The Key to the city

How the post-quake rebuild may be setting Christchurch up for more pain

It is now well into week two of the lockdown, and I think we can put the idea that we’re all going to be more productive at home to bed. I’ve got plenty of things that I’ve been meaning to write down, and I have a podcast that I’ve been meaning to resume for about 18 months, but I’ve not had the time to sit and write and corral my thoughts. I have made some excellent sour dough bread, built a fence, and seen a lot of my neighbourhood though.

There were a number of things that I was hoping to write about. Some silly, some serious, some a little bit of both. When we’re going to come out of lockdown is a big question; what the country looks like when we eventually do is an even bigger one. I’ve been thinking about this, especially with relation to Christchurch, a city that has been beset by more disasters in the last decade than it really deserved. I’ve got a couple of pieces on this topic bubbling around in my mind at the moment, but one story from the last 24 hours resulted in a bit of a twitter-stream that is a subset of one of them. Below is a slightly expanded version of those ideas.

On the right of politics, an idea has been floated that PM Ardern should get former PM John Key in to run the economy once we step out of lockdown. I doubt whether this has come from him - he was in the media just last week, praising her leadership, describing it as “faultless”. But the idea seems to come from the deeply held belief that “Labour doesn’t know how to run the economy”, with an added layer of misogyny about Ardern’s capability to do complex money stuff that should be left to the big boys. It is insulting to her own leadership and competence, but also an ignorant reading of Key’s economic legacy, especially post-disaster.

National’s decisions in Christchurch are still being carried out, and I am very worried about the long-term implications for the city, which could be far worse off than any other NZ city as a result. Key, who was Minister of Tourism, doubled down on that sector of the economy, and the biggest projects for Christchurch were and are a reflection of that. At least $500m each on the convention centre and the stadium, both of which are entirely dependent on tourism to survive.

The website of Te Pau - the Christchurch Convention Centre - says that it will be opening in October of this year. While obviously this will be delayed due to the halt on construction, the question is … what do we do with it now? It will be years until international travel fully resumes, but there are massive questions about to what extent. Will people want to spend big money to fly to the ass end of the world when they can just do it on zoom? If we can beat Covid globally, a big “if” at this stage, then will we be able to turn our efforts to the other big C - climate change? If so, flying to the farthest place on earth just to chat about growth projections and the latest buzzwords will increasingly be seen as an act of terrorism against the planet. We may be able to repurpose Te Pae, perhaps as a lecture theatre, maybe concerts or movies, but it is half a billion dollars that we can’t get back.

Half a billion dollars that we could still save is the money designated for the stadium. Planning is underway, but construction hasn’t started. In fact, the money was only signed off last month - I know it seems like a lifetime ago, but it was barely 5 weeks. The case for the stadium - sorry, the Arena - was always based on dubiously optimistic numbers. Sport wasn’t going to pay the way, but Big Events would get us through. Well, there are now serious questions about both of those revenue streams. Mass gatherings may be limited for years. There will be restrictions on international travel that will limit our ability to bring over both international sports teams and international musical acts. The council is already looking at a rates freeze, combined with the devastation of businesses, especially in the central city, that will see their revenue tank. Any sane leader would pull the plug on this thing, lest it be known as their legacy that bankrupt a city.

We are going to need to stimulate the economy, and to create jobs, but we should throw bad money after good. $500m could be put into other construction projects that reshape our city for a post-COVID world. This could mean we finally see a genuine investment in central city residential, or light rail that links up the centre to the suburbs. But the vision of the Blueprint - Christchurch as a gateway to the South Island, a city tied to the whims of international tourism - is one that is economically bankrupt. We need to stop it before it drives us financially bankrupt as well.