Bringing it all back home

By Sally Blundell

After 23 years as the MP for Christchurch East, Lianne Dalziel has her eye on the city's top job. She tells Sally Blundell that she wants the council to take back control of the quake-stricken city.

Christchurch Mayoral candidate Lianne Dalziel in Christchurch's Travis Wetland, of which she is an enthusiastic patron. Photo / Martin Hunter
Christchurch Mayoral candidate Lianne Dalziel in Christchurch's Travis Wetland, of which she is an enthusiastic patron. Photo / Martin Hunter

On the eastern edge of the Travis Wetland, a nature reserve in Christchurch's urban northeast, Lianne Dalziel, high-end camera in hand, is stalking a potter of pukeko.

The Labour MP and Christchurch mayoral candidate, who has come straight from a business breakfast meeting, has executed a quick change into leggings and practical walking shoes, but her necklace and earrings are still in place. The meeting went all right, she says.

"There was this sense of, 'Oh! She's okay, she's not what we thought she was'. People have this impression of me as this radical leftie trade unionist Labour MP. They are my roots, and I still believe people are entitled to fair pay for a fair day's work, but they don't define me completely as a person."

A born-and-bred Cantabrian, Dalziel is patron of Travis Wetland and a keen photographer. For now, she says, she relies on "natural inclination" - her husband, lawyer Rob Davidson, bought the lens - and these persistent nibblers at the swampy edges of the city do have a certain ...

pluckiness.

"I love the colours. I know they are a swamp hen but I like that fact that a swamp hen is something so beautiful."

Reminded of the birds' reputation for being meddlesome and stubborn, she concedes that "maybe that is me projecting".

This is Christchurch East, Dalziel's electorate until October 11, when her resignation from Parliament takes effect. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 have had a brutal impact on this part of the city. Soil liquefied, buildings sank and tilted, roads buckled and riverbanks collapsed. Hundreds of homes on land deemed too damaged, too vulnerable, for "practical and timely repair" were consigned to the Red Zone.

In the immediate aftermath of the quakes, Dalziel, whose own home was red-zoned and has since been demolished, went to work, holding community meetings, organising food relief, linking up with support groups. "There was a real disconnect with people running the response. It wasn't deliberate - we never needed to know what to do in these circumstances - but we had to find ways of bringing food into the area."

In this wrecked environment, Dalziel felt she was doing "what I came to Parliament to do".

In 1990, the new MP outlined her political goals in her maiden speech to Parliament. By then she had completed a law degree at the University of Canterbury and worked for the Hotel and Hospital Workers' Union for seven years. She would be, she said, "the face of the people who could not be seen and the voice of the people who could not be heard".

She battled: against the new employment legislation; for the Tampa refugees; on behalf of family members of patients who had died unnecessarily at Christchurch Hospital. After that last fight, she said in her valedictory speech, she hit the wall. "The core of my inner being was rocked by discovering that the same ethical approach that guides clinicians and health professionals in their work did not apply to those managing the public health system."

She also pitched for Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's job, blaming the Government's "multiple failures" for leaving many of her constituents "disconnected, frightened, mistrusting, angry and feeling overwhelmed and overlooked".

As a supporter of David Cunliffe's first tilt at the Labour leadership she was dropped by David Shearer from the caucus' top 20 although she continued as Labour's spokesperson on quake recovery issues. Under Cunliffe's leadership, she would have been elevated up the ranks again but, by then, after a long and messy lead-up (in April the Press reported Dalziel had asked Student Volunteer Army organiser and Young Nat Sam Johnson to stand, if needed, as her running mate; Johnson declined the invitation) she had announced her decision to stand as an independent against incumbent Bob Parker.

"It is the right thing to do for the city. Everything I have learned over the last few years has given me the skills I need to lead the recovery of the city."

Despite her criticism of Brownlee, she says she can work with him.

"We are not that far apart in what we want to achieve, only in how we get there. My view is that if you engage the community in the recovery process, the decision might take a little longer but you get more enduring decisions and you don't have people rushing off to court to challenge them. His view is that it slows things down."

Dalziel launched her campaign on September 1, the first day of spring. Daffodils were out. So was perennial local body candidate Peter Wakeman, who heckled her for being a Labour MP. "I am not standing for the Labour Party!" she shouted. "Go away!"

It may have seemed like a combative start for somebody wanting to lead a city in need of TLC: post-quake Christchurch has been beleaguered by delays, a perceived Government takeover of the rebuild, council ructions over lack of communication, the loss of building consent accreditation and chief executive Tony Marryatt's estimated $400,000 severance payout. But battle-readiness seems to be okay with Cantabrians: a recent UMR poll had 75 per cent of decided voters leaning Dalziel's way.

Today she talks of building resilience and social capital, of bringing a sense of excitement back into the city.

"I'm promoting myself as the recovery mayor. The previous mayor was the response mayor, the comforting and reassuring voice that people needed to hear after the earthquake. I'm the one that can pull it all together. We're building the newest city in the world. That's exciting."

She plans to open the council books "so people know that whatever comes out of the council is not going to be spin. If it is bad news they'll be told. When it is good news they'll know it really is good news, not spin."

And she wants another layer, a joint governance body, between the management of the recovery by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), the minister and the council.

"In the post-disaster environment, the decisions that are important are local decisions. A city doesn't recover because we build buildings; it recovers because people feel they have contributed to making it the wonderful place it will be."

There's some urgency. Cera's empowering legislation expires in 2016, and the council needs a clear plan of action, "and government confidence in that plan", to take back control of the city.

That includes this swampy corner, the natural home of flaxes, pukeko and amateur photographers.

"The natural environment can lead the recovery of the east. From an eco-tourism perspective, this could become the largest predator-free wetlands environment within a city boundary. Will Christchurch always be the Garden City? It will be, but the garden will change."

- Herald on Sunday

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