We can't ignore the inevitability of more quakes and crumbly buildings.

For those of us in local government, elections are a pretty bland affair. There's the occasional meeting in a musty hall, thrown open for the first time in decades to welcome a desultory crowd.

You always get more candidates than ratepayers and the ratepayers who do turn up invariably bring the same axe they've been grinding for yonks. All the candidates promise to halve the rates and double the services and no one ever explains how this will be done. Then we all have a cup of tea and go home, secure in the knowledge that the fabric of reality has been in no way perturbed.

Generally speaking, no billboards are vandalised, except in Auckland, where courtesy is still a shallow-rooted thing and, unless your campaign includes something hot off the fruit loop press, like dump stations for UFOs or rest homes for feral cats, you'll be hard-pressed to find any journalist willing to listen to a conversation, let alone tape it.

Beyond triggering massive outbreaks of indifference, not a lot happens in council elections, making them the polar opposite of the parliamentary ones. But, occasionally, the two worlds do intersect. Indeed, they have this week and, since all the party leaders are now insisting we should forget the sideshows and focus on the real issues, let's do just that.


On Monday or Tuesday, in between all the argy-bargy about tape recordings, another issue did briefly rear its not insignificant head. When asked if the Government would help with funds to rebuild Christchurch Cathedral, one of the leaders, from memory the PM, said that was a matter for the Anglican Church - or, to put it another way, "No, probably not".

And so say all of them. To date, nobody's said, "Yup, we'll fund the Cathedral rebuild" - unless it happened when we weren't looking. In fact, none of the pollies have explicitly said they'll fund the restoration of any historic buildings. More significantly, there hasn't been a single concrete proposal outlining ways to finance the strengthening of any unreinforced masonry buildings anywhere.

Since half the main streets in the country are those kind of buildings, this is a major problem. Given that New Zealand is basically a head-on collision between two tectonic plates, the threat of earthquakes and the risk of building collapse is universal, inescapable - and fearfully expensive to fix.

One boffin estimates it will cost north of $2 billion to bring the at-risk buildings in Outer Roa up to standard. Somebody else has said, well, ummm, $2 bill would only cover the work needed in Dunedin. And a lot of people just pretend it won't happen because it can't happen because it would be too expensive.

But it will. That's a safer bet than a wager on a nag in a one-horse race. The Royal Commission's already been told the failure of such buildings killed people. This week, it heard - and so did we - that the Christchurch City Council had been warned it should urgently require the strengthening of older, unreinforced masonry buildings. But it didn't. And now says, in hindsight, it should have done more.

This much is clear. The Royal Commission will recommend stricter codes. It's got no option. And the government - whoever it is - will adopt those recommendations, if only to reassure the insurers. It's got no option, either. And that has implications everywhere, except possibly in Auckland, where only scattered outbreaks of architecture have been detected. But in the provinces, where the population is, at best, static or, at worst, declining and the demand for new commercial space is as hard to detect as the pulse in a rock, the cost of strengthening buildings will simply be too great. They'll come down or be left to crumble. Either way, there'll be lots of extra parking.

Greytown, Oamaru, Temuka, Eltham; pick any town you like - in both senses of the word - and imagine how it'll look with half the buildings gone and lots of fresh air replacing them. Main street will be the urban equivalent of a gappy grin - a great big mouth with half its teeth knocked out.

To paraphrase that famous quote, "I have seen the future and it isn't there", what we'll have is transformation by demolition, with much of the country's architectural character, charm and history reduced to rubble because we simply haven't got enough people or money to do anything else. As of now, we're Greece in slow motion, no longer lulled into a false sense of prosperity but forced to face a pretty long list of rather hard choices.


So there you are, chaps. If you want a serious issue, forget the tape recorder and take that one out of the too hard basket.

Tell us what you'll do - set up a fund or borrow a few billion more or just pass a wrecking ball law and walk away - before you occupy the Treasury benches.