Christchurch needs a mayor with leadership and an action plan

Ten days after the devastating February 22 earthquake in 2011, friends who had - like me - been in Christchurch for the US-NZ Partnership Forum when the earthquake occurred held a survivors' lunch in Auckland.

I couldn't make it as I had my son over from Australia. And frankly, I did not want to leave him alone in Wellington, which had itself had a couple of short sharp shakes since the Christchurch quake.

But, when my friends called from Cibo restaurant to check on me, I finally burst into tears and wrote off the rest of that day as all the emotion that had been dammed up since that horrific event finally burst.

I compared notes with Christchurch mayoral aspirant Lianne Dalziel when we caught up for dinner in Auckland a few months later.


Dalziel and her lawyer husband, Robbie, were still sleeping on a mattress in the hallway of what would become their red-zoned Bexley house close to their front door in case they had to get out swiftly if another huge shake completed the destruction of their home. Dalziel used to like coming up to Auckland as she could get in a good night's sleep - something I sympathised with.

She wasn't too keen either on beating a swift return to full-time parliamentary duties. As she admitted in a speech about that time, she traced her own fear of earthquakes to frequent visits to Wellington as a student, then as a union representative and later an MP.

"The trucks rolling up and down my damaged street affect my concentration; sleep is interrupted by the rumble that precedes the shake; I hear stories every day that make me weep; and what makes it so hard is that we don't know what the future holds for our badly damaged suburbs," she said then.

At that time, she still had outstanding duties as chair of the commerce committee (particularly the completion of the finance companies inquiry) but in truth her major focus since that time has been Christchurch and the earthquake recovery.

This week, Dalziel finally declared for the Christchurch mayoralty. She believes she can do a better job than incumbent Bob Parker. And she probably can. Parker has been a great cheerleader in uncertain times.

But concerted leadership and action are now required from a Christchurch City Council which has become too much mired in acrimony and needs to become strongly focused on being effectual.

The mayoralty race will challenge Dalziel to demonstrate she does have that capacity to move Christchurch forward and that she can rise above deeply tribal Labour politics and forge a working relationship with a National-led Government.

It's been an open secret for a year now that she wants the mayoralty.

Friends advised her months ago to make peace with Gerry Brownlee, the Government's Minister for Earthquake Recovery.

Dalziel's disaffection with Brownlee dates back to their fundamental disagreement on what should be the right governance mechanism for driving the Christchurch recovery.

She studied the international evidence and believed it would have been better for the recovery to be driven by an authority with a strong board and independent chair rather than what is in many respects more like a Government department reporting to a minister.

Dalziel does have a point.

But the Government made its decision and there was no going back.

She passionately brought issues to the fore and frequently scourged the Government over the time it took to come to grips with the "tale of two cities" Christchurch had become in the post-earthquake era. But she was at times churlishly nit-picking. Brownlee being Brownlee, that got under his skin and he sniped back.

The "truce meeting" was held earlier this year, with both sides agreeing to disagree over the level of their respective past orneriness.

But Dalziel does need to erase her blindspot when it comes to dealing with Brownlee.

She is capable of bridging the party divide. She had a good working relationship with Simon Power when he was National's Commerce Minister.

But she will need to learn to bite her tongue and rise above party politics on the many issues that would test her as mayor - particularly the necessary trade-off between Government involvement in the recovery (the taxpayers are, after all, paying many of the bills) and the necessity for the council itself to play a competent role in that recovery without being totally under the Government's thumb.

Reports suggest she is turning to the Labour fraternity in Christchurch to assist her campaign.

She no longer sleeps on that mattress in her Bexley hallway and has moved to Burwood.

What Christchurch now needs to hear from Dalziel is a compelling statement of just what her leadership will do for the city; whether she can unite what has at times been a dysfunctional council; how she can work in with central government to achieve those ends by using persuasion and not simply political shin-kicking (although that might too be required at times) and a quick demonstration that she can forge commonality across party lines in her own post-national politics era.

Fundamentally, New Zealand needs to hear this too.

Christchurch has taken considerable national resources - which the rest of the country gives with a generous heart.

But it needs a mayor who is focused on making this work, and fast.