Documents released today under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal the size and scale of the CERA’s covert “money pit” operation. Whilst the secret project has been a topic of frequent whispers around Worcester St, these documents are the first hard evidence that has come to light of the scheme. Located between Armagh and Gloucester St, the pit is approximately 12 metres in diameter, with an unknown depth. CERA engineers launched a series of recognisance missions into the pit, but these were abandoned after a 3-man team was lost somewhere between 270 and 280 metres below the surface.

A statement from CERA attempted to deny that the pit existed. “The money pit that you refer to is in fact a metaphorical money pit, not a literal money pit. And I mean “literal” in the “literal” sense of the word “literal”, not in the “figurative” sense of the word “literal”. This is literally a metaphorical money pit. A figurative money pit. No actual pit exists.”

However, documents released under the OIA to Rebuilding Christchurch today clearly indicate that the money pit has been included in plans for the central city since as far back as 2011, when a number of prominent Christchurch property developers started lobbying for the inclusion of the money pit in the Blueprint. When a black circle first started appearing in planning documents, it was initially believed that this was because part of the map had been redacted. However, we now believe that this black hole is in fact the symbol for the money pit.

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Business advocate and legendary rock guitarist Pete Townsend was enthusiastic about the money pit project. “This is good news for the rebuild, good news for Christchurch, good news for New Zealand taxpayers. This will create jobs, with up to 15 people required to shovel money into the pit, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. For every 100 dollars hurled into the pit, 1 dollar will go into the wider Canterbury economy. This is a good deal for Christchurch.”

When asked about whether a money pit was part of National’s “Brighter Future” campaign, Prime Minister John Key responded that it was the ultimate realisation of his vision. “What we have here, actually, is a future that has shined so bright that it has collapsed in on itself, creating a black vortex that will suck in money and ultimately end all of life on earth. We’re pretty relaxed about it.”

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee assured the residents of Christchurch that the money pit is safe, although it should not be approached without the appropriate hi-vis safety equipment. He said that the current plan was to continue throwing money into the pit, and added that they are also investigating the practicalities of trying to house some of CERA’s expanding communications department in the entrance to the depression.

Freerange Press are running a “Recovery Clinic” this weekend, at Smash Palace, from 12 till 6pm. When we released the book – Once in a Lifetime, if you’re keeping score at home – part of our rationale was that we’d have a continuing dialog about the city and recovery. So almost a year on from the book’s release, we’re having this clinic. We’ll have our one Doctor, Ryan Reynolds, as well as our two almost-doctors, myself and Barnaby Bennett. Completing the editorial team, Emma Johnson, organiser extraordinaire, will also be in the building. Plus plus plus! We’ve got some of the authors who contributed to the book coming down at various times in the afternoon. The idea for the afternoon is that you can come down and have a conversation with one or all of us about the state of the rebuild. Maybe you’ve got some ideas. Maybe you hated one of the chapters in the book and want to admonish us personally. Maybe you just like drinking beer and hanging around in pubs.

We will be selling copies of the book at crazy discount prices! There’s more info about the event here, and the Facebook event here.

Hope to see some of you down there!

Just over a year ago, it was reported that CERA had a disproportionately high number of staff employed in communications – with 5.5% of total staff in a communications role, the next highest government department being just over 2%. Well, they obviously decided that wasn’t enough, and a year later, that figure is now around 7.3%. From the Press:

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) has almost doubled its communication budget and increased its public relations staff by a third in the past two years.

The big problem for CERA is that public trust in them as an organisation is close to zero. Instead of realising that this is a fundamental issue with the way they communicate, they’ve decided that it must be because they don’t communicate enough. More petrol on the fire, then. In the last year, we’ve had highlights such as the smartphone app that cost $80k to develop and was downloaded just over a thousand times. We also had the fantastic “Live Central” campaign, which encouraged rich white people to live in the CBD. It’d be interesting to know if they provided any advice to the PR shambles that was CEO Roger Sutton leaving.

But far more important than what the CERA comms team tells us is what they don’t. Their job is to manage the story, to ensure that the CERA version of events is the one that gets out.

The best way to ensure that they control the message is to say as little as possible. From time to time we hear stories about the number of communications and PR people employed for every journalist in the country. It’s worth thinking about that ratio in the context of the rebuild. CERA is a massive, political government department which has been placed (rightfully) in the city where it acts. Beyond the initial reporting of the disaster, there has been no increase in the resources dedicated to covering the rebuild. If anything, due to cut backs at the various media organisations, there are fewer journalists in the city than there were in 2011.

