Opinion: Name them – Melanie Coker, Sara Templeton, and Celeste Donovan. But don’t condemn them.
They are the dissenting three, the Christchurch City Councillors who voted against finding another $150 million to fund a stadium, Te Kaha, which, as it stands, will cost $683 million.
The drums of business and sporting elites have been beating for weeks, demanding a green light from councillors. Some have publicly obliged.
Take for example mayoral candidate Phil Mauger, who reversed his previous view, to pause the project, in a slick Facebook video on June 16. “We can’t do without this stadium, we have to have it. So let’s crack on.”
Others weren’t as overt, but made their pro-stadium views known.
James Gough lauded an “excellent” opinion piece by Press columnist Mike Yardley, asking if Christchurch, “NZ’s sporting capital” wanted to become a mundane metropolitan backwater.
And on the eve of the first All Blacks test against Ireland, at Eden Park, Aaron Keown, wrote: “It kinda makes you wish NZ’s second largest city had a big enough stadium to host. If you want the stadium to go ahead please do a submission.”
At yesterday’s crucial city council meeting, watched online by about 1200 people at one stage, councillors faced three options: give the cost blowout the green light, pause, or cancel the project.
Mayor Lianne Dalziel warned councillors not to predetermine their decision, and agitated for them to absorb the hours of briefing material with an open mind. But many people felt the vote was a foregone conclusion.
Much will be written about the views of the 13 councillors who voted in favour, which is fair enough considering they were in the majority.
(It’s a turnaround for five “frugal” councillors – Mauger, Gough, Keown, Sam MacDonald and Catherine Chu – who made a last-ditch attempt to put the brakes on a $300 million cycleway programme, and called for staff costs to be slashed.)
In a game of stadium bingo, many of the comments were predictable: about keeping promises, the people of Christchurch having spoken, and the need to get on with the job.
The danger with briefly summarising the views of Donovan, Templeton and Coker is they’ll be written off as naysayers, or spineless. Doubters with no civic pride, who ignored pleas from other councillors to be brave.
However, that would overlook the nuance and thoughtfulness of their arguments.
Coker, who has a PhD in biochemistry, represents the Spreydon ward, in the city’s south. She said many people she talked to – the silent majority – hadn’t made a submission. They feel the council doesn’t listen to them.
“I have listened, and I have heard you,” she told the meeting.
Many people she spoke to were on fixed incomes, and worried about rates increases to cover the extra debt for the stadium. The predicted peak of annual rates rises is 8.5 percent, in three years.
“I fear the rates burden on those who will not even be able to afford the ticket price to go there.”
While the economics of sports stadiums don’t add up, Coker was willing to admit the lack of economic gain could be made up by events, a sense of civic pride, and a boost to investor confidence.
But is the whiff of an economic return worth the risk?
Ratepayers she talked to thought the city should try to live within its means, instead of borrowing more. Perhaps the scale of the stadium could be reduced?
There were other, higher priorities, Coker is being told, like repairing roads, community projects like swimming pools, spending on transport and water infrastructure, climate change, and moving a smelly organics plant.
The day before the vote, councillors were told the contract had a fixed price. But even a low cost risk could yet eventuate, Coker said.
“There are those in the construction industry who think this is too good to be true.”
A city like Christchurch, having to build a new sports stadium because of earthquake damage, knew a thing or two about unforeseen costs. Or foreseeable costs like climbing interest rates.
There are uncertain financial times ahead. Coker said it’s not a good time to stretch the council’s finances so close to its debt limits.
“Although I want to see a new stadium in Christchurch I cannot support this today,” Coker said. “The risks are too great, the price has gone too far.”
Sara Templeton is a councillor for the Heathcote ward – stretching from Sydenham to Sumner – who shot to national prominence for unmasking an online troll.
