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Q+A Panel Discussion in response to John Key interview

Published: 12:31PM Monday March 21, 2011 Source: Q + A

Transcript of Paul Holmes Q +  A panel discussion March 20, 2011.

PAUL  The first of many expert panels we'll have to guide us through this election year.  We're very lucky to have the analysis of Dr Jon Johansson, political scientist from Victoria University, on Q+A, who disagrees with me saying we've all become royalists.  Very good to see you back, Jon, and already so much to talk about.  This week, the former Christchurch mayor and businesswoman in the growing realm of clean technology, Vicki Buck, former mayor of Christchurch, and Michael Barnett is the head of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.  I suppose your local-body brain would've picked up a very big thing from that interview, which is that central government is now going to run Christchurch.

 I think& I& That's not what I actually picked.  The important thing, I think is what's happening in Christchurch.

PAUL  Well, you should've.

VICKI  Well, maybe, but I think what's happened forever is that the psyche of Christchurch people has changed, and I don't think you can go through two of those and actually come out the same.  And I think what's happened since the quakes has been an amazing adaptability, an incredible resilience and people doing extraordinary things.  So whatever system there is, the people of Christchurch will rebuild that city, and I think we're just about at the point where we start thinking about how we rebuild that city.

 But they are also going to have to adapt to a Gerry Brownlee-led reconstruction authority, which is essentially executive government running Christchurch.

PAUL  Gerry Brownlee becomes the reconstruction tzar?

JON  Yes. And you look at the power configuration that supports him in that role.

VICKI I don't think that the people of Christchurch will allow their voice not to be heard.  For example, when we come to redevelop the centre of town, there is already a great deal of thinking about how rebuild a centre of town that isn't based on high-rise buildings, because nobody will go into them.

And that's Guyon's point about there needing to be processes in there that allows Cantabrians to contribute.

VICKI  They will so be contributing.

Are they really looking for processes?  I mean, it's really a time for decision.  Yes, there is talk about how they will reconfigure, and yes, there has been talk about the resilience of Cantabrians and so on.  We know that.  It's been proved twice.  What they need now are some decisions so that they can confidently move ahead.  And what the Prime Minister was saying was whether it's under Gerry Brownlee or him or whoever, leadership is what is required.

VICKI  But what will happen is that, actually, people will make the commitment to come back into the central business district and to do all sorts of things, so businesses and schools and community groups and all sorts of others will actually lead that charge themselves.  And they will say, 'This is the sort of building we're going to rebuild.'

MICHAEL But where is the central business district? That's what the question.  Is it going to be in one place?  Is it going to be spread?  That's the decision-making that's required.

VICKI  It will be in the heart of town where it currently is.

PAUL Let us talk about the money, which is a very big matter of preoccupation at the moment.  We're not a wealthy country any more.  On February 17th, Bill English said, 'What is clear is that the rapid rise of net foreign liabilities is unsustainable.  Simply servicing existing debt of almost $170 billion is a strain on the economy.  These concerns are front of mind for credit-rating agencies.'  And now we have February 22.  How do we pay for it?  I mean, he gave some options, but it's all about credit, isn't it?  It's all about borrowing.

MICHAEL  It is, and right up front, we started doing the same as what we did from last year.  And New Zealanders have been generous,  you know, business has been generous, and I think that needs to be said.  But to that, we're talking about, you know, 'Should we levy?  Should we borrow?  Should we cut our cloth?'  In my opinion, there hasn't been enough discussion about what can we do to grow the economy.  It's almost as if we don't want to talk about that dirty stuff over here of growing the economy, because we need to look after Canterbury.  In actual fact, a real focus on the rest of the world and how we could be doing business elsewhere and the things that we could be doing, the countries we could be doing better business with - I think that is important.