The media organisations in this city haven’t been able to increase their staffing to cover the increase in government activity post-quake. The Press, which Brownlee infamously called “the enemy of the rebuild”, has two reporters who cover the rebuild. They have some very good reporters on other beats which frequently overlap with what CERA does, such as the business and property sections. They also have some excellent feature writers, with articles from Philip Matthews and John McCrone often leading the debate on rebuild issues. Radio New Zealand has 4.5 reporters in the city, who are meant to cover everything that happens here – not just rebuild issues. Campbell Live was obviously a champion for the city, doing a lot of great reporting on the state of the rebuild, and they’re now gone. Aside from that, the TV networks don’t have the resources based here to do complex investigations.

I know that the journalists working in this city are doing their absolute best to get stories out. I also don’t doubt that the people who work in comms at CERA are good people, trying to do their best as well. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; CERA is one of the most powerful, least transparent government organisations New Zealand has seen in a generation. Like something from the Soviet Union, it is a command and control department; and also like our socialist brothers, command and control of the media message is a critical part of its ongoing success (while I’m riffing on the Marxist metaphor, Fiona Farrell talks about Brownleegrad in her recently released book).

The suppression of any genuine opposition to the government’s actions in Christchurch, despite the obvious failures in the CBD and out East, is remarkable political management. That the Message® about the recovery is so removed from the situation on the ground is victory for the comms department – Duncan Garner wrote about what he saw when he was down here last week, and he didn’t pull any punches. It’s not that these people are bad at their job; it’s that the job they are doing is actively misleading the people of Christchurch about the state of the city. That’s something we should all be alarmed about.

At the end of June, the Prime Minister came to Christchurch to announce what is probably the most important document for the city’s recovery since the Blueprint. It’s the Draft Transition Recovery Plan, and it’s about the transition of power from the government (via CERA and CCDU) back to local authorities in Canterbury. It’s so important that the government decided the public only needed 30 days to read it, think about it, and make submissions on it. The full document is here, and I’d recommend that you try and give it a read. I don’t just mean Christchurch residents. Everyone in the country should have an interest in this, and anyone in the country can make a submission on it. There are some good bits in the document, like this:

International research shows that, for recovery to be sustainable in the long term, it needs to be ‘owned’ and led by local communities and institutions. Central government leadership and coordination of the recovery, through CERA, was needed in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, but the time has come for central government’s role in the recovery of greater Christchurch to evolve.

It is hard to resolve the intentions of the paragraph above with the recommendations of the report. Though advocating for local and community ownership of the recovery, the main thrust of the Draft Transition Recovery Plan is to give CERA a change of name, to Regenerate Christchurch, then put that in charge for another 5 years. The responsibility for the Residential Red Zone will go to Land Information New Zealand; another lot of powers currently held by CERA will move across to MoBIE. While saying things like “the central city is at a critical point and requires a step-change in approach to ensure its recovery”, this document suggests an entrenchment of the status quo. It’s a recipe for disaster, with Head Chef Brownlee being joined by Sous Chef Joyce.

We’ve got just over two weeks to make submissions, and tell the government that this just won’t do. I’m sure they will try and ignore us; we need to get thousands of submissions in on this, so they can’t ignore us. While none of the suggestions put forward in this document are ideal, a group of us have formed around the idea of Option 3+. Option 3 suggests that the to-be-created rebuild entity be led by the Christchurch City Council, not the Government. We’ve started a campaign to get as many people are possible to submit in support of this idea. We’ve called it Option 3+, as we think that while Option 3 is the best of the three proposals, we would like to see more than that. If you’re submitting, you might want to say you’re submitting in support of Option 3, plus additional community feedback, or plus an additional focus on the suburbs. You can check out the Facebook group to see what other people want for the city.

There are a number of ways you can provide feedback, including via email, going to the website, or hitting them up on Facebook. You’ve got until 5pm, Thursday the 30th of July.

There is a Big Sports tour coming up in 2017, when the British and Irish Lions will come to New Zealand. They don’t do this very often – it’s usually once in every 12 years. Last time they came, in 2005, they played a test in Christchurch, and a tour match in Dunedin. This time, there is no test in the South Island at all, but two (2!) in Auckland. There has been much complaining from southern rugby fans about this, and the NZRU has responded that Christchurch doesn’t have the capacity to host a test in the current stadium. That’s clearly true. One of the main reasons that proponents for the $500m stadium have put forward is that if we don’t have said stadium, we won’t get this game, and that’s come to pass. Is $500m to guarantee one game every dozen years a worthwhile investment? I really doubt it.

