Lianne Dalziel led Christchurch through the post-quakes rebuild, the Port Hills fires, flooding and the March 15 terror attack. As her nine-year mayoralty comes to an end, Tina Law asks what she sees as her legacy.
Lianne Dalziel has been counting down the days to the end of her tenure for months now.
Ask her why and she will say it is because there is so much to tick off before October 8.
That might be true, but there is also a strong sense she is looking forward to that day.
Nine years is a long time to have the weight of a city on your shoulders, especially when you throw in a gaping $400 million hole in the budget left by the former council as a welcoming gift, and then add floods, a wildfire, a terror attack and a pandemic into the mix.
And that is before you take into account the growing politicisation of the council this term, something that has visibly frustrated Dalziel.
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Come Monday, October 10, Dalziel will no longer be mayor of Christchurch – a role she says has been an absolute privilege to hold.
She will assume the mantle of “former mayor” and intends to take some time to figure out life after a job that has been all-consuming.
Talking from her central Christchurch apartment, Dalziel says she is looking forward to having the time to reconnect with friends.
“Obviously my life hasn’t been my own, and it hasn’t been easy to be the best friend that I should have been.”
Having a “little bit of me time” is also at the top of her list of priorities, along with being able to do things on the spur of the moment.
“Having a little bit more control over what I do, when I do it, how I do it, and why I do it, and not having to answer questions from friendly journalists about why I’m doing anything.”
Dalziel has been invited to a wedding in Ireland next year. If she was still mayor she would probably have had to send her apologies.
“I have never been to Ireland before in my life, so it will be great. I’ve said I’ll be there.”
Dalziel’s decision to step down marks the end of a long career in politics. Prior to the mayoralty she served 23 years in Parliament, including 12 years as Christchurch East MP.
She does not have any post-politics jobs lined up at this point, but has been appointed an honorary adviser to the Asia NZ Foundation and is patron of the Aranui Community Trust, to which her late husband, Rob Davidson, devoted the last 20 years of his life.
“I really want to focus the next part of my life on things that I’m passionate about and deeply interested in.”
While she is not in any rush to pick up more work, she says she has to keep reminding people that at 62 she is not old enough to retire yet.
“I am still some time away from being 65, but I have never considered that to be a retirement age.
“When I think of some of the people I have known over the years, they have done some of their best work in their early 70s.”
Dalziel says she wants to take the time to reflect on a few things and to “think optimistically about the future”.
“I need a break.”
She is also having to adjust to life without her husband of almost 20 years. Davidson died in August 2020, after having prostate cancer.
Davidson was Dalziel’s “soulmate” and she has spoken previously about how he inspired her. His death, almost a year into her third term, was pivotal in her decision not to stand for a fourth.
When she announced her intention in July last year, she said she could not face running an election campaign without him.
“I have run every campaign for many years with Rob at my side. I just couldn’t imagine going through a campaign without him. I couldn’t go through it.”
She has missed having someone in her corner who is unconditionally supportive. Davidson was Dalziel’s biggest supporter and advocate, and she admits not having him here is hard.
“He helped me withstand the slings and arrows, as they say.”
Dalziel has dealt with a lot of nasty social media commentary over the years. When Davidson saw her getting distressed about this, he simply told her to stop reading the messages, so she did.
She then applied a strict separation between her personal Facebook page and her public one, which she maintains to this day.
“I block anyone who I don’t want to hear from, and I don’t go on websites where I know people are going to comment on me.”
She even had someone leaving anonymous notes in her letterbox.
“When I found out who it was and let certain people know I knew, it stopped.”
Davidson was not afraid to call people out on their behaviour towards his wife, and Dalziel says he would get frustrated with her for being nice to people who had treated her badly.
Committed to Christchurch
Dalziel’s dedication to Christchurch, a city where she grew up, cannot be faulted. A quick look at her diary reveals there are far more meetings and community events listed than days in the week.
A former lawyer, she is well-read and always appears to have an extremely good grasp of even the most complex of topics.
Go to any council meeting, and it is clear she is always knowledgable about the topics in front of her.
Despite her political background, Dalziel has always tried to stay as politically neutral as possible when it comes to her local government role, always running for mayor as an independent candidate.
“I always thought in the role of mayor I have to work with everyone, and that is why I have stayed out of the politics as much as I can.”
She is doing that right to the end of her term. Even though she admits to supporting a mayoral candidate, she refuses to say which one.
“I play with a straight bat. I always have and I always will.” Then she adds: “For the next few weeks”.
This term has been marked by councillors playing ongoing politics, and Dalziel has struggled to rein some in to present a united front.
