Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Brownlee's authority looks a catastrophe

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Gerry Brownlee has to face his voters this year as well. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Gerry Brownlee has to face his voters this year as well. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Why didn't the Government have the guts to appoint a truly standalone statutory authority chaired by a high-powered individual to drive the Canterbury earthquake recovery effort?

It's instructive that fully five weeks after the February 22 earthquake that rocked Christchurch to its core, that Minister for the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee's "authority" will launch without even having a permanent chief executive in charge.

This is not simply bizarre it is bordering on irresponsible given the harsh realities that Cantabrians face as winter approaches.

State Services Deputy Commissioner John Ombler is standing in as chief executive for the interim. But a quick look at Ombler's CV does not disclose the sort of attributes that those running disaster recovery operations usually have: experience in the command role where chief executives have to "get things done" in constantly changing environments; let alone logistical abilities and so forth.

It's also unfathomable that the Government has opted to put in place a new department reporting directly to a Cabinet minister instead of opting for a true "authority" where the chief executive has direct reporting lines to a well-qualified and connected board with real decision-making powers.

Well-sourced speculation (denied by Brownlee) suggests that the expected interim nominee - Major General Martyn Dunne - wasn't too keen on the proposed reporting structure. If true, who can blame him?

In essence, the authority funnels considerable power upwards to Brownlee. The minister gets to call the shots. Business, Maori, MPs, 20 community representatives (hand-picked by Brownlee) will be consulted. But essentially their role is to provide information and advice to the minister and chief executive. It is not a decision-making role.

Contrast this with other authorities like the Louisiana Recovery Authority which was put in place after Hurricane Katrina. Decisions were made by a 33-strong board led by its chairman, Norman Francis. The authority had 30 or so state Government employees serving it.

The Queensland Reconstruction Authority put in place to lead the post-floods rebuild after that state's devastation floods and cyclones is chaired by Major-General Mick Slater. The Queensland Co-ordinator-General Graeme Newton is the chief executive.

In an ideal world the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority would have also have had an independent chair. The fact that the minister's own political butt may be on the line with his Christchurch electors is a plus and a negative.

A plus because it ought to ensure Brownlee stays receptive to the community. But a negative, if the Government is wiped out at the next election and a new ministerial boss has to be found for the authority to report to.

Christchurch City Council mayor Bob Parker is pleased his council will be the lead player in devising plans for rebuilding the quake-flattened CBD. But given that the Government holds the purse strings the real extent of Parker's remit might yet prove to be somewhat illusory.

At the very least the Government should co-opt Parker and other district leaders to be part of a "special" Cabinet committee where the big picture issues can be thrashed out around the table - together.

Lessons from other disasters are clear. An interminable amount of time will be wasted in consulting constituencies who will place little real role to play in the practical realities of rebuilding Christchurch with a sense of urgency.

Better to have those constituencies represented at authority board level rather that to slow progress through consultative mechanisms which may not live up to promise.

Time is the enemy. As EQC boss Ian Simpson has warned disasters soon fade from the public view. Politicians quickly develop new agendas.

At fiscal level competing priorities will soon emerge - there is a general election pending after all. The authority starts with just $500,000 operating budget.

Yesterday's press statements contained one bizarre anomaly.

The authority's first deliverables include assuming "responsibility for supporting the Earthquake Recovery Commission". Elsewhere it says the commission will be disestablished.

The Government will appoint a review panel to review all its draft Orders in Council - essentially those instructions it will drive through so the rebuild is not impeded. This is a good point.

But in essence the weakness of the authority is that it does not take responsibility for the major element: rebuilding the Christchurch CBD.

It bottlenecks decision-making at ministerial level. It would have been far better to give the authority more authority at both strategic and operational level under a proper board.

As it is it looks like a camel.

- NZ Herald

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