Given what Christchurch has been through, the city’s mayoral race is somewhat of a fight for relevance. David Williams reports.

Christchurch likes its long-term mayors.

Since 1974, there have only been five – Sir Hamish Hay, Vicki Buck, Garry Moore, Sir Bob Parker, and, for now, Lianne Dalziel. With that record you’ve got to say Dalziel, a former Labour MP, has the inside running to be re-elected for a third term when the preliminary results are announced this Saturday.

But Christchurch is a different place to 45 years ago – even 10 years ago. The earthquakes reshaped the city, which is still partially broken. Some people are still battling insurance claims. And March’s terrorist attack re-traumatised many who were already anxious. People have weighty, non-council matters on their minds.

Councils everywhere are, to some extent, puppets to the whims of central Government, which hands down everything from building codes to water quality regulations to their local counterparts for implementation. (Moore, Christchurch’s mayor from 1998 to 2007, says: “Central government sets the bloody standards and local government absorbs them.” He adds: “Local government is a victim of central Government changing its mind constantly.”)

The intervention in Christchurch has been much more overt – sidelining the city’s elected representatives for much of the rebuild.

After the city’s deadly 2011 quake, the Government created a special agency to redraw the residential map, buying up huge swathes of land deemed too unstable for houses. That agency, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority – replaced by Regenerate Christchurch, Ōtākaro Ltd, and Greater Christchurch Group (a unit of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) – oversaw more than 1200 building demolitions, and a rebuild blueprint featuring ambitious anchor projects. Many are unfinished, or yet to start – like a multi-purpose stadium.

The day after this year’s mosques shooting, which killed 51 people, Mayor Dalziel spoke to media. However, the focus of the country, and the world, was on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s reaction, as a political proxy for our national anguish.

It’s also worth remember that the Canterbury Regional Council, ECan, is only this year returning to full democracy after the council was sacked by the Government in 2010.

The tentacles of central Government have been everywhere in Christchurch. So, when it comes to local elections, is there a double dose of apathy?

Yesterday, voting returns sat at 19.8 percent, compared with 22.8 percent at the same time three years ago – when total voter return in Christchurch was only 38.3 percent, below the national average of 42 percent.

For Dalziel’s mayoral rivals, the big questions are: what issues will resonate enough with people to get them to vote; and then, when they do, will they trust them enough to tick the circle next to their name?

Romped home in 2016

The 2019 race is worlds apart from 2016.

Three years ago, Dalziel romped home against two challengers with 83 percent of the vote. Her closest rival, veteran activist John Minto, got 15 percent. In her worst ward, Central, Dalziel pulled 77 percent. It was a clinical takedown.

This year’s field is wider – much like in 2013, after incumbent Bob Parker announced he wouldn’t seek a third term. (Parker quit after his council’s bungled its building consents, so much so that its chief executive Tony Marryatt was sent on gardening leave.)

There are 13 Christchurch mayoral candidates this year, but the media interest has focused on three: Dalziel, Minto, and Darryll Park, a businessman and property developer who owns several bars and restaurants. A wider field doesn’t seem to have energised the city, however.

Photo: David Williams

Moore says: “People aren’t engaged with the election campaign, and they’re puzzled. One of the things that worries me is that people have become disengaged from local government.”

Parker, the post-quake hero who seemed permanently attached to his orange and black jacket, describes this year’s election as low-key. “I just wonder if it’s got something to do with the fact that the big issues are maybe sitting at the central government level – and they tend to overshadow the local issues.

“There seems to be plenty of discussion at the level of comments in the newspaper, and there’s the odd letter. Maybe local government just isn’t seen as being particularly sexy at the moment.”

Plenty has happened in this political term to get people exercised.

Photo: David Williams

Parker – who was Christchurch mayor from 2007 to 2013 and a two-term mayor of the previously separate Banks Peninsula district council – points to “solid” rates rises over the last term.

Moore thinks the city was short-changed by central Government in the post-quake divvy-up called the “global settlement”. Chlorination of drinking water sent many city folk scurrying to find alternatives, plus there are concerns about nitrates in drinking water, and foreign-owned water bottling plants. Other groan-worthy topics, for car-ists like Park, include parking (not enough) and cycleways (too many, too costly).