But I feel for the people of Dunedin. They don’t have a hypothetical white elephant stadium; they have a bricks and mortar white elephant stadium. Still, they didn’t even get a test. They get a game against the Highlanders – but so do all the Super teams. So for all their ratepayers money, they’re no better off than Christchurch or Hamilton, which also get to see the Lions play against the Crusaders and Chiefs, respectively. This should have alarm bells ringing for the people of Christchurch though; the government still wants to spend $500m of ratepayer money on the boondoggle covered stadium, whilst forcing the council to sell assets to pay for it. In doing so, we’d get a big test each year, and we might get a test against the Lions. In 2029. This city simply can’t afford it. The idiocy of the stadium building arms race was covered comprehensively by John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, and I recommend you watch that.

While I was off-duty last weekend, my friend and some-time contributor to this site Barnaby Bennett wrote a blog about Gerry Brownlee, listing ten good reasons why he should go. After sharing it on Facebook, it led to two City Councillors getting themselves in a spot of bother by passing it around too. One of Barnaby’s main points was this: why are we putting control of the organisation that is tasked with cleaning up the mess in central Christchurch in the hands of the man who was in charge of the organisations that created the mess? That is effectively the situation with Regenerate Christchurch – the CCDU by another name. Barnaby’s blog post documents the miss-steps made by the minister, and argues that any new organisation should not be put in his control.

There could be no clearer demonstration of Brownlee’s unsuitability for the role than this story from yesterday:

Since 2012, Brownlee has hosted drinks in Christchurch the week before the All Blacks play a test in the city, inviting members of the media, business and sports communities. The event was sponsored by Fletcher Construction; the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) managed the invitations.

Just last week, Brownlee announced that Fletcher Residential has won the tender to lead the $800m East Frame project. And yet, Brownlee seems to think that to suggest there was a link between Fletcher hosting a free piss up for him and a group of media and business people, hand-picked by him is some sort of conspiracy theory. We’re not talking about chemtrails or lizard people here. We’ve got the company who has got a bunch of the biggest government contracts regularly throwing a party for the minister who gives out those contracts. Imagine, if you can, the CTU throwing a party for a Labour Minister, who then goes and introduces something akin to a responsible health and safety legislation. The right would blow a gasket.

CERA has given out billions of dollars in contracts, and that’s what they’re meant to do. But due to the Byzantine structure of CERA, and the paucity of investigative journalists* in this city, it is very difficult for anyone to find out anything about how those jobs have been allocated. For Brownlee to throw a tanty about this shows just how unsuited he is for a role that will increasingly require complex negotiations between a series of organisations that don’t necessarily share the same interests. This man is not fit for that role. Or, as MvB put it:

It is simply not a good look to have the party garnering the major slice of rebuild business funding entertainment for the minister that has the most influence over the very decisions that deliver the business in the first place.

Brownlee should hardly be surprised at the turn of events and should not act hurt and indignant just because he has been called out.

If Brownlee insists that he has done nothing wrong, then why did he cancel the party? I guess we’ll never know, as he has gone into his usual sulk and is refusing to answer questions from the media:

A spokesman for Mr Brownlee said he would not be commenting and was not under any “statutory obligation” to answer Radio New Zealand’s questions.

It’s simply unacceptable for a Minister to continue to behave like this.

* I know there are good journalists in this city trying their hardest to get to the bottom of what is happening at CERA. But there just aren’t enough of them. And I’ve talked to some of them in the past who were genuinely psyched to go to this party in previous years. Gerry is the most powerful man in the city, by some distance. It’s like getting an audience with Caligula. So even if they were joking, I was saddened to see tweets like this:

This has nothing to do with Christchurch, and is little more than a reckon, masquerading as an observation. I spent the weekend down in Queenstown for a wedding, and came back via the Waitaki Valley. We stopped for lunch and to look at some of the junk shops in Waimate. I think it’s a lovely small town, with beautiful old buildings, mostly sitting unused. Today, there was a story in the paper about the NCEA grades of the students at Waimate High, which have fallen over the last decade. The principal, Janette Packman, tries to explain:

In 2004, the roll was 354, but it was down to 295 in 2014. “This is a reflection of the fewer school-aged children in our community.” The school’s decile has decreased from 5 to 4, indicating a “lowering of the socio-economic backgrounds of our families”.

The large increase in dairying in Waimate had resulted in the aggregation of small farms into large units, and an increase in overseas workers and itinerant families from other regions, she said.

This is just one data point, but it shows a rural community getting both smaller, and poorer – in spite of theoretical benefits of the dairy industry. If you drive around the South Island, the signs of the dairy boom are everywhere. Between Twizel and Omarama, there are pivot irrigators which run along side the road. Using the odometer on the car, I measured a couple of them at 1.3km long. I realise that farming trends will come and go, and that with the current slump in milk prices, we will probably see a slow-down in dairy conversions. But I do wonder what the changes in farming practices – and the increasing aggregation of small farms into what are essentially agri-businesses, rather than farms – is doing to the fabric of our rural communities.

