Archives for posts with tag: Gerry Brownlee

On August 7, the Prime Minister was in town to announce the convention centre plans. This was done in a special marquee that was erected on the site, and to a very select group of delegates. I used an OIA to ask CERA how much hosting this shin-dig cost; almost $16,000. This was an event for around 90 people; this works out at around $170 a head (on the taxpayer). I’m sure Key and Brownlee thought that the convention centre announcement would lead the news. Instead, their trip to Christchurch was derailed by the real hardship that their government is responsible for, as Paulette Barr approached the PM directly with her case.

On the PM’s trip to Barrington Mall last week, he was again approached by a resident at wit’s end. This pattern will repeat each time he visits the city until he does something to address the growing divide between those who have done ok through the quakes, and those who are still battling on a daily basis. Whilst Key and Brownlee eat canapés, there are people in this city living under canopies. Mr Brownlee needs to explain to the public of Ilam and Christchurch how he can justify spending almost $16,000 on a swanky party for him, the PM and a few exclusive guests, to announce a facility that very few residents of this city will ever have a need to use. If Mr Brownlee spent more time in the electorate he represents, he’d know that his constituents don’t care about convention centres: they want their houses fixed, their EQC claims sorted, their rents to stop increasing at double digit rates.

Last week, Paulette Barr saw the Prime Minister in Riccarton mall and bravely approached him with her story. It was a bleak story, and got plenty of media attention – front page of the Press, story on Campbell Live. A week later, some good news – Barr’s claim has now been “fast-tracked”, and Christchurch Central MP Nicky Wagner has become involved.

While I am happy for Barr – no-one should be going through these situations almost 4 years after the quakes – this story actually makes me more upset. It’s shouldn’t be like this. You shouldn’t have to rely on a chance encounter with the Prime Minister to get any movement on your claim. There are thousands of cases like this in Christchurch right now – how can we get them all “fast-tracked”? On the same day that we get the happy resolution story, we also have this – a homeowner living in a 3 degree house after repeatedly being told different things by EQC.

What we need in Christchurch is an admission the EQC and insurance process for fixing houses is fundamentally broken. We need the Minister of EQC, Gerry Brownlee, to answer questions as to why it has got to this point. Instead of merely patching up cases when they reach the media, the whole culture of these organisations needs to change. Their role is to help people. They shouldn’t have to be guilted into doing so by the media.

I’ve written about the idea of the Convention Centre before, but it seems relevant to do so again given that we now know some of the facts around it. So, to recap:

  • it will be build by a consortium of Carter Group, Ngai Tahu, and Plenary Group
  • the taxpayer will pay $284 million
  • the consortium will pay the remaining $200 million +
  • it will take up most of the area between Victoria Sq and Cathedral Sq
  • it will have a 2000-seat conference facility, hotels, residential development, hospitality and retail outlets
  • the facility will be run by Accor, an international convention centre and hotel chain which has hotels in the CBD (Novotel and Ibis)

Here are some other facts, not considered relevant:

  • the previous Christchurch Convention Centre, which opened in 1997, cost $15m to build and could host 2,250 people
  • the Auckland convention centre, being constructed by SkyCity as part of a controversial deal, will be able to host 3,500 people and is costing $402 million to build. That consists of $87m on land, and $315m for the build and fit out

christchurch-convention-centre-precinct-avon-river-view-letterbox

But probably the most intriguing aspect is the involvement of Plenary Group. Despite claims of a competitive tender process, they appear to have been the only company involved in the tender since earlier this year. They are a mysterious Australian company which specialises in PPPs (public-private partnerships) and have built a number of convention centres in Australia and Canada. Michael West at the Sydney Morning Herald has done some digging to try and find out how they work, with limited success:

The three investment bankers [John O'Rourke, Ray Wilson and Paul Oppenheim] parted way with the Dutch giant ABN Amro in 2004 and set up Plenary Group to invest in, develop and operate privatised assets in partnership with governments … Although a few entities within its burgeoning corporate empire do disclose, Plenary’s ultimate financial position is unknown. A byzantine maze of companies winds to a cul-de-sac: a private trust controlled by the three Plenary principals and associated entities.