JON  And Michael embodies, actually, the tension that John Key now faces, which is between the tension of fulfilling the needs of Cantabrians versus the expectations of the rest of the country.  And for the rest of us that haven't been part of this catastrophe - directly affected - you know, we were in double-dip recession already, and now that situation has only deteriorated.  And, you know, part of me- I mean, I know there's idealogical reasons and, you know, they have an economic argument against the idea of a levy, but if ever a country was prepared to do one-off contribution to allow the country to move on, this would've been the time to do it.

VICKI  I think now, actually, all things have to be on the table.  For everybody in Canterbury, the world has changed dramatically.  It's not as they ever knew it in the past.  And so I think probably our expectation is that anything now is possible.  So all the things that we've sort of regarded as things that we can't touch, even, for example, the fact that we're not allowed to talk about the age of superannuation because it's somehow sacred, all those things actually have to be addressed.

MICHAEL Yeah, the politics is still here, right?  I mean&

PAUL But Christchurch has defined this term of government, hasn't it?

JON  Yeah, I very strongly believe that it's interesting the extent that John Key, who's been working every single day since February the 22nd, when he has some space to actually rethink and think really hard about the rest of his prime-ministership, because, you know, every prime minister starts off, you know, blue sky, goals and ambitions to achieve.  Now, these three events - the two Christchurch earthquakes and Pike River - have actually defined John Key's prime-ministership, and he is going to be our reconstruction prime minister.  And it's how successfully he adapts to that context which is going to define him.  You know, it's really going to be the test of- and his legacy.

MICHAEL  And is it going to be a redefinition of more of the same, or is it going to be a redefinition by some new thinking?  And so far we've seen a lot of new thinking.  When I have a look at it, you know, the other more important thing for Christchurch is about relevance - what are they going to do to remain relevant?  That to my mind is going to take new thinking.

VICKI And that absolutely.  I mean, for example, if we rebuild the central business district as a green sort of eco-city - there's all sort of things, then, that make people want to go back into the centre of town.

PAUL  All sorts of things.

In response to TARIQ ALI interview

PAUL Well, what did you make of Tariq Ali?  He's optimistic.

JON He's more optimistic than I, but he's more well grounded in the subject than I as well.  I mean, with such an upheaval on this scale, you know - and it's a bit akin to when communism fell as well and the wall came down - is you see these periods of history where there's great centralising tendencies, right?  So you have these despots in place, and whilst conditions for the people are horrendous, it nonetheless for policymakers in the US and elsewhere provides a certain stability, so you can understand, actually, where Hillary Clinton's coming from, then.  So whilst we all want to see, you know, a burst of democracy in that region, sand has never been a particularly fertile soil for it.  So I'm, you know, more interested in actually seeing what emerges, because we could end up with a lot of fragmentation, which equates to chaos.

PAUL But history does change.  I mean, when the Berlin Wall came down, we have seen emerging democracies.

JON Yeah, but they're the-

PAUL Through Eastern Europe.

JON  But the traditions of democracy weren't distance to people.

PAUL But he doesn't believe this nonsense about all the stuff the people-

VICKI  Yeah, I agree with him.  I tend to be quite optimistic about what's happening in the Middle East.  I think it's been fascinating to see what is happening in the Middle East and just that sort of contagion effect almost.  I don't like the concept of what's happening in Libya.  I think what's effectively happened is that they've probably divided the country, and it will be really interesting to see.

JON  The country was already split along tribal lines.

VICKI  Yeah, and it will probably stay that way now.

PAUL When he says that Western intervention in Libya is disastrous -- I mean, the moment the UN announced the no-fly zone, did you see the reaction of people in eastern Libya?

VICKI Yes, yes.

PAUL They love it.

VICKI  Yes, exactly, but I think the really interesting thing is how young many of the people out on the street are and just how they've taken power into the own hands.  It is incredibly exciting to watch.

MICHAEL But he didn't answer Paul's first question, and so I'm asking - you had the despots in place and they've been there for 30 and 40 years - what was it in time that made the people stand up and say that, 'We want rights.  We want the right to work.  We want the right to freedom.  We want the right to good health'?

