members, or taking over governance of an organization that has performed so well illustrates how arrogant and misguided they have become.

Sound familiar?

Can you hear the shouts of the Opposition, the outrage, the reasoned arguments, the passionate articulation of the issues?


Me neither.


I know there are lots of good reasons for the failure of the Opposition in Christchurch: the shifting media landscape, the incredibly powerful electoral machine that runs the National Party, the poor luck with leadership at critical times, the national shift in attention to Auckland. All this is true, and largely irrelevant to the point I’m making.

The point is not to drag through the coals the reasons for the Opposition failure, the point is that strong Opposition is a feature of good governance. The absence of  alternative ideas, critical review, and public debate has hurt Christchurch and its people.

In the 1920s the journalist Walter Lippman wrote:

A community where there is no choice does not have popular government. It is subject to some form of dictatorship or it is buried by the intrigues of the politicians in the lobbies.” [Walter Lippman. The Phantom Public p116]

All parties govern in favour of the special interests. This is neither controversial nor wrong. The question of the quality of government is largely around the nature of the special interests. The task of an Opposition is to fight against the special interests of the ruling parties so their clique of supporters, interests, and ideologies do not begin to dictate and determine policy in favour of a small part of the country (this goes for left and right governments). The lack of a strong Opposition has left the people of Christchurch prone to the interests of landowners, developers, insurance companies and the ignorant imaginations of a small handful of politicians.

The Opposition is there not just to sit and wait till they get power again,. Its job is to illustrate competence and improve the performance of the government. This is particularly the role in times of crises and emergency. Sometimes this means supporting the government when you’d rather not, and other times this means challenging them strongly to improve. Sometimes the government needs this challenge to push back against forces within their own special interest groups.

I worry that in the difficult task of getting elected our Opposition parties have prioritised popularity over their job as being an effective Opposition. The fallacy of this is twofold. In the first instance they risk spending their precious time and energy chasing false idols instead of getting into the job of Opposition, of making the government perform better through critique and pressure. Secondly, when they have been largely absent from the difficult battles of the previous years between election seasons, it is little wonder that the struggling, stressed, and frustrated populace does not turn to the Opposition at election time.

There is now a whole army of legal action starting to occur in the city - especially around EQC and insurance policies, and years of battles with CERA – most of which wouldn’t have been needed if the government, media and Opposition had played their proper roles.  

This stuff all adds up to real, prolonged suffering. Christchurch kids are at the moment between three and five times more likely to show symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mairehau Primary School principal John Bangma says that many 5 years olds are arriving at school at the level of 3 year olds. He believed it was "due to earthquake trauma, often coupled with domestic violence, poverty and insurance and housing issues.”

This terrible story yesterday told how 94 year-old Alf Johnson has gone into hospital after waiting for almost five years for his house to be rebuilt – and he was on the urgent list. Almost a thousand people considered urgent are still waiting for their houses almost five years after the quake.

Key has stated that he wants a new flag so we can be more patriotic about our country, but I’m not sure if we’ve earned that right, and I think the Opposition has to take its fair share of blame for the continued mismanagement of the Christchurch recovery.


PS: I was going to finish this long article here, but realise it sounds overly grim.

People have struggled and continue to hurt and bear undue stress.  But there are many fantastic and amazing things happening in Christchurch. There are also extraordinary communities, wonderful people pioneering a new city, and endless bountiful projects and ideas being created.

One powerful and common theme that motivated the "locally-led recovery" movement is that when things are led by local groups and local organisations they almost always work and have the right values, scale, and direction at heart. When things come down from above, esp. when the giant forces of government machinery and the many competing conflicts of political, economy and egos that it brings invariably there are costs over runs, bad decisions and delays.  

In the last few days, a new joint agency has been announced that will partner the government with the council. It sounds promising, and all I can say is this what what we should have had four years ago. Christchurch as a city will be ok in the long run, there are two many good people working too hard with too much energy for it to completely fail. But there needs to be honesty about what has and hasn’t worked, and some honesty about the fact that many residents, especially the elderly, have had to endure unfair hardship.

The more closely we look at Christchurch the better the response will be next time a disaster hits this country. Let’s do better next time eh? That’d be something to be proud of.

41 responses to this post

First ←Older Page 1 2 Newer→ Last