Stepping back from any argument around the merits of the convention industry itself, CERA and Gerry Brownlee need to be more forthcoming with the public about the amount of their money that is going into this. Who will ultimately own the facility? Why are the council not going to operate it, as their subsidiary VBase did with the previous centre, and currently do with the Wigram Airforce Museum, which doubles as a conference facility? Given that more than half of the funding is from the public, will more than half of the benefits accrue to the public? How will the taxpayers know whether they have got a good return on their $284 million investment? How come it is going to cost more than 30 times more to build a 2,000 seat facility than it did in 1997? The public of Canterbury, and indeed the whole country, need to see a compelling business case for this convention centre before any money from the public purse is committed to it.

 

The Press ran a feature at the weekend that looked at the City Council’s finances, and the man who has a lot of the responsibility, Raf Manji. Undoubtedly, this is a very complicated subject, but since the release of the Cameron Partners report it has been simplified down to “we have to sell assets.” That’s not the only conclusion that one could reach from reading the report, but it is one that suits the government, who have been trying to sell off council assets since pretty much as soon as the quakes started, almost four years ago. However, John McCrone does go and talk to someone else, Christchurch accountant Cameron Preston. Between the two of them, they do a good job of explaining how we got into this situation:

On the infrastructure repairs, the council’s position was that a total of $3.4b of public works was needed to bring Christchurch’s roads and pipes back to their pre-quake level of service. But KordaMentha notes the Government unilaterally capped its “60 per cent” contribution at $1.8b. A maximum figure was named. Once the council’s 40 per cent share was calculated off that, it effectively lopped $400m off the infrastructure budget, bringing the agreed spend back to $3b.

Some 83 road, sewer and water projects got axed from the council’s priority list to make this work.

However, now – because the money actually does need to be spent says the council – the missing millions have just reappeared to haunt the accounts as the largest part of its $800m balance sheet black hole.

So $400 million went missing from the infrastructure budget from the start, and everyone knew that it was needed. The government knew it was needed, and knew that there was no room in the CCC’s budget. They knew that if the CCC were to act responsibly, they would have to find this $400 million, and that in doing so, this would create a “black hole” and a “crisis”. Then the pressure goes on the council, and the “sensible heads” like Manji to do the “reasonable thing” and sell assets. Job done. The $400 million to raise from asset sales is suspiciously similar to the $400 million that went missing from the infrastructure budget in the cost sharing agreement.

Brownlee, Parker and Joyce, put the final touches on burying the council

the government and council in happier times

But what about the other $400 million in the council’s $800 million block hole, you might ask? Well, you might like to consider some other items that were forced upon the council in the cost-sharing agreement. $253 million for a stadium (a project that will be controlled by the Crown, not the council that is paying for it). $147 million for the Metro Sports Centre – another council-funded, Crown-controlled asset. And funnily enough, that’s $400 million right there.

This isn’t a crisis; it’s a bait and switch. The government has skimped on infrastructure, and then forced the council to spend money on assets with weak or non-existent business cases. They’ve forced the council into a corner, and are now trying to tell us the only way out is asset sales. It’s not. They’ve trimmed money from the rebuild budget so that they could make their surplus, and then turn around and say they can afford to spend $300 million on a behemoth of a conference centre.

This “crisis” is a key example of just how this government are running the rebuild, and a strong signal of how they plan to continue if given another term. We can’t afford another 3 years like this. Every vote for Labour in Christchurch is a vote that says that we want an inclusive, people-focussed recovery; every vote for me in Ilam sends a signal to John Key that the rebuild isn’t working.

photo from the Press, by Iain McGregor

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was in town for a big-ticket announcement in a bigtop tent. Unfortunately, events got in the way, and the convention centre has been over shadowed by an impassioned plea made to John Key while he was out looking for votes in Riccarton Mall. Paulette Barr was at her wit’s end, so decided the best way to get some traction on her case was to put it to the PM directly:

“I was just saying, ‘Look, what can you do for us, it’s three years. We had liquefaction come right through our house. They had to remove the skirting boards because the liquefaction had gone in and contaminated the place,” the 61-year-old said.

Barr and her house-mate, Maureen Doherty, 74, said they had put their lives on hold since February 2011 as they waited for an over-cap EQC and NZI private insurance claim to progress on their Hills Rd property.

