“Power Lists” are the pre-Buzzfeed listicle that publications fall back on when they don’t have enough news for an actual story. They’re an arbitrary list, comparing people in different professions, walks of life, levels of influence, and giving them a ranking that can’t be justified. Having said all of that, as I watched the council debtate over the Town Hall last week, I couldn’t help but think: Lianne Dalziel is now the most powerful person in the city.
In ordinary circumstances, it might not be a surprise that the Mayor is the most powerful person – but these are no ordinary circumstances. Gerry Brownlee has dominated the political environment in the city since the quakes, completely emasculating the previous mayor, sidelining any opposition MPs, and marginalising his ultimately doomed Chief Executive Roger Sutton. But the decision over the Town Hall may be the point at which we look back and say that the Council took back the power.
Brownlee’s grasp on the city has been waning since before the last election. During the campaign, the Prime Minister announced that CERA was to be brought within his own Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – a sure sign that Key and English no longer trusted Brownlee’s handling of the recovery. While Sutton departed under a cloud, we’ve also seen a number of other high profile exits – Warwick Isaacs and Reid Stieven have also left CCDU and EQC, respectively.
Post-election, Brownlee was also given the Defence portfolio, which has been an important but low-profile Ministry for some time. His handling of the deployment to Iraq has been a return to the cartoon buffonery that he was associated with pre-quake. I’d argue that his behaviour in the defence portfolio – arrogant, ignorant, bullying – is no different from his rule over the recovery. The difference seems to be that while he can get away with it in Christchurch, he can’t pull the same tricks in full view of parliament and the Press Gallery.
On the Town Hall, Brownlee has shown the disdain he has previously expressed for heritage buildings. He remarkably dismissed the independent report into the facility, whilst admitting he hadn’t read it. Back at the Council Chambers on Thursday, and Mayor Dalziel cross-examined her own council staff who presented the report, showing that not only did she read it, she understood it. She understood the heritage, the cultural, the environmental, and the financial implications of the decision. She could see that a full restoration of the Town Hall was the right call, in spite of the campaign from the Press, who repeatedly used their editorial and opinion pages to present a very one-sided case against it. Her experience and determination moved the windvanes of knee-jerk reaction – with two former talkback hosts sensing the changing breeze. Concillor Ali Jones voted for restoration, whilst her former NewstalkZB colleague Mike Yardley wrote on Friday that he too had become a convert after watching the Mayor’s performance.
This is but one decision, but bodes well for the campaign to bring control of the city back to the people who live and work in it. At the end of the month, the “transition plan” will come up for discussion. And there may be a transition of another kind; rumours abound that David Carter may be relieved of his terrible reign in the Speaker’s chair. The bad news is that his replacement may be none other than Gerry Brownlee. If this did come to pass – probably not before late this year or early next – then it would be left to Nicky Wagner to turn the lights out at CERA. It is into this void that Dalziel and her council are reaffirming their role as the primary determinants of the broken city’s direction.