Yeah yeah yeah, nah Minister: Why Brownlee is unfit to lead the recovery.

Dr Barnaby Bennett
Jul 4, 2015 · 12 min read

The governments role in Christchurch since the earthquakes has been almost entirely led by Minister Gerry Brownlee. In this article I will argue that it is time for him to step down from that role. He doesn’t have the temperament or skills this job demands and he has loss the trust of the people in Christchurch.

Last Thursday the government announced its new governance plans for the next phase of the rebuild. The two large post-quake government agencies CERA (Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority )and CCDU (Christchurch Central Development Unit) will be gone in April next year. The impression that they are expensive, unpopular and ineffective mechanisms to lead the rebuild appears to have been recognised. Almost all the projects they are leading are behind schedule and almost none of them have engaged with the public to make them part of the exciting life of the city. In response to these problems Prime Minister Key has announced the creation of a new agency called Regenerate Christchurch.

“The Advisory Board on Transition has identified that the speed, quality and momentum of future development in the central city are vital to the economic, social and cultural prosperity of Christchurch city, greater Christchurch and Canterbury. The Board is strongly of the view that a step-change in the central city is needed to build confidence, deliver a real change in sentiment, attract potential investment and deliver streamlined compliance processes.”

The extraordinary thing is that this new agency will be led by the same minister that has overseen the debacles that are CERA and CCDU. The idea that a new agency will work any differently to the existing ones with Brownlee in charge is bit of a joke, and it’s one been played on the people that live here.

The draft transition plan asks for public feedback, and I strongly urge people to recommend that the government follows option 3. The only way we can get rid of Brownlee now is to tell the government that the rebuild of the central city should be led by Option 3: A council led agency with close support of government.

Here are ten reasons why Brownlee is unfit to lead the rebuild:

Exhibit 1: Brain explosions. When things get difficult Brownlee has a habitat of blaming other organisations or people. I’ve never heard him acknowledge a mistake or misjudgement in relation to Christchurch; preferring instead to go on the attack. In an interview with Chris Lynch on the 3rd of July the Minister made the surprising statement (here) that the Breathe Urban design competition “should never have started in the first place”. This competition is one of the few big public design competitions that engaged architects from all over the world, and led to lots of discussion about how to build in the city. It was part of the minister approved 100-day plan, so its really very strange to hear him savage a project he originally signed off on. It’s absolute rubbish for him to blame this project on someone else and to suggest that he has no responsibility over it now. I’ve been told that the delays in the project are largely due to the crown changing its position regarding the land cost and that this has affected the project. Before the cost of the land was going to be recouped by the crown after the development and now they are asking for full up front payment. Also I’ve been told off the record that Brownlee tried to cancel the project and move the land into the East Frame contract but the CERA lawyers said he couldn’t do this. So the ‘delays’ that Brownlee is blaming on the developer are possibly caused by CERA and CCDU breaking agreements. Brownlee’s brain explosion yesterday apparently caused dismay at the CCDU who are/were close to announcing the start of the project. This story opens a window into a minister out of control and at odds with the ministry he is responsible for. There is a very good article in the book we wrote by a Sydney designer Jon King — one of the semi-finalists in this competition — who outlines the ways in which CCDU have misunderstood and mismanaged this project. ( “Christchurch deserves the very best of what constitutes a liveable twenty-first century city. They have had good advice and publicly make the right sort of noises. But if the rebuild is to deliver an exemplary public infrastructure supported by truly innovative housing and mixed-use development, the Government must take the initiative and do more than just pay lip service to notions of livability and sustainability.” (Jon King. Once in a Lifetime pg 416)

Exhibit 2: He consistently misleads the public. I’ve worked closely on a few projects such as the successful campaign to save the Town Hall from the Gerry wreckingball and it has always staggered me how willing Brownlee is to directly mislead the public by using selective information out of context. He has long believed the Town Hall should have been demolished. That’s fine, but instead of engaging in constructive conversation his mode of arguing was to bully the council, to make false promises to parties, and to mislead the public. I picked apart some of these mis-directions three years ago here. The decision has now been made and the busy minister still apparently has time to ring up Mike Yardley and gossip to him about how ‘he’s heard that the Town Hall has slumped up to 450mm in some places’. This isn’t inside knowledge. It’s all part of the reports released years ago by the council, and the repair of this is costed and part of the repair plan. Spreading misleading gossip like this is petty and sulky politicking that adds nothing of value to the rebuild.

