LEADERSHIP Cutting-Edge Conservatives Christchurch: a business model built to last

Christchurch mayor Gary Moore wants to be photographed outside the city’s bus exchange. It’s only short walk from his office – and he’s proud of what it stands for.

Just two years old, it’s efficient, state-of-the-art, and probably the most comfortable place to sit and wait for bus anywhere in New Zealand.
It’s also the result of partnership between the City Council, Regional Council and private enterprise – all getting in behind the same vision to revitalise the city’s heart.

Yes, Christchurch is city that can honestly be said to have one and it’s been beating to its own rhythm for quite some time.

Over the past decade, when other councils were busy selling assets in the belief private enterprise could run them better, Christchurch kept what it already had and added few more.

“We swam against the stream,” says Moore. “We kept our trading ventures and we’ve got smart business people running them who have commitment to the ethos of the city.”

It’s an ethos he traces back to the city’s founders who had dream of new society based on the Adam Smith model – the whole thing, not the selective version.

“While Smith talked about the invisible hand of the market, he was really moral philosopher but that bit is usually left out. And Christchurch is city that I think has lived its morality quite well. It’s always had good balance of trying to address social issues as well as having good economy.”

Conservative with small ‘c’
This desire to keep firm grip on its own infrastructure is what earned the city its title people’s republic of Christchurch”- bestowed by those who believe government of any kind should keep its little pinkies out of business ventures.

It’s title Moore’s happy to own – not because he’s leftie (he classifies himself as “middle-of-the-road conservative) but because he has different take on the role of local government. It’s to do with his belief that we have this society “on loan from our children’s children”- and that’s not responsibility to turn your back on.

Leftie nickname aside, Christchurch is generally regarded as being conservative – but it’s conservatism with small ‘c’, says Moore.

“We conserve what we have, sustain it and enhance it. The city has always managed its infrastructure conservatively because it’s held in trust for future generations.”

And the value of what’s being held just keeps growing.

The City Council has its own “Redbus” company, is majority owner of its airport and shipping port, owns regional electricity retailer Orion, as well as contracting company (which recently extended its operations to Auckland), sports stadium, convention centre, pensioner housing…
The philosophy is “built-to-last” one. You have to keep pouring energy into society and putting more investment into the infrastructure to ensure its long-term sustainability, says Moore.

Church and chalice
A recent example of such investment is the new $15 million art gallery whose sweeping curves of glass add an air of edgy modernism to surroundings that exude settled tranquillity – the tram-tracked boulevard, low-rise brick buildings and tree-hung Avon river.

Architecturally it’s an echo of the stylistic tension in Cathedral Square where the former focal point of traditional cathedral spire is challenged by more recent sculptural addition – the 18.5 metre cone-shaped steel/aluminium “Chalice”.

Church and chalice – it’s not bad analogy for the interacting dynamic between the city’s conservative core and its cutting-edge fringe, reckons Peter Townsend who as chief executive of the Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce (CoC) has fairly intimate involvement with the city’s workings.

“We are conservative community but we also have this very creative side. If you look at the new art gallery, it could not for one moment be regarded as the outcome of an ultra-conservative community, and that is very important statement.”

He reckons the inherent tension between conservative core and fringy element is what gives the city its creative edge.

“It’s bit like those companies where you’ve got the zany off-the-wall entrepreneur who’s out there sprinkling gold dust and hardly knows what day it is but has this incredible ability to be visionary. Then, on the other side, you’ve got someone who’s maybe come out of the airforce, who is structured, disciplined, conservative. And it’s the combination of the two that creates success – either on their own would be failure.”

The community dynamic between those driving change and “pushing from the front” and those who are the “sea anchor” involves some fairly fierce argument, says Townsend.

“We’ve been arguing over the [Cathedral] Square for 10 years or more and that’s the argument – be revolutionary or leave it as it is – and the eventual outcome is good one.

“It’s very interesting dynamic and it helps forge strong sense of community. It’s not coincidence these people are called one-eyed Cantabrians.”

All in the same village
Indeed they do have reputation for being fairly cohesive bunch.

Business wise, Christchurch folk tend to support each other’s enterprises, are keen promoters of the whole region and regard anything outside it as export territory.

It is very self-contained, Townsend acknowledges.
“There are lot of local businesses that regard Auckland as an export market.”

The strong focus on external markets has to do with the fact that Christchurch is still very rural-based economy and lacks the buffers of large internal market (Auckland) or government activity (Wellington). Greater exposure to shifts in world commodity prices make the region good lead indicator for the whole country’s economic cycles. It goes into recession first and is first to recover.

“That does provide its own particular dynamic,” says Townsend. “The city is very much microcosm of New Zealand’s economy and faces the same issues.”

Looking outward also helps foster self dependence and unity. There’s real sense of community, says Townsend – partly to do with the city’s psyche and whole lot to do with the fact that Christchurch is one city. It doesn’t have to deal with the rivalries of multiple city authorities – what he refers to as the five “Ps” (people, patch protection, politics, paranoia and power) that can stall progress in other regions.

“Christchurch does have the ability for entities like ours, local government and national politicians to work together.”

Moore and Townsend consult regularly and, at the Chamber’s urging, the City Council recently declared its aspiration to be the most business-friendly council in New Zealand.

Both men see the vigorous internal wrangling that goes on in the city as healthy. Inevitably there are both political and personality clashes but in the end “you all live in the same village”, says Moore.

And mutual interests tend to win out over sectarian ones. Moore cites the council’s recent hiring of new CEO, Lesley McTurk, as good example. Because this decision was so important, he instituted rigorously inclusive process. The consultation took lot of time and effort but the final decision was unanimous, says Moore.

“I think it showed that political differences tend to be more artificial than real – that when the interests, concerns and needs of the city are put first and that is what people focus on, then you get good outcome.”

As mayor, he deliberately seeks broad range of views, gets involved in wide range of community activities and is very accessible to anyone who wants word – something evident even on fairly short walk downtown.

Vision and leadership
A high degree of community involvement is something Moore and Townsend have in common. Both are whole-hearted promoters of the city. Each has their vision for its future, strong sense of commitment, wants to make difference and enjoys stirring things along.

“I love challenging, not accepting the status quo,” says Townsend.

He sees

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