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Gordon Campbell on the Christchurch rebuild & SIS politics

Gordon Campbell on the Christchurch rebuild, and the political abuse of the SIS

Probably, some will regard the height restriction of seven stories for the rebuild of Christchurch’s central city area as being unnecessarily arbitrary and uniform, and business lobbyists have already told RNZ this morning that the height restriction will probably be amended in time, once concerns raised by the quake have subsided. Many more people will welcome the restriction as being necessary for safety reasons, and something of a retreat already from the four stories maximum that was being touted in the aftermath of the quake.

The wishlist and slideshow unveiled yesterday by mayor Bob Parker also brought to mind the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “Everything’s Up To Date In Kansas City” and these apt lines :

They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.
Everything's like a dream in Kansas City
It's better than a magic lantern show.

The price tag for the city centre rebuild is $1.9 billion. That doesn’t take any account of the added price for the rebuild of suburban housing and amenities. Are both a new city centre and a proper suburban rebuild going to be affordable, and of the same quality? After all. Rodgers and Hammerstein were pretty clear that the creature comforts available in every home also had to be catered for properly, in a truly up-to-date city:

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You can turn the radiator on whenever you want some heat
With every kind of comfort every house is all complete.
You could walk to privies in the rain and never wet your feet!
They've gone about as fer as they can go.
Yep, gone about as fer as they can go!

Well, lets make sure that those two sectors – the city centre and the Eastern suburbs – do proceed in unison. What Christchurch doesn’t need is a spanking new CBD but surrounding areas that will be barely functional. By year’s end, when the consultation process has been gone through, the amended submissions will go to Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee for final approval – and for an input of funds (details still to be firmed up) from central government, which would be entirely appropriate for a city that used to deliver 15% of the nation’s GDP. Essentially, the city centre rebuild plan involves :

(a) a smaller CBD on land that engineering consultants Tonkin and Taylor have adjudged to be safe, and which will be bounded by Lichfield, Manchester and Kilmore streets, and the Avon River

(b) a simultaneous retreat from the less stable land adjacent to the Avon River, which will be developed as a riverfront park

(c) several new civic amenities including a new library, new convention centre, new aquatic centre – all to be completed by 2016 - and a reasonably priced $8 million earthquake memorial. And finally,

(d) a $406 million light rail link by 2018 between the university and civic centre, ultimately connecting to Lyttleton, Rolleston and Rangiora.

So far, so good. Funding, as always will be crucial, given the hole that the earthquake has already put in rates revenues, and local government finances.


Watching the watchers

Twice in the past week, New Zealand’s systemic failure to provide checks and balances on those in power has been exposed. The revelation that the investigation into an alleged assault on a staff member by Building and Housing Department CEO Katrina Bach will be conducted by the department itself is a ludicrous situation –

– as is the subsequent reluctance of the department to discuss the principles involved in such an inquiry , lest that prejudice the outcome.

Right. Well, that’s transparency for you. Clear as mud. This matter should never have been left to be resolved by an internal inquiry, or even via a lawyer retained by the department. In any such situation, there has to be not only an investigation of the incident itself, but an assessment as to whether this was reflective of a wider culture of intimidation, and this will entail judgments as to whether power is being properly exercised by those at the helm of the organization.

How can the public have any faith in the integrity of such an investigation into the culture of this department, when it is being conducted by those beholden to the department’s bosses? Can this complainant expect to receive justice and fairness in the handling of her case? Obviously, she can’t. From the outset, the State Services Commission should have intervened and carried out the investigation, and removed the investigation from the perception of being tainted. It isn’t too late for it to do so now, and to start the process again.

The other sorry example of inadequate oversight arose in the course of the strange business that began with whether or not Opposition leader Phil Goff had been briefed by SIS chief Warren Tucker about the young Israelis caught up in the Christchurch quake, and their alleged Mossad links.

On the evidence ultimately released, Goff did receive some kind of briefing from Tucker. The more substantive issue was whether right wing blogger Cameron Slater had been advised by government about how to apply for the requisite briefing evidence and thereby fast tracked for access, ahead of Fairfax and other media outlets that had been seeking much the same information. In other words, had security information known to the PM’s office been (in effect) leaked to help to discredit Goff?

At his post-Cabinet press conference, John Key was questioned on the subject of possible contacts between his office staff and Slater – and among other things, used the tried and true “not to my knowledge” defence.

There is an obvious solution to the wider problem – which it is one of perception as much as substance. No Prime Minister should simultaneously be the Minister in Charge of the SIS. There are too many temptations inherent in the fusion of those roles, and too many examples in our history where that inside knowledge has been abused. It has been done so as much by hints and by nudges – via the intimation that the PM has special knowledge that cannot be shared, but can be relied on because of the PM’s access to security information.

The examples go back to Robert Muldoon’s use of inside police information on Colin Moyle, which he used to devastate Moyle’s career. Similarly, Helen Clark used her known privileged access to SIS data on the Algerian asylum seeker Ahmed Zaoui to rationalise – both within her own caucus and in Parliament – her government’s treatment of Zaoui, and her nod and wink collusion in the House with New Zealand First’s efforts to discredit him.

Consistently, Clark hinted that she couldn’t say what she knew about Zaoui lest that affect the course of the inquiry, but that more was to be revealed – thereby perpetuating the illusion that the case had substance and that its merits would in due course, come to light. Instead, it has taken the Wikileaks cables to reveal that as early as mid 2005 (two full years before the SIS case finally collapsed) that the government always secretly expected to lose its case against Zaoui, once the inquiry was completed! Now, with the latest example of potential abuse of secret information, we have a perception that SIS information may have been fast tracked for political purposes, to a friendly blogger.

There is no absolute, foolproof way of solving this basic problem of who watches the watchers. The best available solution would be to remove the role of SIS Minister from the Prime Minister, and place it in the hands of the Minister of Justice. Having the Minister of Justice – people with the personal integrity of Ralph Hanan in the past, and Simon Power today – in charge of the SIS would go some way to re-assuring the public that the rule of law, and not political expediency, was governing how this secret information was being used.


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