Attn Christchurch City Council - don't sell us short

Phil Mauger. Photo / NZ Herald
Phil Mauger. Photo / NZ Herald
Let’s start with a quote.

“You can take it from me that under my watch as mayor, I will not be selling any of these assets.”

Guess who said that before last year’s council elections? None other than Phil Mauger who, of course, went on to become mayor.

So that’s what he was saying less than a year ago about what he called “the family assets”.

But guess what he’s saying now about things like the airport and port company? Something quite different.

This is what he said to Newstalk ZB. “We’ve either got to sell something, or do less.”

So, less than a year ago, assets would not be sold under his watch. Now, the Christchurch City Council has to "sell something, or do less.”

Now, I might be wrong here. But I suspect some people will hear that and think “flip flop”.

Because what Phil Mauger is saying now about asset sales is what he really should have said before people voted for him.

If he really thinks that holding on to assets like the airport and the port company comes down to whether the council can cut its costs or not, then he should have said that.

Not all the bluster about “not on my watch”. Because, as we can now see, it was just bluster.

Apparently, things have changed so much in less than a year that we now have the guy who promised there’d be no asset sales under his watch saying to our reporters yesterday that if the council can’t cut its costs, then it’s going to have to sell some of its assets.

When Phil talks about assets, he’s not just talking about council-owned companies - of which there are six. There’s Christchurch International Airport, Lyttelton Port Company, Orion Energy, Citycare, Enable Broadband and Eco-Central Recycling.

It doesn’t own all of them outright. It’s got a 75 percent stake in the airport and 89 percent of Orion. But the rest, it owns the lot.

Phil’s also talking about land. Such as the land where the temporary stadium is. Once the new stadium is up and running, the council will be in a position to sell that land.

But when our reporters asked him yesterday whether he could still rule out selling assets like the port company, he said he couldn’t.

I read a very good article over the weekend which quoted Phil’s main competitor in last year’s election, David Meates, who says it’s vital that the city council holds on to its strategic assets.

As he says in the article, people are tired of politicians saying one thing to get elected, and then doing the complete opposite. He says people don't trust politicians who have eroded confidence in public institutions.

And, as we know, trust is the number one issue people have with the Christchurch City Council. And rebuilding public trust in the council was one of the mayor's big goal.

I’m all for partial sell-offs of assets like the port company and the airport, but not if the money just goes into the council coffers.

So, let’s say they were looking at selling off some of its stake in the port company, I’d only want that to happen if the money from that was invested in something else. Like the Port of Auckland, for example.

The last thing the council should be doing is selling assets just to sort out the balance sheet. Selling assets to artificially keep rates down. That would be so short-sighted.

But there’s a risk of that happening as long as the mayor talks about asset sales being a potential solution to the council’s debt problems.

It would be a cop-out. And if councillors did go down that track, then they would stand accused of selling us short - big time.

-By John MacDonald, Canterbury Mornings host on Newstalk ZB Christchurch