She says councillors have ended up undermining confidence in the council, and don’t seem to care about the impact of that on the institution.
“There are a lot of really good people that work for the council who work really hard, and they are undermined by councillors who for their own political agendas want to run a counter line.”
Chaos in the early days
Dalziel’s introduction to the role nine years ago was one she could never have predicted.
Within weeks of getting her feet under the table she discovered the previous council had left a $400m hole in the budget, disguised as savings that needed to be found.
That gap soon grew to almost $1 billion, once earthquake rebuild commitments were taken into account.
The chief executive at the time, Tony Marryatt, was on “gardening leave” after resigning a month before the election. The chief financial officer had also left and was about to be replaced.
But Dalziel says uncovering the massive gap in the finances was actually her second shock of the term.
The first was when she discovered the terms of the cost-sharing agreement (CSA), the document that laid out the council’s and government’s funding obligations for the anchor projects and repairing earthquake-damaged infrastructure.
Dalziel says she will always remember sitting in the council chamber, with councillors and lawyers, about a month into the role, a copy of the CSA in front of them.
“We were all sitting there quietly reading them and Vicki (Buck, Dalziel’s deputy at the time) got to the appendix quicker than anyone else. She started saying, ‘Tell me this is not true, tell me that we have not agreed as a council to meet our obligations of this agreement regardless of the insurance settlement’.”
It was true.
“I was thinking, ‘This is crazy’. It’s crazy, and how could the public not be told this?”
The appendices were signed off by Marryatt, before he left, and the government-appointed rebuild boss, Warwick Isaacs. It did not go through councillors.
Dalziel maintains that Marryatt stepped well outside the boundaries of a chief executive’s role when he signed off such undertakings on behalf of the council.
“It’s just wrong on so many levels.”
It ended up taking another two years before the council settled its earthquake insurance claim for above-ground assets. It received only $635m. The council had lodged claims worth $920m, yet that did not cover all the damage that occurred, because the council was woefully underinsured.
It soon became patently obvious the government and Treasury wanted the council to sell its assets to pay for its share of the city’s recovery.
This led to years of debate over asset sales and ended with a failed attempt to sell maintenance company City Care.
No strategic assets were sold, and the council instructed its investment company to release capital without selling the city’s family silver.
Dalziel credits former councillor Raf Manji for helping her negotiate these times, and says she will be forever grateful to him. She also thanks Buck for returning to local politics to be at her side. Buck was mayor from 1989 until 1998. She then served on Dalziel’s council as deputy mayor from 2013 to 2016, and as a councillor until 2019.
Despite her thoughts on the cost-sharing agreement, Dalziel says she felt the council had an obligation to deliver its side of the agreement, given Marryatt’s earlier commitment.
But the council did not have the money to honour the deal. That is why it put off the stadium funding until 2022/23 to 2024/25.
“I don’t care what the former (earthquake recovery) minister Gerry Brownlee says about this, the truth is we were left high and dry. We did not have the funding to put our share on the budget.”
It was not until 2018 that the Labour-led government confirmed it would contribute $220m to the stadium.
While Brownlee and Dalziel have clashed over the years, Dalziel remains professional when asked what she really thinks of him.
She says he had good intentions and always wanted to do the right thing as the city’s earthquake recovery minister, but had a blind spot.
“As a local MP he wanted to see our city have these incredible assets that are way more spectacular than a city our size could ever justify.”
The scale of assets, including the metro sports centre, stadium, and convention centre were more than a city the size of Christchurch could afford, she says.
“His intentions were good, but it’s really important that people take a deep breath and a helicopter view before decisions are made.”
When asked what it was like to work with Brownlee, Dalziel hesitates and struggles to answer. When pressed about whether she would have a drink with him, she says “yeah”.
“I do not dislike him as a person.
“I have never personalised this. I have felt others have personalised things to me. I have always acted in the best interests as I have seen them.”
One fundamental mistake Brownlee made, according to Dalziel, was setting up an earthquake recovery authority as a government department answerable to him, instead of a collaborative venture, accountable to the people of Christchurch.
One of Dalziel’s biggest frustrations is reserved for the government – of both colours, she adds.
She says she remains bewildered about why central government does not see councils as allies and partners.
“Central government could achieve a lot more by working in partnership with local government, and yet we are the last to find out anything.”
To illustrate her view, she points out that the Government negotiated controversial housing intensification conditions with the National Party, but did not speak to councils about it.
“We found out when they were announcing it.”
While Dalziel has been a capable and steady force as mayor, there have been some missteps and controversies along the way.