PAUL Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski the great Polish journalist says, 'There comes a time when people cease to be afraid.'

MICHAEL And what was that chink the armour?  So that's my first question.  My second point, though, and what worries me more than anything is  the little bit we've done that's not different, so we seem to be doing the same thing again, because so often the peacemaker arrives with the same behaviour as that of the aggressor.  And that to me is the same behaviour that we have seen, and yet we're saying we want a different answer.

VICKI I think what we're seeing in the Middle East, actually, is the increasing irrelevance of powers like the US, France and the UK.

PAUL  Well, there comes a time too, though, when the United States gets real and understands the limits of its power.  Hillary Clinton was once a radical student.  You know, she's got a memory.

JON And this is a part of Obama's dilemma, isn't it, Paul, that he cannot have US ground troops anywhere else in the world.


JON I mean, he's got his hands full just trying to extract them from where they are.  And with the fiscal situation and the debt crisis in America, American power is constrained, which is why they've sort of had a bit of a bob each way, because their preference is for stability, you know, so now they'll actually be going through the perennial task of trying to pick winners that emerge in these new societies.  And America does not, as Michael says, have a good track record of picking winners.

VICKI  It's got a terrible record.

PAUL  No, but the people on the street in the Arab world seem to be picking their own winners at the moment.

JON  And that's new technology as a system.

PAUL People power is ultimately unstoppable, isn't it?

MICHAEL Yes, but they will have imposed on them the behaviour of the French and the United States and so on.  Is that what they wanted for change?

VICKI I think they've moved past that.  I think they've proved those powers are becoming increasingly irrelevant and they're going to do it themselves.

MICHAEL If you looked at the French last night, would you still say that?

PAUL Well, the country where this is-

VICKI  It'll be interesting to see what happens.

PAUL  The countries where this is happening, of course, education's been greatly over recent years, and that's a genie out of a bottle, isn't it, really?

JON  And that's one of the sources of it.

In response to JOHN KEY interview

PAUL Let's go back to something that emerged during Guyon's interview with the Prime Minister this morning about what we might expect in the budget.

 This is a zero budget, then?

They're your words, but certainly we'll be taking a view that says-

GUYON  Are they true words?

JOHN  Well, you'll have to wait and see on Budget day.

PAUL So not much to look forward to, really, with the budget, Michael.

MICHAEL  No, because all of the signals that they've given us so far is that they don't want to spend and what money they do have to spend, they want to put into Christchurch.  So to my mind there will be nothing there.

PAUL What about the welfare reform?

JON Well, you can where the rubber hits the road in Christchurch in that sense, and Guyon absolutely, you know, revealed that in the questioning of John Key.  How& You know, and this cutting as well is going to cause them a lot of political problems, Paul, because it's one thing to look on the budget and say, 'Yes, we can get it down to zero,' but that means real programmes and real people behind those programmes and then political reactions to those cuts.

PAUL  They've obviously told all the ministers to really go through line by line on the expenditures, haven't they?

JON They really have.

MICHAEL Why would you do that?  I mean, this is an opportunity to invest in something.  It's not an opportunity to curl into the foetal position and do nothing.  You know, to my mind, you know, cutting off the investment - the investment in Canterbury, the investment in the economy-

PAUL State investment?

MICHAEL Look, I'll tell you what, if they were looking at the relevance of Christchurch, and they said, 'Look, what we're going to need to do is to invest in tourism and need to throw a couple of hotels in there,' if the state needed to do it and sell it off long term, as far as I'm concerned, that's good game.

PAUL Now some feedback.  We have Rob Henderson.  He's communicated to us.  He's asked about John Key's answers on welfare.  'Cutting our cloth is ridiculous,' he says- says Rob, 'When we're already in economic stress.  If welfare needs a look at, then it should have been looked at in normal times.  Welfare needs now more funding due to the Christchurch disaster.'

