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Stadium spells danger for Labour

While howls for a new Christchurch stadium grow louder, the Government needs to be sensitive to its rival southern city, writes David Williams.

COMMENT: “It has got to be someone that shows true leadership, like they did in Dunedin,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said after his Super rugby team was pelted with hailstones last Saturday.

The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 dealt to Christchurch’s old home of rugby, the 38,500-seat Lancaster Park. In March 2012, the Crusaders moved to the 18,000-capacity Rugby League Park, now known as AMI Stadium, after a $30 million makeover paid for by the Government.

After last Saturday’s hailstorm in Christchurch, ‘Razor’ Robertson, a normally jocular character who famously breakdanced to celebrate his team’s title win last year, declared he’d had enough.

He told The Press: “It is a decision that should be made for now. Money will work itself out over a long period of time.”

Christchurch people listen to Robertson, even though some rightly question how much the local rugby union will contribute to such a stadium. Somehow without a decent rugby stadium – one that gets All Blacks games – it seems the city isn’t grown up, that it’s missing out, that officialdom isn’t moving fast enough. For some, it reflects a limbo in their own lives, that seven years after the “big one”, their insurance isn’t sorted, their street is being dug up or their favourite pub is still surrounded by road works.

Even back in 2011, Cantabrians, robbed of Rugby World Cup games, looked south with jealousy. Dunedin had opened a $224 million stadium just in time for the World Cup. And it had a roof.

That wound, which hadn’t completely healed, had salt rubbed into it when Ed Sheeran staged three concerts at Forsyth Barr Stadium over Easter, pumping an estimated $34 million into Dunedin’s economy.

If there aren’t spades in the ground for a new stadium by the time voting opens in 2020, Labour risks losing some of the ground it made in Christchurch at the last election.

Today, six days after the hail storm, Earthquake Recovery Minister Megan Woods made murmurs about a new Christchurch stadium. It’ll be roofed. It’ll have about 30,000 seats. But final details will be decided after a fast-tracked business case has been submitted.

To be fair, Woods also gave the green light for a pared-back Metro Sports Centre, which won’t be co-located with a stadium and would be $50 million cheaper after shearing off many of the razzle-dazzle design elements. But given how advanced those plans are, many would have wanted to hear more about a new stadium – which Woods has hinted is a Government priority.

Making a robust business case is one thing, but all red-and-black rugby-lovers want to be told is when their new stadium will be built – and finished. Costs in the hundreds of millions are extraneous to them, too high to be meaningful. All they think about is how long it’s been since they had a stadium of a size befitting the city.

That’s where National’s Nicky Wagner, a list MP after losing the Christchurch Central seat to Labour’s Duncan Webb, might make some ground by saying the Government has kicked the stadium for touch. Sure, her National-led Government made little progress on a Christchurch stadium, until putting out a vague, unfunded plan last year. But if there aren’t spades in the ground for a new stadium by the time voting opens in 2020, Labour risks losing some of the ground it made in Christchurch at the last election.

Of course, governing isn’t just about giving some people what they want. Wagner points out Labour has earmarked $300 million for a capital acceleration fund. If almost all of that $300 million goes towards a roofed stadium, that should be considered a vote-grabbing move for a Government that swept to power talking about homelessness, child poverty and health.

Don't forget Dunedin

There’s another consideration for the Government, just down the road.

To get their own stadium, key figures in Dunedin were subjected to a storm of public opinion. The plan was deeply unpopular in some quarters and is still a $100 million weight on the city council’s subsidary companies. (Opponents would also point to the stadium’s $42 million in other costs, beyond the $224 million capital construction cost.)

Most of the money was found locally. The Government’s contribution was just $15 million. So it’s fair to assume many in Otago, who are still paying for their stadium, will be more than a little blue if the gold for a Christchurch stadium comes largely from the taxpayer, including them.

There’s a fair chance a roofed Christchurch stadium will kill the gains made by Forsyth Barr. Christchurch has more people, more places to stay and better air links. And with the city’s marketing arm, ChristchurchNZ, pursuing a more aggressive strategy of attracting major events, a new stadium there spells bad news for Dunedin, a traditional Labour stronghold.

Dunedin MPs David Clark and Clare Curran, both Cabinet Ministers, better be sure there’s enough good news for their city's voters – including concrete news about a new hospital – or they might face a hailstorm of their own.

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