Politics

The PM through a southern lens

Jacinda Ardern spoke to hundreds of Christchurch business people. What did they hear? David Williams reports.

Carl Davidson turns to Shakespeare to explain his expectations ahead of Jacinda Ardern’s speech to a Christchurch business audience.

In act two of Hamlet, the politician Polonius tells Queen Gertrude that her son, Hamlet, is mad. Her matter-of-fact response is to demand “more matter with less art”.

Davidson: “Which is a nice literate way of saying, ‘less hui, more doey’.” It’s also a sign that a fancy, rhetorical speech from Ardern won’t cut it with him.

“I think I’d like to see some concrete action,” he told Newsroom on Wednesday. “I’m hearing the right things and it’s got a nice feel to it. I really want to see the behaviour change, you know? I want to see concrete things happen.”

Carl Davidson was a keen listener at yesterday's Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce function. Photo: David Williams

Davidson is co-founder and half-owner of private Christchurch research company Research First, which has offices in Tauranga, Wanaka and Wellington. The company employs between 30 and 50 people, “depending on how it’s counted”.

He’s had a varied career.

A former sociology lecturer at Massey University, Davidson lived in Auckland for 10 years before returning to Christchurch, setting up Research First in 2006. Four years later, he was appointed by then Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett as chief commissioner of the Families Commission. He’s a board member of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, and is involved in the MBA programme at University of Canterbury (where he studied sociology, psychology and political science).

Despite being appointed to a state sector role during the previous National Government, he has no beef with a Labour-led Government – “the Government’s doing a great job”. He’s particularly impressed with Megan Woods, for being a local minister who’s “engaged, present and visible”.

Seeking leadership, vision

Davidson wanted to hear from Ardern that business isn’t the enemy, and, in fact, that it’s part of the solution. “I know these guys are committed to social wellbeing and reducing inequalities – business is a part of that.”

Research First has had strong growth in the last five years. “The real constraint on our growth is our ability to find skilled workers. The last five senior people we put into our team all came from overseas.” (One of those was a returning Kiwi.)

So he’s interested in the Government’s immigration settings, which allows a pool of people to choose from. With a caveat, of course. “As long as those people keep choosing Christchurch.”

The city has a great story, Davidson says – move out of Auckland, earn just as much money, and have half your life back. “But we’re not activating that story.”

That’s where leadership and vision come in, he says.

(Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce chief executive Leeann Watson outlined more traditional business concerns, about education and training, immigration, transport and infrastructure, as well as planned changes to tax and employment laws. “They’re halfway through their term now so we should be starting to see some really good outcomes and some clarity around some of those key points.”)

Central city increases pulling power

In recent months, new life has been breathed into central Christchurch, following the major quakes of 2010 and 2011. A $50 million cinema complex held its first public screening last September, and, the following month, the new central library, Tūranga, opened. On Wednesday night, on the eve of Ardern’s speech, the repaired organ at the recently opened Town Hall played to a capacity crowd.

Just north of the still-broken Anglican cathedral, the new convention centre, Te Pae, is being built. There’s also progress on a new stadium and a metro sports facility, both much-delayed anchor projects.

Davidson says momentum is building towards an exciting city but the recovery isn’t finished. “If you look around city, it seems to me that we’re five or maybe 10 years away from having the finished product that we can really start selling to people.”

Rebuild activity is slowing and Canterbury’s economy is softening, off an artificially high base. Davidson’s worried the rest of the country is sick of hearing about the earthquake rebuild.

“They want it to be done, and they want the country to start thinking about other things. How you keep that in the front of the Government’s mind while it’s juggling other commitments is really important.”

Despite the optimism, and billions spent rebuilding parts of the city, many Christchurch people believe a huge opportunity was squandered. There was a chance to take the city in a new direction; to transform it. Davidson says there are some pretty new buildings in Christchurch, but a lot of money has been spent essentially rebuilding what was already there.

When Ardern stepped on that stage at the national Air Force museum yesterday, in front of 660 business people, some would automatically see her comments through certain filters. The most obvious is the city’s earthquake. Another inherent filter, it seems, is distrust of central Government politicians to get it right in Christchurch – either by stepping in too firmly, or not doing enough.

Davidson said he was open to what the Prime Minister had to say. “But I’m not hugely optimistic I’m going to hear anything concrete tomorrow that we haven’t already heard.”

“We came in with a view that we wanted to be an enabler, not a blockage, to the work you’ve determined needs to be done here.” – Jacinda Ardern

Ardern’s wide-ranging speech – at a venue 10 kilometres southwest of the city centre, another sign the rebuild isn’t finished – touched on trade, the economy, the upcoming “wellbeing Budget”, and the dreaded capital gains tax. Education and training featured prominently. In lighter moments, she bemoaned receiving pictures from her partner, Clarke Gayford, of a Shapeshifter concert at the Christchurch Town Hall, and had a crack at the patchy form of the Blues Super Rugby team.

Her nurturing, reassuring and supportive messages about Christchurch seemed spot on and well-received.

The prime minister started with an acknowledgement of last month’s eighth anniversary of the quake that killed 185 people. She noted progress “that’s often been in spite of hurdles placed in front of you”. “For our part, we came in with a view that we wanted to be an enabler, not a blockage, to the work you’ve determined needs to be done here.”

That includes settling quake claims, and speeding up anchor projects. There was also a nod to the city’s innovation – with American company Kitty Hawk Corporation testing its “air taxi” here – and $1 billion for a new research and development tax credit.

A key policy is mental health, with more than $100 million being spent on a new facility at Hillmorton and the Mana Ake programme to help primary school kids.

Ardern said: “I hope you’ll agree that a lot has been done but there is also obviously a lot of work still required. I hope that our actions, and the way that we’re working, show that we are, as a Government, fully behind Christchurch and Canterbury, and your local leadership here, and will be working alongside you in the coming weeks, the coming months, and the coming years.”

Is the picture clearer?

Fresh from polishing off a spring chicken – with “pommes puree, white truffle jus, wild roquette, radish, hazelnuts and olive” – Davidson says it’s reassuring to hear the Government’s commitment to mental health and its focus on wellbeing. He also liked the signals about Christchurch. But, he asks rhetorically, “Do I feel like there’s any clearer picture for Christchurch?”

Ardern talked a good game about the Government being an enabler and bringing fresh thinking, he says. But many of the “wicked” problems, like investment in innovation and infrastructure, and changes to skills and training, will take years to fix.

“If I need to make a decision this year about do we expand the Christchurch or do we expand the Wellington office, I have no more certainty now than I had before. Nothing I heard today actually gives me any more, or less confidence than I had previously.”

Where will the next wave of workers come from, how can Christchurch attract them, and where will they live, he asks. Hang on. Isn’t that the city council’s job, and that of its economic development arm? Yes, Davidson says, but the Government’s got an important role, too.

“In the absence of the right policy settings and investment, you’re going to get economic development that coalesces in Auckland.”

Something the Government could do easily for the regions, Davidson says, is redistribute where it does things – like moving a call centre to Southland. The Government could do lots of things, he says, if it recognises there’s a problem.

“I think what we’ve seen in Christchurch is there’s been an extraordinary event and we’re still racing to catch up. And I think all of us are looking for some guidance and some help to catch up.

“We’re building towards something,” he says, pausing. “But what that something is isn’t any more clear to me now than it was two hours ago.”

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