A side issue to the mayoral race is the investigation of sitting councillor Deon Swiggs over claims of inappropriate messages and behaviour involving young people.

Dalziel’s list of achievements could include a green light to a new stadium, millions of dollars spent on new urban parks, and increasing vibrancy in the central city, through new shops, food outlets and apartments. But Dalziel’s council wasn’t exactly in control of those things – which were funded by taxpayers, businesses, and insurance companies.

(One shining achievement is the new central library, Tūranga, despite a storm over the cost of a digital touch wall.)

“I quite like the idea that someone would get in there and rev the place up a bit.”  – Sir Bob Parker

Parker says his council, with the Government, agreed a blueprint for the city in the 2010-2013 term and, fundamentally, that hasn’t changed under Dalziel. It’s like all the big decisions have already been made for the last two terms of council, Parker suggests – although they’ve taken “many years longer than it needed to”.

He maintains he’s not worried about who gets in – but goes on to accuse Dalziel of being “low-profile”.

“I quite like the idea that someone would get in there and rev the place up a bit,” he says. “I don’t see a real strength of leadership in the city. I think that it would be good if we had someone who got in there and was prepared to stand up and really push us a city, push us forward.”

The eyes of the world were on Bob Parker in February 2011. Photo: Getty Images

Moore, meanwhile, attacks Park’s zero rates promise – “which means nothing, in fact it’s just bullshit”. He’s not clear about what Park plans to cut, and says if $100 million is sliced off the council’s budget it has to be forever. “You can’t add things back in.”

(Park made a faux pas in a shouty Radio NZ debate, by saying one thing he’d cut is neighbourhood barbecues. In the same debate, Park, a director of the Crusaders Super rugby team, says the controversial name isn’t an ethical issue.)

Part of an elected representative’s role is rationing, Moore says. “You’ve never got enough funding to meet all people’s demands. So you’ve got to know what you believe in and you’ve got to know how to assess one project over another.”

Moore’s conclusion? “I think Lianne will succeed again.”

Splitting the left vote

It’s easy to write off Minto – especially considering his dismal showing in 2013. Yet the activist has made a noticeable impact on this year’s campaign.

Minto, if successful, wants to take money earmarked for a new stadium and spend it on social housing. He announced his candidacy in August, a day after The Press revealed 930 council-owned units, many of them damp and mouldy, remained uninsulated, after being made exempt from minimum standards for rental properties.

Last month, Dalziel committed to build another 425 new social housing units if re-elected. The following week, after a mayoral debate, the mayor and Park accepted an invitation from Minto to visit a block of council flats. Afterwards, Park – who, the previous day, had said social housing was a central Government issue – said improving council-owned housing would be his top priority, if elected.

Ex-mayor Parker calls Minto an outlier. “I think he knows that and I think it’s part of a broader political perspective that he holds that he believes should be part of any discussion. I don’t think it’s highly likely that he’s going to get a significant vote in the city.”

Moore scoffs at Minto’s policy of free buses, when it’s the regional council that’s responsible for public transport.

He may not win, but Minto’s biggest effect could be in splitting the left-leaning vote – which might leave the door open for Park.

Drowning in paper, meetings

Former mayors Moore and Parker are both concerned about the lack of engagement in local elections.

Parker says it’s difficult to weigh up the huge number of candidates – for election to the community board, the council, the health board and the regional council – especially when many of them posit similar views. Perhaps the elections should be disentangled and rejigged, he suggests, and the three-year terms lengthened to change their sequence.

“It’s difficult to cope with all of that information.”

Moore says something needs to be done to get people more engaged in moral and local issues – a push that’s likely got to come from citizens to the council, not the other way around.

“The council as an organisation has become far too self-serving and not a servant organisation to the city, and that worries me.”

The council is a $1 billion business that employs almost 3000 people, 518 of whom earn more than $100,000. Councillors themselves earn more than $100,000. Yet people are struggling to find a reason to vote.

With the exception of a few “dropkicks”, the councillors are a good bunch, Moore says. But the city’s not going to get value out of them by burying them with reports, and filling their time with endless committee meetings. They need to be given time to think strategically, he says – to think of innovative new ways to take the city forward.

“We need to think of new ways of doing that properly – and I’m not quite sure what they are.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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