Gordon Campbell on today’s protest march in Christchurch

Column – Gordon Campbell

Reading meaning into the utterances of Christchurch mayor Bob Parker is always a risky business, but Parker’s comment to the Press the other day that ‘People should be careful what they wish for’ was a fascinating statement in the light …


Gordon Campbell on today’s protest march in Christchurch

Reading meaning into the utterances of Christchurch mayor Bob Parker is always a risky business, but Parker’s comment to the Press the other day that ‘People should be careful what they wish for’ was a fascinating statement in the light of today’s citizens’ demonstration in Christchurch.

It is tempting to read Parker’s comment as a warning that the marchers – who clearly want the heads of Parker and CEO Tony Marryatt and new council elections by April and May – could end up by accidentally validating the government’s agenda. Which may be to declare the entire Council dysfunctional, sack the lot and appoint a Commissioner, along the lines of the Environment Canterbury coup de-etat.

In which case, the eventual main casualty of today’s march – “See ? In their thousands, people have no faith in the current Council!” – could be the last vestige of the very democratic procedures that the marchers want to restore.

These days, former Sydenham MP and one-time mayoral hopeful Jim Anderton is an interested observer from the sidelines. People are looking for a clear and co-ordinated approach to the reconstruction of Christchurch, he says, and there are now only three options for getting there.

“One, the present Council has to tough it out, and sort itself out. Which is what they’re now being challenged to do. What are the chances of that with the present incumbents? Not great. I don’t think Parker has learnt anything. The second choice is that you have a Commissioner. But the government has probably lost the stomach for ending all democratic processes in the city. We only have a Council left now. Thirdly, you take it back to the voters. Have another election.”

And if there were fresh elections to be held mid-year, would he be interested in standing again, against Parker? “No. No, I wouldn’t. Look, there’s a window of opportunity in politics, and you’re suited for it and you’re ready for it and that was it. It was one of the places in time and I’m not going to go back there. I don’t need it. Its not like I ever really wanted to be the mayor. (According to Anderton, he’d tried to convince former mayor Vicki Buck to stand before ending up as the candidate last time.) I was prepared to do it. But no. And that’s a problem, getting the right person [to oppose Parker]. It is a tough job now.”
The sources of the Christchurch Council’s malaise goes back well before Bob Parker and Tony Marryatt, even though their autocratic managerial style – which has bypassed inclusive Council-wide communication – has only compounded the problem. In his Press column yesterday, Chris Trotter put his finger on a couple of very relevant points. One, as Trotter pointed out, Christchurch used to be exceptionally well governed, by a larger Council with a more inclusive style of operating:

In 1993, Christchurch – which then boasted a council of twenty-four elected representatives – won the coveted Carl Bertelsmann Prize for “Best Governed City in the World”. A decade later the Local Government Commission reduced the number of Christchurch City Councillors to sixteen. Where once the Mayor and CEO of Christchurch City had to round-up twelve to thirteen compliant councillors, they now needed to corral only eight or nine.

The subordination of active democratic participation to “effective and efficient” management is a dangerous development at the best of times, but in the face of natural disasters on the scale of the Christchurch earthquakes it is nothing less than catastrophic.

Citizens desperate to “get things done” all-too-easily fall prey to the hard-edged promptings of administrative authoritarians – handing over powers that should never be surrendered to those who dismiss democracy as an unwelcome hindrance to “good governance”.

So how do you get from being the best governed city in the world to the current mess in no time flat? Easy. You bring in a ‘change manager’ with a mandate to pursue ‘efficiency’. The crucial structural change, as Trotter indicates, was the one that reduced the Council from 24 to 12. This reduction has made it so much easier for the likes of Parker/Marryat to get a majority, and rule via their own coterie on Council – even if this has been at the cost of sharply split voting patterns on key issues. That change, Anderton recalls, was introduced ten years ago, when Lesley McTurk came in as a ‘change manager’ to replace long serving CEO Mike Richardson, who retired in 2003.

McTurk was CEO during the term of former mayor Garry Moore and, Anderton claims, McTurk oversaw the retirement or constructive dismissal of almost all the senior managers on the Council. “All that institutional knowledge, all that built-up high quality governance that had won the city so many accolade was all gone in a very short period of time. We’re talking about four years.”

McTurk’s drastic innovations were supported by the Local Government Commission which – at the time – included Kerry Marshall, the recently appointed “Crown observer” who is now supposed to help the Council to heal its divisions. McTurk has moved on to become the CEO of Housing New Zealand, and was succeeded by Marryatt in the wake of his own controversial stint as CEO in Hamilton – which had included the promotion of the financially costly V-8 car race, some controversial large pay increases and a handsome exit payment that the Waikato Times recently reminisced about in this editorial:

Mr Marryatt has made enemies in high places. Columnist Joe Bennett has lampooned him and made some excellent points about the tendency of local authorities to imitate the corporate world when they are not a corporation, but just a public body which is handed ratepayers’ money to play with….

When he was in Hamilton, Mr Marryatt negotiated himself a generous exit package worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was known as the Marryatt “golden parachute”. One wonders whether he perhaps has a similar deal with the Christchurch City Council. If so, he could well soon be using it.

Beltway rumour has it that the current Council has about six weeks to get its act together – or else the government will take action. If true, that seems rash and unreasonable. A malaise ten years or more in the making can hardly be resolved in six weeks, and there is no milestone on the horizon via which the Council could prove it had suddenly, magically, been cleansed of dissent. To date, the feature routinely cited as evidence of the Council’s current dysfunctionality has been the “leaks” to the media – allegedly, by dissenting councillors.

In fact, as Anderton points out, you can count the number of leaks from Council on the fingers of one hand. More often, he says, the embarrassing information about the doings of the Parker/Marryatt/Ngaire Button coterie have come from OIA requests, subsequently published in the media. The recent revelations about Marryatt’s performance and pay review being a classic case in point:

Christchurch City Council chief executive Tony Marryatt was awarded a controversial $68,000 pay rise despite a steady decline in his performance reviews, official documents show…Last December, the council gave Marryatt a 14.4% pay increase, taking his salary to $538,529.

Documents released by the council under the Official Information Act show that Marryatt’s performance reviews have gone gradually downhill since 2009. His overall performance, excluding self-assessment, decreased from 4.3 out of 5 in 2009 to 3.9 in 2011. Marryatt’s ratings declined in six out of seven categories over his three performance reviews, based on anonymous reviews from councillors and senior management.

Leaks are not a cause of dysfunction – they are a symptom of it. With the Council almost equally split, one concern for Parker/Marryatt must be whether any maverick within their inner group would be willing to break ranks and seek personal advantage from being seen as the city’s saviour from its current leadership. In the meantime, none of the options on the table must be looking very attractive to Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith and their colleagues in Cabinet.

“It is a hard call for them,” Anderton agrees. “They’re going to be tossing up between doing nothing – which is almost not an option if the Council gets worse, as it is possible it will. Putting in Commissioners is not the ideal solution for them. Holding new elections again? That’s not an ideal solution, either. But the one thing about elections is that at least [central government] can then say well, the people had their choice, and they’ve now only got themselves to blame.”

To date, Parker has shown few signs of being willing or able, to take the initiative. There is now no credibility remaining in the autocratic, secretive style of management that has been the hallmark of the Parker/Marryatt era. If Parker is to survive, he needs to break up his cartel and begin to act inclusively and co-operatively. Such a transformation seems unlikely, at this late stage. Instead, blind loyalty is likely to remain the focus. “And if that’s how it works,” Anderton concludes, “its not going to work.”

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