The Minister of the Environment, Dr Nick Smith, today announced plans for the future governance structure of the Canterbury Regional Council, commonly known as ECan. The elected council was sacked in 2010, following a report that found they had failed to achieve the Government’s objectives of converting the entirety of the Canterbury Plains into dairying. In their place, commissioners were appointed. Despite having 5 years to achieve the Government’s aims, the Commissioners have comprehensively failed their goals. A recent study found that just 36% of Canterbury’s fresh water was unsafe to drink, well below the Government’s aspirational goal of “no fresh water by 2020″. Another report from Lake Ellesmere / Te Waihora said that it took more than 25 minutes for a red-band gumboot to fully dissolve in the toxic water – over 5 minutes longer than the Government’s benchmark for acidic fresh water lakes. The Minister reiterated that the Government had set clear benchmarks for environmental degradation, and that ECan had repeatedly failed to meet them.

Dr Smith appeared at the news conference with his preferred appointment to run ECan, a GARDENA Classic Oscillating Sprinkler Polo 2500. GARDENA Classic will take over the role, following a Cabinet vote next Monday.

GARDENA Classic, the newly appointed ECan commissioner

Dr Smith said that GARDENA Classic was the obvious choice for the role. “She can spray water over here, she can spray water over there. That means that she takes turns between watering the farmers, and watering the latte-sipping townies. But if the townies keep piping up with these spurious complaints about voting and democracy, I am not afraid to adjust her range, so that she only sprays the farmers.” The Minister also highlighted the new Commissioner’s appeal to the younger generation. “In summer, we can put her down in the garden, and the kids can take turns running backwards and forwards through her. GARDENA Classic is the new, child-friendly face of ECan.”

Murray, a spokesperson for the activist group “Hippies Called Murray”, was disappointed with the appointment. “How can the Government claim to be acting in our best interests, when this is clearly just a stitch-up on behalf of Big Domestic Irrigation. I bet Bunning’s is behind this”, he said, before trailing off into a rant about the TPPA and Monsanto butter beans. When approached for comment, Buzz Babcock of the Confederated Farmers, South Canterbury Branch, gave a brisk “yee-haw!” before jumping through the window of his John Deere tractor and attempting to launch it over the south branch of the  Rangitata River.

Amongst all the other decisions at Council last week, they also voted down a roading project. A bunch of people are pissed about it – Waimak mayor, the NZTA – so the Press have gone in hard on the issue.

The city councillor responsible for overseeing transport in Christchurch is defending his decision to vote to pull funding for a crucial roading project. Cr Phil Clearwater heads the Christchurch City Council’s infrastructure, transport and environment committee and was one of seven councillors who last week voted to remove funding for the northern arterial extension and Cranford St four-laning from the council’s Long Term Plan (LTP).

The decision shocked both the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) and the Waimakariri District Council, which were expecting the city council to rubber-stamp the $50 million project they had been jointly planning for years.

I think the angle the Press are trying to run here is “this guy is in charge of transport, so why he no moar roads???” It’s nonsensical. Just because Clearwater is the head of the transport committee, that doesn’t mean he has to blindly vote for roading extensions. In fact, his experience as the head of this committee should suggest that he actually has more expertise on the subject, instead of him being singled out.

And singled out he is – though 7 councillors voted against it, he is the only one named. The other six don’t even get a mention in this. Clearly, the Press don’t like the People’s Choice councillors, whether it be their opposition to asset sales, or their defending of the Town Hall. All that said, this seems a remarkable ad hominem attack on one of the councillors who was just doing his job. As the story belatedly mentions at the end, there was public opposition to this project:

The city council received 45 submissions regarding the extension, with 37 expressing opposition.

If only the Press had access to the names of the 37 people who submitted against this, maybe they could do stories about them too?

This week, Christchurch will find out about the governance arrangements and the transfer of power from CERA to someone else. It’s meant to happen on Thursday:

Prime Minister John Key is expected to outline new power arrangements for the control of Canterbury’s quake recovery in a speech to city business people on Thursday. This will likely set the framework for how the Government hopes to run the recovery past April next year.

The first people to know about these proposed changes for how the city will run aren’t going to be the people who live here. Nope. It’s going to be the business people. Yeah, sure, this is just a lunch, and a safe place for Key to announce the changes. But it is so symbolic of the way this recovery is being handled, and in whose interests. If National cared about the people of the city, they could have held a joint announcement alongside the Mayor at the Council building. Or better yet, they could have gone to New Brighton and stood in front of the people who have been most affected by both the quakes, and the government’s handling of the aftermath.

But no, it will be done in front of a bland group of rich white men, who have been the biggest supporters of the government’s direction. I’m not surprised, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed as well.

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