John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Take a bow, Gerry, you got it just right

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Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Natalie Slade
Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Natalie Slade

It may not be the done thing to go into bat for Gerry Brownlee, but a lot of the stick he has been getting as Earthquake Recovery Minister has been unwarranted.

Sure, Brownlee's patience can run too thin at times. Sure, there has been the occasional glitch in his running of his portfolios. Sure, it is blindingly obvious that you don't tell people something is blindingly obvious. And we won't dwell on his biggest political misjudgment - the misguided plan to let mining companies dig up national parks.

But when it comes to nous and instinct, Brownlee is the politician's politician. On Thursday he stepped up to the mark and delivered the goods when it really mattered.

He delivered in his handling of the biggest challenge to face any government since World War II in terms of sheer complexity and huge emotional turmoil.

The capacity for things to go wrong or mistakes to be made in getting Christchurch back on its feet is immense. But little has gone wrong.

Thursday's compensation package for homes in the uninhabitable "red zone" has received a mixed response from those affected. But it is impossible to satisfy everyone, and those unhappy with the Government's offer to buy properties at current rating value should realise this is at the most generous end of such compensation arrangements.

Throughout the nine months since the first quake, Brownlee and John Key have kept one thing at the forefront of their minds - something that many of Brownlee's critics have forgotten.

That is the way in which New Zealanders regard home ownership as not just a goal, but almost as a right.

It is born of the 19th century Utopian ethic that Jack was as good as his colonial master, and is seared deep into the national psyche.

For many people, their house is not only their home. It may be the only appreciating asset they own or will ever own.

The Christchurch earthquakes have brutally ripped away the trust people put in bricks, mortar and weatherboard.

No one - not even those on the far right - has questioned the application of the full powers and resources of the state to remedying matters and restoring personal security.

But that does not extend to a magic wand which could return things to what they were before last September.

Brownlee and Key were under no illusions that they were in anything but a race against time to come up with housing solutions before the stress and pressure people were soaking up began to be focused outwards.

Brownlee and Key lost that race - narrowly. Suddenly Brownlee found himself the whipping boy for refusing to say when he would disclose which parts of residential Christchurch would be off-limits for the rebuilding of houses.

Some of the criticism was justified. Brownlee could have been more diplomatic with those questioning the paucity of hard information.

But his reasons for staying mum were sound. His reluctance to set deadlines for the package was justified after the setbacks caused by the June 13 quakes.

The trouble was that those shakes produced a deeply pessimistic mood shift within Christchurch which exacerbated the feeling of helplessness.

The Government had to keep its nerve. It essentially had one shot at "getting it right" - the phrase the Prime Minister repeated endlessly on Thursday.

Dribbling out information piecemeal and telling people they would have to shift without giving options on how they would be compensated would have really opened the Government up to valid criticism.

Imagine the outcry had properties been designated as being in the green zone and thus habitable and then, through some re-evaluation, ended up in the red zone.

It is not just National's reputation in Christchurch which is at stake. The Government's handling of the crisis serves as a shop window display of its overall competence. It is a free advertisement beamed nationwide and worth what would be in the millions of dollars in helping National's re-election.

The compensation package has other wider political connotations. It had to be fair to those who have no option but to get shot of their wrecked properties and rebuild elsewhere. And it had to be fair to taxpayers outside Christchurch who will end up paying the lion's share of the bill.

Labour's post-announcement silence suggests that party realises that carping about the package not being adequate would not go down well in the rest of the country.

The Government has struck the right balance in offering to purchase properties at 2007 rating valuations, the most recent available.

The median Christchurch house price dropped and then recovered to the 2007 level. That means those who bought houses since then should not be too much out of pocket.

The gripes are coming from those who think their home's market value is above the rating valuation. But it is not for the Government to protect people's unrealised profits.

Striking the right balance between local and national interests was also the reason for the Government deciding not to impose an earthquake levy to be collected like income tax. The worry was that several months on, Aucklanders might be suffering earthquake-fatigue of a different kind.

No one notices the bill when it is paid from general tax revenue or through borrowing.

What voters are telling pollsters is that they simply want Christchurch's problems resolved. They are not too exercised as to how that happens. So they do not begrudge Cantabrians the high level of assistance being offered by the Government.

And with reason. In an earthquake-prone country, it is a case of uttering "there but for the grace of God ..." while keeping one's fingers firmly crossed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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