As it turns out demolishing the Town Hall would have been a disaster. Insurance is tied to the building so after demolition the CCC would end up with less than $60 million to put into a new projects, a fraction of the hundreds of millions needed to produce a new centre. By saving the Town Hall they get to keep a building worth $200m or more and invest $30 million into the rest of the performing arts precinct. The CCC has been diligent and professional with their research and decision making, unlike the minister’s agencies. Furthermore any attempt to demolish the Town Hall would have led to years of court cases. Contrary to the ministers bleating about this ‘being a surprise decision’ the original 100-day plan said that the “The precinct designation will be sufficient to provide for a range of facilities in the event that the Town Hall cannot be repaired.” It’s been clear for a number of years the the Town Hall is repairable — and actually the most diligent and cost effective decision — so for the minister to act surprised by this decision illustrates either incompetence or an attempt to redirect blame.

Exhibit 3: He struggles to work with other people. Evidence of his relationship with the council is that he is quick to bully people when he doesn’t get his way. This is clear in decisions around asset sales, the Town Hall and other decisions not popular with the government. This is not the mentality needed to lead a city through the extraordinarily complex and difficult task of rebuilding itself after a disaster. While researching this article Adelaide based planner Mike Fisher nailed it by saying ‘leadership is about developing new leaders not subordinates, It is especially important in Christchurch to encourage people to get involved, innovate & act.’ Brownlee’s mode is to work secretly behind the scenes and if there is any disagreement to hammer people in public. He’s been doing this to the successive mayors of Christchurch since the quakes. He apparently refuses to talk to councillors that publicly disagree with him. He yells at reporters who write bad things about the government. He calls the Press ‘the enemy of the rebuild’. He seems to think he can treat the people of Christchurch like the opposition in the house. I have no faith in a new development agency if he is still in control at the top. Over the past five years he has repeatedly illustrated his inability to work closely with other parties and to negotiate in good faith.

Exhibit 4: The Convention Centre farce needs new leadership. Brownlee continues to change his story about why the convention centre is delayed and not happening as scheduled. He has been publicly contradicted by the PM on this issue. One moment the project is supposed to be on track and will cost $284 million, the next its delayed a year, the next the PM is saying its exploded to $420 million, yesterday Brownlee said it’s at $350 million. On Thursday the PM says they are looking at reducing the size and this is the sort of thing a new agency will manage. This new agency doesn’t exist until April next year, so we can assume that nothing will happen on this project till then? Brownlee now says that timelines are terrible as the media just uses them to attack him about delays. Without timelines how are investors supposed to have any confidence? It’s now 3 years since the launch of the 100 day plan that was supposed to sort all this. (I’ve done a long analysis of the problems of the convention centre here, and the problem isn’t that it’s delayed, it is the size and location of it).

In one of the great ironies of the rebuild I’ve been told that one of the main reasons the cost of the Convention Centre has blown out is that the international consultants didn’t take into account the extra cost of building such a big structure on the complex ground here and so when the proper quantity surveying started the costs exploded. So, think about this for a second, the very thing that Brownlee has been repeatedly attacking the CCC on in regards to the Town Hall — the state of the land — is one of the things has caused his own much trumpeted project to fall over. This is both glorious and tragic.

Exhibit 5: He was wrong about heritage and existing buildings. Dr Jessica Halliday explains this best in her essay Losing our collective memory Once in a Lifetime p210). Soon after the quakes Brownlee took a helicopter over the city to survey the damage and returned to land with a clear mission to clear the city of old buildings. His attitude to existing buildings — heritage or otherwise- is one of the three great mistakes the government has made in this rebuild (the others being lack of respectful consultation and inadequate response to housing crisis). Only three of the eighteen government anchor projects include existing buildings on site. The rest require a scorched earth approach to development. A kind of ‘we have to destroy the city to save the city logic’. This is a disaster for the preserving the cultural memory of the city, and if we look around the city now it is only the temporary projects and the repaired older buildings holding the place together. C1, Isaac Theatre, New Regent Street, Re:start Mall, The Commons, Brick Farm, Arts Centre, amongst others. He apparently wanted to demolish more and at one point suggested in a meeting that the Christchurch Art Gallery should be demolished. CERA CCDU demolished buildings such as the Majestic Theatre while misleading the public, ignoring their own professional advice and while refusing to release engineering reports to the public. This isn’t how you rebuild a city. It ignores all the international evidence, and excludes the role of the public. After leaving his position former CEO of CERA Roger Sutton now seems to be implicitly publicly acknowledging the fallacy of the approach they took.