JON  Well, you know, that's symptomatic of, I think, what happens after a crisis of this magnitude, which is that you get very, very, very unpredictable psychology, and that is actually what the government also has to manage, along with the economy, which is that its performance is going to be scrutinised to the nth degree.  And with unpredictable psychology, you can have very sudden shifts in public opinion, and so you can see how much more fragile the ground underneath the government is, not withstanding the headline support numbers it's attracting in the polls.

VICKI  There's really- For the moment in the Christchurch, there's really nothing normal, like there's no central city that the kids go to, the schools are all disrupted, the streets don't work - nothing works.  And it is scary, and people are frightened, and I think they probably do need compassion and just support at the moment.

PAUL I know, Vicki.

JON But there's a great old saying like, 'Words are actions, and actions are also a form of words.'  Now, we've had a concerted period of four weeks of endless words.  Now undoubtedly is the time for cool rationality, forward-looking decision-making and action.

PAUL I think that was an important aspect to the memorial service, actually.  I think it put the period of trauma&

VICKI I think that's fair, and I think what will now happen, and it's already happening, is that, actually, the people of Christchurch want exactly the same thing.  They don't want to be in the victim situation.

JON  No, sure, and they've got winter coming on.

VICKI Yeah, they want to be back to some sort of normalcy.  They want  to see the city happening.

MICHAEL In which case they need decisions and they need something that's definite.

VICKI  They do.

MICHAEL No more words.

VICKI  And they're trying to do that themselves very very much.

MICHAEL I think what the Prime Minister was saying this morning is they can't do this on their own; this is going to need to be something that's bigger than just Christchurch.

PAUL Gerry Brownlee with a group of people - with an executive group.  The Foreshore and Seabed is going to pass this week.

MICHAEL Property rights.

PAUL  What?

MICHAEL That's what it's about.  It's about property rights.  It's the rights you're going to give to one sector of the community versus others.

PAUL  But I think the politics- I know certain people are very vocal about this, but I don't think anyone gives a rat's.

MICHAEL Nobody gives a rat's, because they don't understand it.

JON Well, that's absolutely true.  It's incomprehensible the same way the first attempt at fixing this was as well.  One test will be how many show up on the forecourt of Parliament on Tuesday as a sign of Maori discontentment with this new arrangement?

MICHAEL Don't encourage them, Jon.

JON No, no.

PAUL Has this damaged the Maori Party with Maori?

JON  I& Well, that's going to be tested pretty damn soon at the election.  I think the wider problem for the Maori Party is less to do with foreshore and seabed than actually the actual economic conditions of the people that vote for it versus the sort of symbols that they can offer them, like the foreshore and seabed.

VICKI It's actually quite strange - there's obviously a hierarchy of needs, because I'm a political junkie, so I love politics.  So normally I would, sort of, have opinions on all these things.  At the moment, it's sort of, like, 'Can you drink your water? Does the sewerage work?'  It's quite strange.

MICHAEL You're operating at a higher level, Vicki.

PAUL Vicki, I sense-

VICKI It's here.

JON A click takes care of a lot of the noise, right?

PAUL I've been saying this for a couple of days.  I sensed from talking to people in Christchurch - I was there three days this week, Vicki - I sense people are so tired.

VICKI  People are very tired, and I think they're done extraordinary things.  And the thing that I feel about Christchurch is actually the city is the people; it's not the buildings.  The buildings will be gone, but the people are the city, and they've very much shown that.  They have been extraordinary.  They have been extraordinarily kind and wonderful, and so I have total confidence that the city will rebuild and will be something absolutely fantastic.

MICHAEL And New Zealand has been extremely kind and generous to Canterbury, but it really is - and I don't want to keep repeating this - but it really is time to move on.  It really is time for actions.

VICKI  We all want to move on.

JON And I believe that the government has given itself a chance to do that now that it's finally got through this Rugby World Cup decision, which frankly could've been made two and a half weeks ago.

PAUL  Which the people of Christchurch took extremely graciously.

JON  Of course.

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