From the rubble: an interview with Bob Parker

James Robins February 22, 2013, 7:41 am
CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 23: Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has a quiet moment outside the Christchuch Art Gallery on February 23, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 65 people have died after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck 20km southeast of Christchurch at around 1pm local time. The quake, which was an aftershock of a 7.1 magnitude quake which struck the South Island city on September 4, 2010, has seen damage and fatalities far exceeding those of the original.

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As the Second Anniversary of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake drew near, James Robins sat down with Bob Parker to reflect on the Mayor’s experiences, the challenges currently facing the city, and where the community is headed for the future. (Edited by Lydia Jarman and Grace Bradshaw)

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From the expansive windows framing the Mayor’s Lounge, it’s hard to see the suburbs hardest hit by an earthquake which, two years ago today, brought an entire city to its knees.

On the sixth floor of the Christchurch City Council building in the centre of a now-dead CBD, there’s plenty of empty plots to stare down on; demolition and construction sites are often indistinguishable.

But out on the horizon – in all directions – some people are just getting by.

Some live in unheated garages, others in red-stickered homes. For those without insurance, family and friends are often the only refuge. For those who do have cover, lengthy battles with insurance companies are inevitable.

Those who have no jobs are living on government support or donated food parcels. For the employed, lengthy stints in heavy traffic on tarmac akin to a rural backroad are likely.

But perhaps most crucially, the children who will one day make up the core of this city aren’t of an age to fully understand the colossal movements of tectonic plates. Some are still scared stiff by the thought of another rumble, the threat of their beloved home condemned to ruin, or a school shuttered on the whim of a politician.

It’s prescient that just three hours before we sat down, a raft of school closures and mergers were announced, sending the resilient but rattled citizens of this town into a spin once more.

It’s more than they need, and Parker echoes the sentiments of a city.

“It was handled, everybody agrees, very badly at the start,” he says of Hekia Parata’s draft plan. “But then it was always going to be difficult because we’ve lost so much and yet there’s so much that needs to be done. It’s no easy task for a government or a council or anybody in these times.”

But it’s incomparable to the terror of a large, shallow earthquake that brought down office blocks, churches, and homes alike. February 22nd, 2011 saw 185 dead, brought on $1 billion in repairs to residential areas alone, and a flood of trauma that some residents continue to hold.

“We were acquainted with the thought that we were impermanent as human beings,” Parker says, “When you have an event of that scale and you lose lives, and you see it, it reminds you of your impermanence – everything that we do as human beings – we are but tiny little ants compared to the awesome forces of nature and we tend to forget that.”

There’s little doubt the Mayor is proud of his team and their achievements in seeing a city back to a basic running order within days. He puts it down to sheer bloody-minded hard work:

“Every day we just had so much to do. Whether it was a public meeting, or some aspect of the decision making processes, trying to get something to happen…just never, ever, ever stopping. And so people would have seen a different series of events in some ways, from the ones that we were seeing. There was no stopping – you just kept going. For months actually.”

“I remember the first time I cried was at the first service in Hagley Park about four weeks later,” he continues, his voice cracking slightly. “I remember a whole bunch of us stopped for the first time, and actually stood still and thought about all the stuff we’d lost, and all the people we’d lost and I remember crying.”

There’s been obvious advances and progressions, but he’s been fighting battles that pushed his popularity down to 47% in favour of his reelection come October 2013 – taking flack for insurance woes, zoning controversies, and Council CEO Tony Marryatt’s pay rise during the height of stagnation in the city, for which Parker nor Marryatt fronted to appease 4000 baying protestors.

Christchurch faces a mammoth task: rebuilding an entire city to accommodate a population of roughly 500,000 with functioning infrastructure, communities, and an economy which Parker says will enter double-figures for GDP within the next year.

Despite this, the ability for leaders to determine the city’s future has largely been shifted away to the Beehive, resting in the all-powerful hands of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, a man who Parker has clashed with in the past. But today he’s more conciliatory.

“It’s very tempting as the biggest player in town to turn up and take command of everything. But it’s absolutely crucial for our future that we feel sense of ownership of what is done here. It is not enough just to come in and fix things up and make some shiny buildings.”

“We understand that the taxpayers of NZ, via the government, are making a major commitment of billions of dollars to the future of our city, and we’re enormously grateful for that. And every now and again we need to stop and say thank you to the government, which is in essence saying thank you to every taxpayer in New Zealand.”

After all the hardship, anger, frustration, and occasional joy, Parker is philosophical when looking back at such a time when death toll headlines were commonplace.

“I must admit I am of an age where I contemplate mortality a bit more often – but you realise that life is a one-way journey. We don’t tolerate the passage of time. It’s more valuable, it should be filled with more, and you should see more for your time.”

And with that, he’s rushed away to another meeting, still plowing on through despite the immense task that reaches back two years in to his past, and will no doubt pervade his future – and all our futures, too.

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