Most recently she came under criticism for having her photograph taken with controversial Destiny Church pastor Derek Tait during a meeting at which council staff waived a $50,000 bill for costs it incurred during anti-Government protests organised by Tait.
The council was strongly criticised for backing down.
Dalziel dismisses the photo controversy by saying “we all make mistakes”.
Then there were the allegations of wrongdoing related to her election donations in 2019.
She allegedly failed to identify donors who made significant contributions to her campaign for re-election that October.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigated and in 2020 cleared her, saying it had not found any evidence of criminal conduct by Dalziel.
In March 2019, Dalziel also came under public scrutiny when it was revealed that law firm Davidson Legal, run by her husband, was representing water bottling firm Cloud Ocean Water and offered to use personal contacts to lobby politicians.
Dalziel says neither she nor her husband ever had any interest in Cloud Ocean or any other water bottling plant. Davidson Legal was offering employment advice to the company, that was all.
She says at that time it was “carte blanche for people to write the most disrespectful things” about her husband, which she found “intolerable”.
“I have been on the receiving end of it, with people personalising things and essentially defaming my character when I have never ever had an interest in it.”
One of the darkest days in her time as mayor was the terror attack at two Christchurch mosques on March 15, 2019, which left 51 people dead and dozens more injured.
“I still find it hard to believe that it happened. I get tearful when I think of it.”
But it is the city’s response to the atrocity, and the goodness, kindness and forgiveness expressed by the community, that she will remember and hold close.
“To me, it is the response that I will always carry with me in my heart, as to the goodness of humanity, and that is what I will treasure.”
More than three years on, residents’ satisfaction with the council is at a 15-year low, with just 42% surveyed earlier this year saying they were satisfied with its performance.
Dalziel says people need to accept it has been an incredibly challenging time, and there has been a lot of undermining of the council – including by sitting councillors.
People also still blame the council for chlorine being in the water, but it is the Government that kept changing the rules, she says.
The city’s water has been chlorinated since March 2018 and the council must now apply for and be granted an exemption by new water regulator Taumata Arowai before it can fully remove the chlorine.
Dalziel says she would have liked the city to gain that exemption before the end of her mayoralty, but that is not to be.
The council plans to make an application in November.
Defining a legacy
Dalziel struggles to answer what she thinks her legacy will be.
Her instant response is surprising, and somewhat sad.
“Nothing,” she says.
“I grew up in the Catholic church, you know. Guilt is my friend, and I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome, so [I feel]I shouldn’t have even had the role. I’m leaving before anyone finds out.”
It’s hard to know if she is kidding or not, but she appears to be serious.
She has another think and comes up with an answer: the ability to build relationships.
Dalziel says she has invested a lot of energy in relationships, regionally, nationally and internationally.
“I think that these relationships stand us in good stead for the future.”
This reporter has seen first-hand just how skilled she is at building these relationships and the lengths she will go to.
During a trip to China seven years ago, where Dalziel was leading a 35-strong business delegation, she got up at a welcome dinner and sang two Chinese songs in Mandarin.
Karaoke is a popular pastime in China and Dalziel was making an effort to fit in with the culture.
Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel sings a Chinese love song with Gansu Provincial Department of Culture director general Sun Wei (CRCT) during a banquet to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Christchurch and Gansu in Lanzhou in 2015.
At the time she said it was also about being remembered. One leader from Gansu province told her he was never going to forget her singing. Another said she sang the song better than most Chinese people could.
“People in positions of significance in any country meet people all the time, but what makes you remember someone? They are going to remember something that’s a little bit different,” she said in 2015.
Dalziel’s council will also be remembered for pushing through the controversial $301m cycleway programme, and she hopes it will be finished under the next council.
“We need to really seriously think about the high number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. We need to make sure there is genuine choice.”
One thing she would have liked to see happen more during her time was communities being given more responsibility for their own facilities.
She uses the examples of the Governors Bay Jetty Trust, which is rebuilding the jetty after buying it from the council for $1. She also mentions the South Brighton Community Hub, which turned an abandoned and earthquake-damaged church into a well-used community centre.
“This is my dream come true. I would have loved to see more of that – communities owning their own future by owning their own assets.”
As her tenure comes to an end, Dalziel says she will never forget the incredible privilege it has been to stand up and say, “I’m the mayor of Christchurch”.
“I’ve been able to provide people with reassurance in difficult times. I’ve been able to create an aura of optimism even when things looked pretty bleak.”
She also remains confident about the city’s future.
“I said this at the beginning, and I’ll say this at the end, I remain incredibly optimistic for our city. I still think this is the best city in our country and its prospects are better than anywhere else.”