Politics

The questions that need to be answered at tonight’s leaders’ debate in Christchurch

When Jacinda Ardern and Bill English meet again at the Stuff Leaders Debate tonight at La Vida Conference Centre, it will represent an increasingly rare opportunity for Christchurch issues to be aired on a national stage. Barnaby Bennett explains what’s at stake.

Tonight the leaders meet in Christchurch for their third big debate of this campaign, hosted by the Press newspaper. When the first Press/Stuff leaders’ debate took place in 2011, Christchurch was top of everybody’s minds; today, it barely rates a mention in national media. That is a great shame because Christchurch is still only halfway through its recovery, estimated to finish sometime around 2026.

To provide some background to tonight’s debate I’ve explored five areas relating to Christchurch and the debate: the debate itself, mental health, the big money questions, the rebuild, and electoral seats.

The debate

This is what is likely to happen. Press editor Joanna Norris will do her best to draw out discussions about Christchurch but, by and large, the leaders will point the debate towards their already announced (and often under developed) policies or towards broad clichés about Christchurch and the recovery. These will sound plausible to the rest of NZ – the real audience in this debate – and come across as tired and hollow to the people of Christchurch.

One of the problems of a centrally led recovery is that the stakeholders are the rest of the country and if they zone out it becomes a licence for government to do what it wants.

English should have the upper hand in these discussion as he’s been at the Cabinet table approving decisions for the past nine years, but then if Ardern is good she’ll turn some of the heat that Brownlee always takes for the team back on the government. This requires a feat that none of the previous Labour leaders have managed: to be able to talk intelligently about Christchurch and its problems.

Some argue that the city is becoming politically contested again, but is the rest of the country willing to reengage?

Rubble and damaged buildings lining a deserted Colombo Street in Christchurch on February 23, 2011, following the earthquake. (Logan McMillan/AFP/Getty Images)

Mental health issues

It’s really hard for those of us not living in Christchurch to understand the particular kind of exhaustion and complex emotions that are still strongly felt after a disaster. The experience of time after a disaster is utterly transformational in a way that’s almost impossible to describe. I lived there between 2012 and 2016 and experienced a lite version of this difficulty – and even that was enough to throw me into a pretty sad and difficult place that I’ve fortunately come out of now. Disasters can offer profound experiences of rediscovery, joy and new beginnings, but also produce some really difficult and sustained complex emotions. Many experience this as a ‘bone tiredness’, for others it’s full blown depression. Some describe it as a kind of spiritual malaise. There’s not much people outside of Christchurch can do to support this, but it’d be nice if the city didn’t have to fight to get enough mental health funding.

Mental health is arguably the hottest issue in Christchurch at the moment. Disasters are wearying and frustrating things to deal with. It’s also true that the hardest part is three or four years after the event; even seven or eight years after, there are still many people dealing with real difficulties. A recent study suggests 80% of Christchurch’s primary school children are suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Why? Stressed parents from the trauma of 2011? Stressed kids from the appallingly handled school closures (that the ministry has finally apologised for)? Or ongoing stress from the thousands of still unresolved house repairs with EQC and insurance companies? EQC Minister Gerry Brownlee recently said programme has ‘been an outstanding success’.

Regardless of the cause, you would think tending to the wellbeing of  citizens would be a priority after a major disaster. Indeed the PM’s science advisor advised this soon after the quakes. And while there has been some government funding, most experts in the city argue it’s clearly nowhere near enough. This award winning short video by film maker Gerard Smyth explains it well. Christchurch now has horrific suicide and attempted suicide rates. This has turned into a major political battle between the CDHB and the Ministry of Health based on a common post-quake (and national) theme of consistent underfunding.

The quake money

I think New Zealanders have the feeling that they supported Christchurch in its time of need and have spent a huge amount of taxpayer money on the city to help it recover, and that this was the right thing to do. In part this is true. However, the government frequently says they’ve ‘invested’ $14 billion into rebuilding Christchurch and greater Canterbury. This is a misrepresentation, and realising this changes the narrative quite a bit. Firstly, the majority of this money from EQC is specifically for house repairs – it’s insurance! So it can hardly be counted as ‘investment’. Further, there is quite a lot of evidence they’ve seriously underfunded parts of this. EQC was set up poorly as it had dual conflicting responsibilities to meet people’s land and housing insurance while also being responsible to make sure they were spending EQC money diligently. It would appear that the diligent part of this was given more priority that then meeting people’s needs part.