While Key might think he’s coming down to sing of the brighter future song sheet, he’s finding that people still have the helplessness blues. It’s a sure sign of how desperate the situation has become, how broken the process of dealing with EQC and insurance has become, how out of touch his Minister Brownlee has become, that the only way people think they are going to get anything resolved is by appealing directly to John – either the PM Key, or people’s champion, Campbell.

The Minister of Transport released a statement on Wednesday which boasted that traffic volumes were up, and that this was a sure sign of economic recovery:

“Total travel [measured in kilometres travelled] was flat between 2005 and 2012, but growth returned in 2013 with a 1.6 per cent increase in total travel nationwide, and more recent data suggests larger increases are on the way,” Mr Brownlee says.

What is interesting is the first part of that statement. Total travel was flat between 2005 and 2012 – that’s 7 years. Growth in road travel had stabilised, which may have been for a number of reasons – increasing awareness of the environmental cost of road travel, concern at the cost of petrol, increase in the availability of the internet reducing the demand for meetings. A progressive, forward-looking Minister of Transport – one who was aware of the inevitability of climate change and our need to reduce carbon emissions – might have championed this statistic, and looked for ways to start reducing the amount of travel. But no, not Brownlee. For him, progress is a SUV hurtling needlessly down a 3-lane highway, one person in the cab (one example would be traffic coming in to Christchurch from the north; 84% of vehicles on this stretch have just one person in the car).

Why is road travel increasing? Probably due to the billions of dollars National is throwing at their Roads of National Significance program. We know that if you build a road, people will use it. It seems that as the RONS start coming online, people are using them, and road travel is going up again. From Christopher Kissling, an emeritus professor of transport studies:

Motorways induce more demand. Congestion never disappears. Experience elsewhere shows that fixing one black spot simply moves it to another place.

It is remarkable that after the best part of a decade, while road travel was flat, and the evidence pointing towards climate change was stacking up, this government is still fixated on finding ways to increase road usage, and to open up new areas of our country for mining and drilling for more things to burn. But then, should we really be surprised when this Minister is the man who was proud to open the Pike River Mine?

Brownlee opens Pike River Mine - from Rebecca Macfie's excellent book "Tragedy at Pike River Mine"

Brownlee opens Pike River Mine – from Rebecca Macfie’s excellent book “Tragedy at Pike River Mine”

 

I have a guest post over at the Standard right now – Walking through the wrong door is the least of Gerry’s problems. Jump over there and read it in full!

What we need in Christchurch is more houses, now. Affordable, well-designed, well-insulated houses. Lots of them. This is why Labour’s Kiwibuild scheme will roll out 10,000 houses in Christchurch in the first 4 years. People have waited too long for the invisible hand. Labour believes that the government has a strong role to play in alleviating the considerable stresses in the Christchurch housing market. Not only do National deny that there is a housing crisis in Christchurch, they have left the rebuild in the hands of a man who demonstrated at the airport last Thursday a level of arrogance that suggests he is completely out of touch with the people he is meant to be representing. While the PM may have chosen not to accept his resignation, the people of Ilam don’t have to: they have the chance to show Gerry the exit door on the 20th of September by voting Labour and voting for James Macbeth Dann.

 

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It depresses me to be writing this piece again. I thought we had put all of this to bed last year. Unfortunately, after the council suggested that the project was on hold, the opinion pages of the Press were once again filled will ill-informed pieces calling for the Town Hall to be pulled down. Then, some sanity. Former Arts Editor Chris Moore wrote this piece in last Friday’s art section, which summed up much of what I had been meaning to say.

There’s a widely held misbelief that the cost of retaining the town hall will prevent the construction of a series of glittering arts palaces custom-made for individual organisations. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch … The sense of entitlement accompanying proposals for the arts precinct is mind-boggling. Some individuals and groups should remember that tooth fairies do not exist.

Richard Dawkins fills the Town Hall for a lecture on evolution in 2010

Gerry’s opposition to the building is well known. We don’t know reasons for his stance; he may just hate brutalism, or internationally recognised architecture, or culture in general. The most likely reason is that he wants to knock down the Town Hall and take the insurance money, then spend it on the Performing Arts Precinct (PAP). Spending money on PAP gives him another opportunity to leave a lasting memory of his magnificence; the CCC voting to save the Town Hall means that he can’t.