Exhibit 6: He isn’t engaged with Christchurch. I’ve been living in Christchurch in the past four years closely looking at the rebuild, and I make no great claims about understanding the culture of the place and its complex internal dynamics. But I have made every effort to be part of the city. In this four years I am yet to see Brownlee at a single event. Not once have I seen him at a fair, a festival, a theatre show, a gig, a restaurant, a walk in the park, a rugby game. I often see the other political figures around the city, the mayor at a festival, or the CEO at a gallery opening, or a councillor at a soccer game. They all live and breath the city, they interact with people. It is their home. Brownlee’s absence from the city wouldn’t matter if his approach was more pastoral and he worked to support the leaders in the city. But given his top-down bullying and his personal direction of the vision of the city it is a big problem. I also note that the other National party minister involved in the rebuild Nicky Wagner does go to events here, she is curious, listens and has illustrated a desire to understand the public. For this reason I think Wagner should take over from Brownlee. She’s been illustrating all the skills Brownlee doesn’t have.

Exhibit 7: He doesn’t understand the enormous potential for an ecologically focused rebuild. The really sad thing about Brownlee’s leadership is that there is in Christchurch a fairly clear, obvious, and extraordinary opportunity that he just can’t see because of his world view. Christchurch can, and probably will, become a city that learnt from the quakes about how to live closer to nature, about to grow healthy food, and to live with the habitats we share. There is enormous community support for this broader ecological vision, and it is a movement that resonates with both local activism and with international movements. This is the thing that will attract people and put Christchurch on the map, not some overblown Convention Centre or a nice swimming pool. We can be the city with the giant markets in the centre selling food grown in the east, the place that replanted its swamps and worked carefully with engineers to adapt to climate change, that works with schools and universities to research the wonderful bush reserves growing not near but in the city, that learnt how to create buildings that make the city cleaner and more beautiful. Sadly one of the first things Brownlee oversaw was the rejection of increased environmental standards for the central city, and beyond meeting basic requirements there is no proper policy. This is another reason Brownlee needs to go. We need a leader that can unlock this great potential, not ignore it.

Exhibit 8: He is often the obstacle to progress. In terms of delays we can go right back to the 100-day plan and the five months proceeding it that created the sense of crisis and delay in the city. The CCC responded with amazing speed and innovation to the demand to produce a central city plan. Within 6 months of the February quake, during the crazy difficult year of the earthquakes, the council gathered the city together and made a bold and brave attempt to create a shared vision for the future. It wasn’t perfect and needed more work, but it was an extraordinary achievement. Brownlee received this document and nothing happened for a further 5 months. In many ways this delay was the beginning of the problems that continue to haunt the city. It created the sense of crisis that the 100-day play failed to alleviate, while creating a whole lot more. Now apparently the Metro sports is ready to go, but is stuck on the Minister’s desk. I’ve heard many times of simple decisions that take months for the minister to get around to reading. This is the opposite of what the city needs which is timely and considered decisions, not delays because of an overbearing Minister who has too much work on to do his job properly. It’s an appalling process and as the person that has created this system he needs to take responsibility for it.

Exhibit 9: He thinks EQC has done a good job. Ha.

Exhibit 10: He doesn’t understand, and has never understood, what makes cities function. He just doesn’t get it. So many mistakes in Christchurch are the result of this fact combined with the other 9 points. The way the Council’s plan was rejected, the silly way the 100-day plan was managed, the model of design-and-defend (a phrase coined by Mike Fisher)are all evidence of someone out of his depth. He seems to distrust the public and for some reason that I’ll never understand developed an entire city blueprint without any thought of engaging the ideas with the people it is supposed to be for. Crazy ideas like building a $100 million dollar public space project through the middle of the city with no public input. Then wonders why people feel alienated and left out of the process. Then wonders why little investment has rushed in.


Possibly it’s not fair to blame all these things on the minister. It’s an extraordinarily complex and difficult process, and I have some respect for the fact that he is still standing after four years of this. But leadership change is sometimes necessary, and he’s done his time. He long ago lost the trust of the public, he continues to undermine the council he claims to want to work alongside, and he is now busy with other portfolios that demand attention. He doesn’t and never has had the right kind of temperament for managing urban decisions and politics. This isn’t parliament. We now have a strong council that has illustrated its ability to make tough decisions while also consulting the public. Their job will not get any easier, but personally I’d much rather be battling local council than an absent minister or the invisible pressure of treasury.

The draft transition plan asks for public feedback, and I strongly urge people to recommend that the government follows option 3. The only way we can get rid of Brownlee now is to tell the government that the rebuild of the central city should be led by Option 3: A council led agency with close support of government.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store