At yesterday’s meeting, she wasn’t afraid of taking on the sacred cow of New Zealand sport. Rugby prefers either to be tenants of a new stadium, she said, or, as with the upfront cost for All Blacks games, the sport will charge the city for the privilege of turning up to play.
“And that leaves us either with service or project cuts or asset sales that have already been proposed.”
Yesterday’s decision binds the next council to additional debt with no plan for paying for it, she said. “We know that increasing rates is unpalatable, we can ask others to pay but any contribution from neighbouring districts will be small compared to the cost of the overruns.”
Templeton questioned the benefits to businesses.
The economic return is dubious, estimated to be 86 cents for each dollar spent. While ratepayers will pay nearly $30 million a year towards the stadium, that’s revenue not being spent on local businesses.
When residents pay for libraries and water pipes they get everyday access. But attending an event at the stadium requires paying a fee to a private company.
“It’s a clear case of privatising the profits, and socialising the costs.”
Templeton says the city deserves a great stadium, which she describes as the last piece in the jigsaw of the city’s earthquake rebuild. The plans are stunning, and exceptional, she says – but “we don’t need lavish” and the investment is too risky.
There’s also the opportunity cost. She said the cost overrun of $150 million would pay for the city’s entire public transport infrastructure costs for a decade, and the central city shuttle service.
“We need to keep investing in our communities, and to adapt to the sea and groundwater rising beside and under the city. These are not going to be cheap, but they are essential if we are to become a sustainable, 21st century city and not a relic of the past.”
Templeton concluded with a parting shot at colleagues.
Many people didn’t bother to submit on Te Kaha as they felt the council had already made up its mind – “influenced by public statements from those around the table”.
“The erosion of trust in council processes needs to be front of mind as we head into the next term.”
Celeste Donovan, a former Green Party staffer in Parliament, is the city’s most recent councillor, after winning last year’s by-election in the Coastal ward, in the city’s east, from Spencerville to Southshore.
She talked yesterday of understanding the urge to forge ahead with the stadium, given the amount of talk over the past decade and little action.
“We also know that because something feels good – or is politically easy – doesn’t make it right.”
Donovan declared herself a rugby fan, and pro-stadium. But she, too, appeared to have a crack at the rugby fraternity – which admitted mobilising their thousands of members to make submissions on the stadium.
“We’re told by many of those who so far declined to make a financial contribution to the stadium, we must show leadership,” Donovan said, tapping the table. There’s a saying, she said, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
“Leadership means looking at who benefits, and who pays. This means that the feel-good factors need to be weighed up with the hard realities facing our communities.”
The extra $150 million will make little difference to the vast majority of Christchurch residents, Donovan said.
“No stadium ever does. Private enterprise, unprepared to dip into its own pockets, is the winner.”
To those grumbling about the possibility of councillors pausing or, God forbid, cancelling the stadium project, Donovan said people in the city’s east were still awaiting earthquake repairs, and the city had an obligation to prepare for future shocks, like climate change, more earthquakes, and economic risks.
“It’s simply not good enough to kick the proverbial can down the road to future generations.”
She’s pro-stadium, but against another cost blowout. “We need to create the best stadium we can be proud of, which is not about doing more but doing the basics well.”
Risky or calculated?
The trio know they may well pay for their opposition at this year’s local body elections. Siding against the city’s most popular consultation in more than a decade, drawing 30,000 submissions, will likely put them offside with a vast swathe of society.
Or will it?
Donovan, Templeton and Coker are clearly emboldened by talking to people in their communities, and might have calculated the silent majority are either with them or don’t care. Then again, maybe they do care that their rates bills are going up, and the trio will get credit for voting against it.
Perhaps the public will appreciate the criticism of the powerful rugby lobby, which, at the meeting, trotted out the Trump-like line that a “multi-use arena” – not a rugby stadium – would “make Ōtautahi whole again”.
Maybe, just maybe, exercising your judgment and standing up for your principles, and being willing to be unpopular, is the kind of leadership the public appreciates and Christchurch needs.