When Lianne Dalziel first ran for Christchurch mayor, she said it would be one time only. Then she said she hadn’t finished the job, and would serve a second term. And now she’s announced she wants a third. But has she achieved enough to warrant it, asks James Dann.
This week, Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel quashed any speculation about her future by confirming that she’ll seek a third term in the council chambers. After the chaos of the earthquake years and the dysfunction of the Parker-Marryatt era at council, her promise of “stability and confidence” has guided Christchurch over the last five years. But in 2019, will Christchurch be looking for a little more from its city leaders?
Dalziel first took office in 2013, riding a wave of discontent directed at the former mayor, Sir Bob Parker. As a long-serving Labour MP, she had become an outspoken critic of the National Government’s recovery strategy, especially the way that it had left behind the seat she represented, the badly-affected Christchurch East. She initially indicated that she only wanted one term, saying she would “fix the city and leave”, but was convinced to run again in 2016. She didn’t announce her intention to run until five months out from the 2016 vote, asking the voters for another term so that she could finish the job, but the last couple of years have hardly seen a burst of energy. Both elections have been comfortable wins, and 2019 is likely to be the same.
It’s easy to forget the level of dysfunction that plagued the council in the period around the quakes. Aside from the issues around the controversial CEO, the council was stripped of their ability to issue building consents, in a time when people were in desperate need of these consents being issued. There were strong rumours that the City Council would be “ECanned”, with the government appointing commissioners to run things, as they had done at the regional council. So bringing a sense of stability back to the council is no mean feat.
Aside from the stability side of things, there isn’t a huge list of achievements that Dalziel and her council can fall back on. At the top of the list would be Tūranga, the wonderful new library that the CCC contributed to the government’s Blueprint plan, which is an unreserved success. The council can’t claim much credit for the progress in the rest of the CBD as it largely follows the government’s plan (although they’ve contributed some car parking). There was plenty of controversy about the cycleways that were rolled out around town, and even though they aren’t yet complete, the numbers of cyclists are on the up.
The two biggest issues for the council this year have been around water, which is shaping up to be the major issue again at next year’s elections, for both city and regional council. First, there was the introduction of chlorine to the drinking water, something that’s commonplace around the country but almost a third-rail issue in Christchurch which prides itself on its untreated artesian water supply. Secondly, the consents being given to a company to bottle water. The council has been caught flat-footed on these issues, and while they are trying to resolve both, there’s a strong sense that they’re playing catch-up.
While the city is progressing, it’s hard to say, who – if anyone – is in charge.
There’s been a leadership vacuum in the city since Gerry Brownlee passed the earthquake recovery portfolio to Nicky Wagner in 2017, and while I don’t agree with many, if any, of his major decisions, with Brownlee behind the desk there was never any question as to who was in charge. Wagner took a very softly-softly approach but was only in the role for sixth months before the change of government saw Megan Woods take the role. A former colleague of Dalziel’s, Woods made some loud noises about changing direction in her first few months in the job, including a joint announcement with the mayor calling for an urgent review of the Metro Sports Facility. While some hoped this might indicate a scaling back of some of the larger anchor projects, construction on the facility has now begun. The most recent joint announcement for Woods and Dalziel saw them on another gravel pit in the CBD, this time promoting the ground testing ahead of the controversial covered stadium project. With the government pledging an additional $300m for the stadium, Woods and Labour’s approach to the CBD seems to be largely sticking to National’s blueprint.
Floating into the leadership vacuum has been ChristchurchNZ. This council-owned company was formed in the middle of 2017 as a merger of a number of council-owned organisations, including Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, the Canterbury Development Corporation, and the council’s major events team. This has resulted in a powerful organisation, combining marketing and promotion with economic development. ChristchurchNZ’s purpose is to “grow the economy for all” and its mission is to “ignite bold ambition for Ōtautahi Christchurch”. Led by former editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, its boosterism for the city has repeatedly set the agenda, especially with regards to the central city. As their role is to promote Christchurch, they’re relentlessly positive about the city, leaving them open to criticism that they aren’t a fair judge of the city’s progress. However, given their broad remit to advance the interests of the city, they’ve crept into the leadership space, and it could be argued that they’ve done more to set the city’s agenda in the last year than anyone from the council that nominally controls them.
This is part of the problem for Dalziel. Though she has a strong mandate and enough councillors around the table to support her on most decisions, there’s a feeling that the power in council doesn’t lie with the elected representatives, but with the un-named executive managers. Tensions between the staff and elected representatives have boiled over on a couple of occasions, including one of the councillors being censured for accusing council staff of tampering with the city plan.
Beyond that, or perhaps because of it, there’s been little public interest in the goings on at council. I can’t recall an electorate more disinterested in their council. Coverage in the media is paltry with councillors increasingly chasing likes on Facebook. A number of these accounts have become content mills, posting links to council decisions and news stories in an effort to build up their follower bases for the next election. Sadly, many of these posts ask “what do you think?” instead of telling people what their position on an issue is. Rather than having old-fashioned concepts like ‘values’ and ‘beliefs’, many of our councillors are being led by Facebook’s algorithm, and we know where chasing the ‘likes’ leads a democracy.
But Dalziel doesn’t have to worry about the election. She’s got this one. Unless a high-profile individual with nothing else to lose (Brownlee?) throws their hat in the ring, Dalziel will have little to fear from the campaign. If this really really is her cross-my-heart-pinky-promise last term as mayor, she needs to campaign on what she wants the city to look like when she finally does hang up the chains in 2022. Does she want her legacy to be the stadium, or is she committed to making the city a more attractive place to live? Will she build on the small but growing success of the cycleway network, to build a public transport network that’s better prepared for both a larger population and climate change? How is she going to combat the increasing suburban sprawl, as Christchurch and the surrounding satellites metastasise across the Canterbury Plains? While we’ve come through the earthquake period, Christchurch still has a number of major issues to deal with, and no-one seems to be tackling them with any urgency.
It’s up to Dalziel to decide if she wants her legacy to be more than just ‘Not Bob Parker’. She’s built-up a large amount of political capital across her first two terms and now is her chance to spend it all. She’s earned the opportunity to re-assert her leadership of the city, stamping her mark on it as we finally move out of the recovery phase.
James Dann ran as the Labour candidate at the 2014 election in Ilam, Christchurch. He lost.
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