Brownlee delivered for Christchurch when it mattered

It may not be the done thing to go into bat for Gerry Brownlee. But a lot of the stick he has been getting as Earthquake Recovery minister has not been warranted.

Sure, Mr Brownlee's patience can run too thin at times. Sure, there has been the occasional glitch in his running of his portfolios. Sure, it is blindingly obvious you do not tell people something is blindingly obvious.

And we will not dwell on his biggest political misjudgment - the misguided plan to allow mining companies to dig up the country's national parks.

When it comes to nous and instinct, however, Mr Brownlee is the politician's politician. On Thursday he stepped up to the mark and delivered the goods when it really mattered.

He delivered in his handling of the biggest challenge to face any government since World War 2 in terms of sheer complexity and huge emotional turmoil. The capacity for things to go wrong or mistakes to be made in getting Christchurch back on its feet is immense. But little has gone wrong.

Thursday's compensation package for homes in the uninhabitable "red zone" has received a mixed response from those affected. The reality is that it is impossible to satisfy everyone. But those unhappy with the Government's offer to purchase properties at current rating value better realise this is at the most generous end of such compensation arrangements.

Throughout the nine months since the first quake, Mr Brownlee and John Key have kept one thing at the forefront of their minds that many of Mr Brownlee's critics have forgotten.

That is the way in which New Zealanders regard home ownership as not just a goal, but almost as a right.

It is a perceived right born of the 19th-century Utopian ethic that Jack was as good as his colonial master. It is seared deep into the national psyche.

For many people, their house is not just their home. It is may be the only appreciating asset they own, or will ever own.

The Christchurch earthquakes have brutally ripped away the trust people put in bricks, mortar and weatherboard.

No-one - not even those on the far right - has questioned the application of the full powers and resources of the state to remedying matters and restoring personal security.

That does not extend to a magic wand which could return things to what they were prior to last September, however.

Mr Brownlee and Mr Key were under no illusions that they were in anything else but a race against time to come up with housing solutions before the stress and pressure people were soaking up began to be focused outwards.

Mr Brownlee and Mr Key lost that race - narrowly.

Suddenly Mr Brownlee found himself the whipping boy for refusing to say when he would disclose information as to which parts of residential Christchurch would be off-limits to the rebuilding of houses.

Some of the criticism was justified.

Mr Brownlee could have been more diplomatic with those questioning the paucity of hard information.

But his reasoning for staying mum was sound.

His reluctance to set hard and fast deadlines for the package was justified, given the setbacks resulting from the June 13 quakes. The trouble was, those shakes produced a deeply pessimistic mood shift within Christchurch, which only exacerbated the feeling of helplessness.

The Government had to keep its nerve. It essentially had one shot at "getting it right" - the phrase the Prime Minister repeated endlessly on Thursday.

Dribbling out information piecemeal and telling people that they would have to shift without giving them some options on how they would be compensated, would have really opened the Government up to valid criticism. Imagine the outcry had properties been designated as being in the green zone and thus habitable and then, through some re-evaluation, ending up in the red zone.

It is not just National's reputation in Christchurch which is at stake here.

The Government's handling of this crisis serves as shop window display of its overall competence. It is a free advertisement beamed nationwide and worth what would be in the millions of dollars in helping National's re-election.

The compensation package has other wider political connotations. It had to be fair to those who have no option but to get shot of their wrecked properties and rebuild elsewhere. By the same token, it had to be fair to taxpayers outside Christchurch, who will end up paying the lion's share of the bill, the initial instalment of which could top $630 million.

Labour's post-announcement silence suggests that party realises that carping about the package not being adequate would not go down well in the rest of the country.

The Government has struck the right balance in offering to purchase properties at 2007 rating valuations, the most recent available. The median Christchurch house price dropped and then recovered to the 2007 level. That means those who purchased houses since then should not be too much out of pocket.

The gripes are coming from those who think their home's market valuation is above the rating valuation.

But it is not for the Government to protect people's unrealised profits.

Striking the right balance between local and national interests also saw the Government opt not to impose a special earthquake levy to be collected like income tax.

The worry was that several months down the track Aucklanders might be suffering earthquake-fatigue of a different kind. No-one notices the bill when it is paid out of general tax revenue or through borrowing.

What voters are telling pollsters is that they simply want Christchurch's problems resolved. They are not too exercised as to how that happens. They thus do not begrudge Cantabrians the high level of assistance being offered by the Government.

And with reason. In an earthquake-prone country, it is a case of uttering "there but for the grace of God ..." while keeping one's fingers firmly crossed.

 - John Armstrong is the political correspondent for The New Zealand Herald.

 

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