Treasury was all over Christchurch City’s finances after the second devastating February 2012 earthquake.
This is one of the revelations in mayor Bob Parker’s book, Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos – an account of the past couple of years in the earthquake-torn city.
“I suspect they had been sitting in Wellington dying to scrutinise a major council. I imagine they salivated at the prospect of investigating our holding company, Christchurch City Holdings, looking at its assets, its operations and the prospects for selling them.
“Treasury projected we had a $1 billion shortfall in funding for rebuilding the city. They suggested we consider which assets we could sell to make up the difference.
"We were surprised. We did not consider we faced a funding problem. Did they not understand our normal annual budget was $650 million.
"This year it is $1.4 billion. Finding $1 billion would not be a problem.”
The council could easily borrow the $1 billion on the same favourable terms the government enjoys at about 4%, and the city would still have lower rates than any other New Zealand city, Mr Parker says.
“We saw the rebuild as similar to our renewals programme except it would be on a larger scale. Rolling it out over 20 years we can fund the debt without having to sell anything.
“Intense discussions regarding asset sales have taken place with Treasury behind the scenes.
"They have had the council under a microscope... However, there is an ideological issue at play ... the government is intent on restricting councils’ investment activities.”
The assets in Treasury’s sights were the airport, Lyttelton Port, and City Care, the roading and maintenance company which also has contracts around the country.
Mr Parker argues these assets are inter-generational and correctly states that the majority Christchurch residents want these assets retained.
The asset sales debate is one reason why Mr Parker had public disagreements with Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee.
Mr Parker says Treasury and the government may still try to force asset sales by foisting an expensive covered rugby stadium on the city as part of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’s rebuilding blueprint.
If the Government insists, it will require an order-in-council under CERA’s extraordinary powers.
“For us, politically, that is the safest option because it would be abundantly clear to citizens that we are being forced to comply with an unpopular approach ... it will have to bear the negative fall out it is likely to generate.”
Mr Parker then makes the startling assertion that “Fortunately, the council was well insured and that cover will provide a huge amount of money for reconstructing our infrastructure”.
His assertions gloss over allegations of major insurance shortfalls for AMI Stadium, the town hall and other civic assets.
He also ignores the contentious role of his major ally, city chief executive Tony Marryatt, who sits on the board of Civic Assurance, the local government insurer that required a recapitalisation this year with continued doubts about its ability to survive.
As a Civic Assurance board member, Mr Marryatt’s imperative is to reduce payouts. As chief executive his imperative is to obtain the best result for ratepayers. These matters are not explored.
When discussing the pros and cons of appointing government commissioners to the city council, Mr Parker embraces a passionate argument about local representation and democracy – ironic given his role in destabilising Environment Canterbury and the subsequent appointment of government commissioners there.
Mr Parker says in the book that his role has been exaggerated.
He describes many instances when he was on the verge of resigning over various real or perceived slights – such as being called a “clown” by Gerry Brownlee. He was hurt by the accusation and Mr Brownlee backed down, he says.
“We shook hands and he profusely apologised for what he had said.”
Little objective contemplation
The book is very much an account of the world according to Bob Parker. It contains little objective contemplation of his role and those around him. It is an account of his feelings, his view of history. The people around him are supporting acts.
His loyal acolytes around the council table – Barry Corbett, Sue Wells, Claudia Reid, Jamie Gough, Ngaire Button, Aaron Keown – are team members under his leadership.
The others who challenge him are not: Tim Carter, Yani Yohanson, Helen Broughton, Glenn Livingstone and Jimmy Chen (“inexperienced”), Chrissie Williams and Sally Buck.
Worst of all, some of them criticised him publicly. These are the councillors who frequently complain they only learn about council initiatives from the media or when they turn up to council meetings.
Although Mr Parker describes them in his book as being caught up in petty party politics, the split is not ideological in the traditional Labour-National sense, with the dissidents also representing blue electorates.
Mr Parker devotes several pages to criticising his main political threat – Tim Carter, son of Rich Lister Philip Carter – while defending Tony Marryatt and explaining how Mr Marryatt has now agreed to a “no surprises” communication policy with councillors.
But this policy appears to have foundered quickly, with councillors only learning from media two weeks ago of the significant decision to give staff one day off a month for 12 months, at a time when council actions are under government scrutiny.
And yet the book is also unintentionally revealing.
In one chapter, Mr Parker outlines how on February 23 he had refused to allow media conferences to be shared with Civil Defence national controller John Hamilton, who had criticised him.
Another Civil Defence member, and a staff member at Environment Canterbury, also angered Mr Parker after the first September 2010 quake, alleging that Mr Parker hogged the media limelight, and that the council continued a “business as usual” approach until the February earthquake (this criticism has been affirmed during recent weeks of evidence at the Royal Commission into the earthquakes, and the inquest into the CTV deaths).
The critical Civil Defence report ...”demonstrated the petty jealousies, rivalries and nasty small mindedness that existed in some quarters behind the scenes”.
When Mr Parker learned that he was going to have to share the top table with Mr Hamilton he spat the dummy.
“I am not having a key role with this guy sitting at the table, I threatened. This guy criticised my response last time and if he sits at the table I leave. I never saw him back there again.”
It was Bob’s way or the highway.
Other accounts in the book are puzzling. Such as the claim of a Government Communications Security Bureau member taking notes at a meeting.
Some readers will find Mr Parker’s account enlightening. It will have most value for locals close to the action who understand another version of the history.
Others will find their heartstrings pulled at Mr Parker’s personal tribulations, such as his painful spine operations and breaking his ribs in the big February earthquake.
“Even when people wrapped their arms around me and pressed my broken ribs, I was determined not to flinch or whimper in front of them. The truth was, I needed their love as much as they needed mine.”
Ripped Apart: A City in Chaos, Bob Parker's Story (Antares Publishing, RRP $39.99)