Homes in the suburb of Sumner destroyed on the outskirts of Christchurch after a 6.3 earthquake on February 22, 2011. (Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

It’s almost impossible to get hard numbers from either EQC or the insurance companies who are both secretive. But here are the consequences: seven years after the first quakes thousands, if not tens of thousands of people are still living in quake-damaged houses. There are several major court cases still in play. Some experts are worried there is now a time bomb of tens of thousands of unknown repairs that will emerge in the future. Christchurch lawyer Andrew Hooker says “People in the rest of New Zealand have no idea how big the problem is.”

A big chunk of money was spent on horizontal infrastructure – water, waste, roads etc. Again there’s quite a lot of evidence that after an initially generous goal of replacing all the damaged infrastructure with new versions they back-tracked to ‘replacing to the level it was at when the quake happened’, which has led to many neighbourhoods not having their footpaths or roads repaired and the can being kicked on to CCC. How do you half fix something if it was already a bit old? This is why much of the city still feels broken and unloved.

The other big costs are the large projects which are all being slowly rolled out – many of which are too big, too over budget and too expensive.

In 2015 Christchurch accountant Cam Preston looked closely at the government’s books and came to the conclusion that “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.”

The total rebuild cost is around $45 to $50 billion dollars and around $35 billion is insurance money, much of it coming from overseas – effectively an export. This is a huge injection of foreign currency that has been a great benefit to the national economy.

The income tax on $45 billion is substantial. In 2015 the Canterbury Development Corporation calculated that the government will earn between $6.5 and $11 billion dollars in tax, depending on how it is calculated. It’s quite likely that the whole earthquake sequence has been, or will be, cost neutral for the government and has acted as an amazing cash injection to pull the country out of recession. This paints a very different story to the idea commonly touted that New Zealand is spending big on gold plated projects to save the city. Not really.

The crazy thing about all this money is that the people of Christchurch have had almost no say in where it is being spent. Labour has recently proposed a new $300m fund that will be decided by Christchurch, but this isn’t enough to cover the projects and replacements that still need funding. So it’s a nice idea, but none of the parties are yet to commit to fully funding the rest of the recovery.

Image: Rebuild Christchurch rebuildchristchurch.co.nz

The rebuild

The Gerry Brownlee controlled CERA monster (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) finished in early last year. CERA was originally planned to have 55 staff; by 2015, 331 people were working there. They spent over $291 million of taxpayers’ money and directed over $4 billion in spending. While they produced some early wins, they failed in their main goal of effectively managing the construction of their much touted anchor projects. When CERA’s 5 year legislation ended they’d finished only four (a bus interchange, earthquake memorial, cricket ground and an excellent children’s playground) out of the 17  planned. Reviews from both the auditor general and the department of the prime minister and cabinet were critical of CERA’s performance – citing poor communication and slow progress issues.

Eighteen months later a new state owned company, Ōtākaro Ltd, has taken over the projects and the slow progress continues. Inner city housing, river ‘precinct’, hospital, justice ‘precinct’, Cathedral Square, Metro sports facility, cultural centre, convention centre, innovation ‘precinct’, and the stadium – all are cancelled, paused, or under construction. A new $480 million stadium is been controversially mooted. One colleague described it as being “like someone who is completely broke buying a Ferrari because it might get them hotter dates.”

This description could easily apply to the controversial convention centre. Disclaimer: I hate this project. Ōtākaro recently signed a contract for a convention centre that is going to cost taxpayers $475 million. After two previous attempts to get this project over the line, it now turns out the business case is written by the company that is probably going to get the contract to run it. Half a billion dollars for a project that the public has never been consulted on, that involves building on the two most important blocks in the centre of the city, and it looks strongly like it has no independent business case. John Campbell and team did well to chase this one down a few weeks ago – Christchurch Regneration minister Nicky Wagner was all at sea in the interview. Further, the government doesn’t appear to have had this business case independently reviewed, doesn’t know who will run it or own it, and won’t show anyone the forecast profit or losses. This from the financially careful party.

