OPINION: Sutton still positive .. sort of

OPINION: Sutton still positive .. sort of

 

CERA boss Roger Sutton remains eternally optimistic - he has no other choice. Following the earthquakes, he was seen as one of only a handful of genuine Christchurch leaders ready to get stuck in and help rebuild Christchurch. He took an enormous pay cut to take up the city’s top job. No one could have ever imagined just how bad it would get, not least Roger. On Monday night on my CTV show LYNCHED, Sutton was the guest. I was looking forward to our interview, but was concerned it could turn out to be pointless. After all his boss, Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, runs the city. Still, to his credit, Sutton fronted and remained composed as I asked him about the rebuild. Did he agree with the $500 million figure provided by the council as the shortfall for infrastructure? “I actually work very happily with council leaders on these issues.” Translation: the council is probably right, I’m just the middle man. His answers were well crafted. You could almost see him thinking, “don’t piss off Brownlee”. He says, “there’s no disagreement between us (CERA) and the council, and the shortfall amount will change depending on how much money the council gets from insurance payouts.” He’s right of course.

A surprising revelation came when I asked him about CERA wrapping up at the end of 2016, as widely reported and expected. Forget it. Sutton says CERA’s extraordinary powers finish then, but the organisation will continue because of the need to “oversee the anchor projects”. This won’t go down with many inside council, who have been hoping the organisation would cease.

The Government’s keen to maintain control of the central city. That’s concerning given what’s happened, or perhaps what hasn’t, under state control. Even more concerning is that CERA continues to increase its staff levels. The recent budget announcement of an additional $50 million for ‘operational’ expenses crystallises the fact that the Government is keen to keep a firm grip on what’s left of the city. But why?

Sutton, naturally, tows the Government line when talking about the need for CERA. “After the earthquake there was an awful lot to do to get the city back on its feet, and the Government decided to get the city back on its feet. It needed to come in and kick start things with some gutsy anchor projects.” It’s well-intended, but so far the visionary blueprint has failed to materialise. But that was always going to be the case given the lack of economic data. Sutton’s reply on the blueprint seemed robotic. He lacked the enthusiastic spark he’d become known for.

It hasn’t all be bad news for CERA. Sutton highlighted River Park as a great success and as a way to attract investment to the city. I love the Avon, but I don’t think beautifying will generate economic stimulus. When I asked Sutton on whether he could make major decisions, he said the trouble is “most decisions are really, really big,” and conceded that working in Government means the Minister has the final say. While CERA’s functions appears foggy, its public relations unit is a standout performer within the organisation.

In March, a number of overly ‘positive’ articles appeared in The New Zealand Herald. One Auckland journalist spoke to Brownlee with the article being accompanied by a CERA sourced photo, several out of town economic experts wrote glowing accounts of the city’s financial future. Perhaps these articles were produced to inspire potential investors to send cash our way - not a silly idea. But several council members were flabbergasted at these articles which they described as ‘advertorials ’for CERA.

Despite all this, Roger Sutton remains upbeat. I couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty when he said my questions were better suited to a politician. Then again, he earns a lot more money than a politician.