The PAP is weirdly considered to be a replacement for the Town Hall; it’s not. The Town Hall does play host to a lot of arts and cultural events, such as the orchestra, choirs, theatre and the like. But it is much more than that. It was often used for conferences, with the air bridge that linked it to the Convention Centre. It hosted speaking events; I remember seeing Robert Fisk speak in the Limes Room as part of the Writer’s Festival a few years back. It had a multitude of rooms, of a variety of sizes, that could be used by a whole range of people for whatever they might think of doing. The PAP doesn’t do that.

What we’re seeing with the PAP is a bunch of very specialised cultural organisations within Christchurch seeing the dollar signs in Gerry’s eyes and putting their hand up for a bit of it. They think that if they play their part, and whinge about how awful the Town Hall was, then when the money starts flowing, it will come their way. It ain’t gonna work like that. There is a chance that if the CCC does knock down the Town Hall, they may just use the money to pay down debt. No one gets a building.

The bizarre thing about this saga is how it has been reduced to a few voices from the arts community siding with Gerry against the Council and heritage advocates. If Gerry does win, and the Town Hall is knocked down for the benefit of a handful of commercial arts organisations, what does the council do without a Town Hall? I mean, we, as a city, are still going to have a Town Hall, right? They will have to find the money somewhere to build a new one. And no, an auditorium in a convention centre run by a casino doesn’t count. We are on the verge of losing the icon of our city – the Cathedral – and the symbol of our civic and cultural lives. The people who came before us in Christchurch had the foresight to leave us with two fantastic buildings, and yet we are on the cusp of watching the last of our cultural history disappear because we left a philistine the keys to the bulldozer.

Gerry Brownlee’s rude, dismissive interview on Radio New Zealand this morning (here, from 16 minutes 30 seconds in) shows that the stress of the job is starting to get to him, says Labour’s Ilam candidate James Macbeth Dann. “In dismissing the valid questions of the interviewer, Brownlee left the people of Christchurch wondering exactly where the truth lies. Nothing is more important to people than the health of themselves and their family. There are some serious questions to be answered about the prevalence of asbestos in the rebuild, and people have a right to expect answers from the Minister.”

“This is a Minister who continues to deny that there is a housing crisis in the city, that the earthquakes had anything to do with the flooding in the Flockton basin, and is now questioning the Christchurch medical officer of health’s integrity.”

“The last three and a half years have been hugely stressful for everyone in Canterbury, and the Minister isn’t immune from that. If the stress is starting to affect the way he carries out his role as Earthquake Minister, then the PM should tell him to take a week off, like he did for Minister Collins. Maybe he could use the time to hit the streets of Ilam and reconnect with the people he represents. He’ll find that there are people in suburbs like Aorangi and Jellie Park that are doing it hard, struggling to cover the rent, to keep their families fed and warm.”

“I think it is also worth thanking the medical officer of health, Alistair Humphrey, for pursuing this issue. Asbestos can lead to very serious health issues in the future, and it is important that we look to prevent any exposure now, or the cost on the public health system will be much more extensive in years to come.”

Crocogerry from Porcupine Farm

 

The Press reports that the much-touted surplus was in large part due to reduced spend on the Canterbury rebuild:

A surprise $300 million boost to the Government’s trumpeted Budget surplus relies mainly on a cut to the Earthquake Commission’s insurance bill, Treasury forecasts show … Budget documents show the improvement to $372m was given a $200m boost from “lower insurance expenses after an updated valuation of EQC’s insurance liabilities”.

If you look through Keith Ng’s awesome budget visualisation page, you will also observe that money is being pulled out of CERA. So while the Minister is busy denying that the floods in Christchurch have anything to do with the quakes, his government is putting the squeeze on EQC and CERA so that Key can boast about being “back in black”. The council is in a $534 million dollar hole – in part due to the anchor projects that the Crown has forced upon them – but instead of offering a helping hand, the government is pushing them towards it’s ideological obsession, asset sales.

Remember back to the day after the February 22nd quake, when Key said that this was a journey we would walk together? Well, National has hopped into a Crown limo and sped off, without even looking back to see how we’re doing. The message is clear; if you care about the rebuild of this city, about ensuring that people whose lives have been turned upside down through no fault of their own can get the assistance that they need, that they deserve, and that they were promised, then you need to throw out this government on September the 20th.

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