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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)


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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  1. 11:27am Tuesday 05th March 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    I just filed my cencus, I used it this morning to wipe my bum! only the slaves and serfs need to fill it out for the nations stocktake of the Queens herd!

  2. Bob08:11am Monday 04th March 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    Yes I've always been suspicious of counseling too, sounds more like manipulation. You have too work out your own bad experiences, let them go and learn from it. Sometimes helps to talk about it with close friends or family though, but counselors, no thank you.

  3. Oglet10:14pm Sunday 03rd March 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    No G - people who think counselling works tend to have problems anyway. Counselling only feeds the insecurities -- it is a technique looking for a use. The only scientific evidence is that counselling for a problem tends to be worse than doing nothing about it. In other words, get a life, don't rely on do-gooders with their own insecurities to look after your own.

  4. Margaret07:07pm Thursday 28th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    Tom.your a complete wanker,you stand up to the forces of nature we have endured.Nobody,not even my old mate 'Jim" could have done better,grow up,weve been through it all,here is a word you CMC people don,t understand,'POSITIVE#$%$ off to oz if you can,t handle it,PLEASE. Ali,not Marg

  5. Pauline08:15pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    Interestng to read some of the comments, some with vitriol steaming from the edges. Reflection is a very interesting process and usually the honesty of people shines through or simply the hate of change that others feel. Sorry Earthquakes happen and if you live in New Zealad they are usually liveable with but every so often they take a huge toll in life, homes and every kind of business. Nothing can change what has happened but what shines through in my quick trip to Christchurch for five days over Waitangi Day is the truly incredible support for each other, the neighbourliness, the generosity towards strangers and the sheer bloody mindedness of Cantabrians to succeeed. What can the rest of New Zealand do Well perhaps Christchurch needs to ask us, be specific Mayor Parker and others and then we can all help them more.

  6. Bob07:37pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    Like Rudy Giuliani New York mayor during 911, Bob Parker was the mayor during a disaster - he has his critics and supporters. He was a spokesperson and put his face to the job. Not everybody wants to stand for public duty - he did his best - so good luck to him - whether anyone could have handled it it better, who knows. He did his best and that is all a man can do. A disaster like this can make or break a man - he survived it with dignity.

  7. Sharyn07:29pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    I agree with Nassin - whilst there will always be those that continue to struggle through the aftermath and rebuild (including myself), we can't forget that Bob is only human also. One who on the day was living in the city centre and fighting illness yet he did a great job of being a strong leader in the face of a huge task that no one would wish on anyone. It is impossible to make a decision that everyone agrees with but I have faith that most people are trying their best. I challenge the moaners and whingers to find a worthy replacement to Bob - I for one will certainly be voting for him again

  8. Tom Beethoven07:28pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    Parker only has understanding for his own future. He wants the limelight again - #$%$ the real needs of the city.

  9. Margaret06:16pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    We have lived through a very rear world event,4 'earthquakes'or 8 if you count the over 5 sized aftershocks.I get bloody tired of the 'Dorothys' and the other members of the small group,CMCinc,which stands for Christchurch moaners club inc.She obviously did,nt vote for 'Bob' The Mayor,most councillers,Brownlee and gummit have been way over their job limit. we are lucky we live in NZ,elsewhere,there would be no help!The Gov,did not have to buy properties,the quake was,nt their fault,but the CMC will moan,another 'loser'critisises what the Mayors good lady, is by there 'sick' terms, wearing etc,who bloody cares,this lady has been in the thick of it,helping folk where she can. Can I suggest something positive from now on,hell,we need,go back to your knitting you silly bags,LOL,Ali,not Marg

  10. Dorothy04:44pm Tuesday 26th February 2013 NZDTReport Abuse

    I don't think Bob Parker will be sitting in a broken home, or needing to worry about his children suffering PTS. I have friends and family in Christchurch whose families have disintegrated and have homes that will remain unpaired for foreseeable future. Money talks, poverty grows. How can a city grow while landlords charge extortionate rents.


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