This is a tale of a city that outlived its usefulness.
The problem for the city was it sat at the centre of a region with vast natural resources that the central government wanted to exploit. There was considerable and varied local opposition to this largely because of the effects on the environment.
This was a wealthy city that had developed as a light industrial hub for the traditional rural economy of a wealthy region. Clever manipulation of national laws aimed at privatising the public sector had enabled the local government to maintain effective control of much of its assets. But the concentration of population and wealth was seen an obstacle to the Government’s plans to exploit the region’s natural resources, and to sell off the city’s assets.
The Government’s first move was to declare the elected Regional Authority to be incompetent and to install commissioners selected by, and answerable to, it. The region’s elected Mayors, organised by the City’s Mayor, all actively collaborated with this.
The government’s next move was to support the re-election of those city and district mayors who would work with them in the exploitation of the region’s natural resources.
Plans were well under way when nature stepped in and gave the Government a helping hand in the form of natural disaster. The shock of this disaster, and an effective PR machine, ensured the election of government friendly mayors right across the region. More importantly, it gave the Government the justification for creating even more swingeing legal powers.
A second, even more catastrophic disaster, resulted in the Government creating an overarching authority run by people selected by them – which had complete power to do whatever the government deemed necessary. The powers given to the central government and bureaucrats were unprecedented in peacetime.
The city’s re-elected Mayor proved to be a very popular figure in the aftermath of the disaster and was very useful to the Government in managing the public response to it - but he too was to outlive his usefulness. He continued to work in the way he always had, doing deals behind closed doors and colluding with the CEO to reduce the effectiveness of the council.
The Mayor’s power base in the city council began to be challenged by a group of councillors who attacked the way the council was being run. The dissidents presented themselves as champions of the people whilst, probably unknowingly, actually doing the work of the Government. The Council split into two opposing camps.
The local press started a campaign which seemed to be about demanding greater accountability and democracy but which had the effect of further undermining local confidence, not just in the Mayor and CEO, but the whole council.
Even with a mayor and councillors who were prepared to stand up to the government, the Council would have struggled to represent the people of the city and stop the plundering of the city’s and the region’s assets. In the political and managerial void left by the increasingly dysfunctional council and CEO, the Government’s new Authority rapidly expanded its role.
And then came the proverbial straw – an action by the Mayor and his supporters that outraged his opponents and, when it became public, also outraged the population of the city. People had had enough and many disparate interests coalesced around the understanding that, while this Mayor and CEO were in charge, their city was never going to be rebuilt into a vibrant modern version of what had been destroyed.
The calls for the sacking of the CEO and Mayor began. Normally compliant and conservative city dwellers flooded the local media with their angry views and began to stage protests. Councillors who had approved the action that had sparked the outrage called for the dissolution of the Council and blamed the dissident Councillors for the mess.
The Mayor, despite having colluded with the sacking of the democratically elected regional authority, put his grave, pro-democracy face on and warned the population to be careful what they wished for.
The CEO, who had always stayed out of the media limelight for the very good reason that he was PR-challenged, tried to make amends and made matters worse.
The government appointed a single observer and claimed not to be interested in the dissolution of the Council - unless it had no alternative.
Central to the Government’s long-term plan was the depopulation of large areas of the city and key satellite towns. These happened to be the areas occupied by people likely to be troublesome to the government’s plans for the region. the effects of this diaspora had already been felt in the national elections. Many people had been left to camp out in their ruined homes and neighbourhoods for months before the government declared swathes of the city as uninhabitable. The months of anxiety, inactivity and uncertainty were followed by offers for resettlement that appeared to be fair and generous but which actually made it impossible for many people to stay.
This was a forced resettlement. On the surface people were given a choice – the government appeared to be generous by offering to buy people’s homes and land from them but, leaving the development of new land to the market resulted in a free for all – and land, rents and building prices sky rocketed.
Many people found that they had to increase their mortgages to afford to replace like with like. Others, unable to afford larger mortgages or refused loans, had to downsize – or ended up renting or were forced to leave town.
The Government’s writing off the land also gave the insurers an out. They not only saved money on some payouts but they avoided future liability by the Government forcing large numbers of people away from a region that was deemed no longer worth the risk of insuring. And behind these actions lurked the spectre of bigger commercial interests, the exploitation of the region’s water and oil resources.
A government of the people, for the people, by the people would have stood up to the insurers and forced the insurers to meet their legal and ethical obligations.
It would have purchased land and created new subdivisions and sold them at prices that enabled people to replace what they had lost.
It would have leased land on 999 year leases and given the freehold titles to the Council or community housing associations.
It would have assisted in relocating whole communities that wanted to stay together.
It would have invested in land remediation leaving only those areas which should never have been built on to be turned into nature reserves and parks.
It would have given people security and choice by buying the mutual insurance company it had already underwritten, merged it with its own earthquake insurance bureaucracy and created a state insurance option for domestic dwellings and local and central government infrastructure.
And it would have more wisely and circumspectly managed the vast reserves of taxpayers’ money that had been built up over decades in the national disaster fund.
But, this was a government of big business, by big business, for big business. It not so much got into bed with the insurance industry, as bought the best bed on the market, made it up with fine linen and a goose down duvet, tucked the industry in, made it a mug of milo and read it a bedtime story.
What happened to the city? Well, it ended up less than two-thirds of its original size. Its political structure had changed forever and much opposition to the government was wiped out as formerly cohesive and well-organised communities were fragmented and dispersed.
Go there today and it’s a pretty sad place. The city centre still has great gaping holes where buildings once stood because there’s no incentive to build. Vast swathes of its suburbs are weed-ridden wastelands.
The region’s once glorious rivers and waterways are polluted and depleted by the intensive agriculture that exists solely to feed an increasingly unsustainable international neutraceuticals industry.
Its oil resources are being exported and the promised wealth has not trickled down to the populace although some have become even richer and retreated further into the safe confines of their gated communities or moved north.
No doubt I’ll be labelled a conspiracy nut or accused of being unhelpfully negative and pessimistic by painting this picture of Canterbury but I think that the people of this region need to wake up and smell the fertilizer because this is what has been and is being done to our region.
We do not have a vote in local regional democracy until 2013; in all likelihood the people of Christchurch soon will not have a say in the running of their city as it may be a matter of time before the CCC is dismantled. Every action and inaction of the council combined with the low public profile and high pay of its CEO are more nails in the coffin of local democracy.
Local councillors were powerless enough before – they are seen as a waste of public money now. The wealth of ChCh and Canterbury as a whole is about to be sold off to the private sector, not to rebuild the city and region, but to be milked for as much short-term profit as can be extracted from it.
I do not believe that this government has any loyalty to Canterbury. It doesn’t want a big, bold, wealthy city guarding and drawing on the natural resources of the Canterbury plains and seabed.
It wants to sell the best stuff to its mates -the people in whose interests it governs, which – let’s face it – isn’t ordinary folk. Some will profit – the vast majority will not. In fact, an awful lot of us will be impoverished, left further in thrall to the banks and/or forced to relocate from the city and region we call home.
I have a big emotional investment in Canterbury – I never knew how much until I saw it threatened. And I’m not talking about the threat of the 9000 or so earthquakes since September 2010– I’m talking about the political and economic quakes. They’re what will destroy NZ’s second city and take most of the Canterbury we knew with it.