All of this is based on the huge blueprint from 2012 which was supposed to bring stability, certainty and investment into the city. The reality is that the city is still half-built. There’s another ten years in this yet.

Concept image for the Innovation Precinct. (supplied)

There a real sense amongst the population that the wrong questions are being answered in the rebuild and the opportunities to really think about notions of sustainability, climate change, long term growth and new kinds of economy and production were all ignored in the strange slow haste that eventuated – the urgency of not having enough time to consult or think critically about what the city might become, while still only finishing three projects in six years. It’s peculiar, and we tend to overlook that the National party cabinet has been quietly making all the big decisions on this process and somehow taking none of the heat. Red-zoning, health funding, the central city plan, transport funding, the insurance industry and the EQC have all been managed and directed from Cabinet. The ‘suppressed’ climate change report that predicts $19 billion worth of damage to New Zealand includes $7 billion for Christchurch alone. This is the same amount the government has spent on the rebuild so far, and isn’t being addressed at the moment.

Many of us lobbied the government hard in late 2015 to create a new, more collaborative agency to replace CERA. This new group, Regenerate Christchurch, is working on new plans for Cathedral Square, the huge residential redzone, and New Brighton. The danger here is that great ideas will emerge with no funding to develop them.

The long and the short of it is that Christchurch is still a good billion or two dollars short of a decently funded recovery. It’s money that will do wonders for the city, in projects in the residential redzone, in the city, and out east. But the council is at its debt ceiling, and neither party has shown interest so far in making these necessary investments. I think one of the reasons for the malaise in Christchurch is that all of the major players seem to have given up on a shared vision for the city – it’s fallen into an underfunded hole. The visions of light rail, or a green city, or a 21st century city, all seemed to have stalled despite the best efforts of council and those in the city.

L-R: Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner (National), Christchurch Central candidate Duncan Webb (Labour), Ilam MP Gerry Brownlee (National), Ilam candidate Raf Manji (Independent)

The electoral seats

Christchurch used to be a Labour city, but has become bluer after the quakes. It’s a funny place. A conservative facade with a deeply radical underbelly. Labour’s Christchurch policies are being taken more seriously this election and contain the radical idea of letting the people of the city (via the council) decide what should get spending priority. (This is radical compared to the last seven years, during which government has refused to engage the populace in any meaningful way.) However, many of the citizen leaders who did the unpaid hard yards of the recovery aren’t happy at all with the proposals of either major party. They see Labour’s proposal as still too little for what is really needed to get the city back on its feet.

Christchurch East will likely stick with Labour and Poto Williams. Incumbent Ruth Dyson is well liked in the Port Hills and with the current Ardern tail wind will likely keep it; same with the up and coming Megan Woods in Wigram. As for Christchurch Central, it’s a traditional Labour seat that’s been taken over by the popular, if error prone, current Regeneration minister Nicky Wagner, up against lawyer and EQC critic Duncan Webb. This could be one of those seats that acts as a weathervane for the national result.

The other curiosity is well regarded councillor Raf ‘radical centrist’ Manji running against the current foreign minister and previous earthquake minister Gerry ‘not liked but grudgingly respected’ Brownlee. Manji is popular, held up as the guy that got the council’s finances in order. He’s also been one of the few people to directly call Brownlee out through the years. He’s got some of the most visionary policies about Christchurch and is selling the people in the normally blue seat of Ilam as a 2 for 1 deal, as Brownlee is 4 on National’s list. But the political boffins (including Brownlee’s last opponent James Dann) of the city don’t rate Manji’s chances. When does a senior minister ever get dethroned by an independent in NZ? Still, it’s an interesting one to watch.

Christchurch is currently a job half-done. A big question remains as to whether the next two governments have the will and the support of the New Zealand people to support the city to a satisfactory (and exciting) future.  Given this, it would be nice if the country’s pundits and political commentators spent a bit more time and energy understanding the issues of the city and their significance to the future of this country. There have been two debates with no mention of Christchurch, and many an episode of otherwise excellent podcasts like Caucus and The Spinoff’s own Gone by Lunchtime with no discussion. This isn’t just about the current population, but also the national economy – and the lessons to be learned for the next inevitable disaster.

The Stuff Leaders Debate will be streamed live on Stuff and Facebook from 6pm tonight.

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