Blog Archives: Barnaby Bennett

Songs for Christchurch Artist Prints

The amazing artist John Baker has produced the following drawings to raise funds for the Songs For Christchurch project we are working on.

We are offering one-off prints of these drawings, signed by the artists, and lovingly drawn and donated by John.

For sale, only for the next 5 days.

Please have a look at them here, then head to the pledgeme page to buy any of them:

The prints are a4 sized, signed by the Artist John Baker and the featured Musician.

1. Amanda Palmer. $200.

2.  Tim Finn $200.

3.  Mara TK (Electric Wire Hustle) $150

4.  Flight of the Conchords: $500

5. Ladi6: $200

6. Dallas (Fat Freddys Drop) $200

7. Adam McGrath (The Eastern): $100

8. James Coyle (Nudge) $100

9. Tim Prebble (Spartacus R) $100

10. Lisa Tomlins (Fly My Pretties) $150

11. Paul Hoskin (The Yoots) $100

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The Art of War – An Introduction to Austere Governance.

The article below is a very indepth response to a freerange post from last year, written by Beale Stainton on his site The Bealian.   Beale has kindly given us permission to re-post his article here.     To quickly summarise: I wrote an article about  the philosophical/economic difference between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ where the left sees full employment and its consequences as the desirable goal, and the right sees low inflation and its consequences as the desirable goal.   I suggest that the right accepts that a certain amount of unemployment is good for the country, in that it keeps inflation down, but then it becomes nasty when it attacks the unemployed for being lazy, a drain on the country, etc, when in fact they are, in this model, making a sacrifice that we all gain from.    Beale has responded with a very informative description of the economic demands on government and what they are and aren’t able to control, suggesting that employment is largely outside of the scope of the government to control.


The following analysis is in response to an article published by the good folk over at Project Freerange entitled “The nastiness of the mainstream right politics”, which you can read by clicking on the link here.

This article argues that there is a fundamental difference between economic policy of the left and that of the right in New Zealand politics.  A press release of Michael Cullen’s policy back in 2002 aimed at, among other things, the creation of full employment.  The 2008 press release given by Bill English on the other hand does not make a mention to employment at all.  This is a very salient observation that has been made.  The Freerange article goes on to then link the employment negligent economic policy of the right with inflation.  It is argued that right wing policy aims to keep unemployment high for the purposes of controlling inflation.  Now we all know that Government policy is conducted with the purposes of engineering some greater master plan.  The question that this raises is how far would a particular government be willing to go in order to control inflation?  Would they purposefully keep employment rates down?

Now, I have written this article for two reasons.  The first reason is, because I wanted to return a constructive and critical response to Barnaby at Freerange.  The second reason is to show the world what the insides of a governments books look like.  In regard to the first reason I will attempt to build upon Barnaby’s valiant attempt at an economic argument.  It does indeed appear as if employment levels could be engineered in order to control inflation.

The current National Government has been, for the most part, conducting itself in a fashion, which it can be argued, goes completely against the unwritten rules of civilized public relations.  They have, through their overly assertive reforms, taken very few prisoners, if any.  They have, time and again, come up against mass public opposition to their policies.  They have expressed a certain culture of authoritarian disregard so to speak, perhaps an arrogance even.  In the opinion of many in our country they have quite simply been rubbing people up the wrong way.  They perhaps have contributed to further backlash by the mere fact that their leader gained the nick name “Smiling Assassin” while employed as head of foreign exchange dealings at international banking powerhouse Merrill Lynch.  He earned this nick name, because he continued to smile while making some hundreds of redundancies in the wake of the 1998 Russian Financial Crisis.  It is no wonder that there is a certain air of mistrust and disillusionment coming from various parts of New Zealand society.

For this reason I hope I can lay down a few reasons as to why such policy has been implemented.  I would like to start off by saying that, in my opinion, this is not so much a matter of left or right wing.  For example, the former Minister of Finance under the Helen Clark Government, Michael Cullen has a past life and so does Helen Clark herself for that matter.  If you go back in history to the Labour Government of 1984-1990.  You will find an up and coming Cullen in the position of Associate Finance Minister plotting away in the shadow of Roger Douglas, the prophet of the New Right.  So it can be argued that Michael Cullen himself contributed to the genesis of the policies of the New Right in this country.  In my opinion Government policy is, for the most part, reactive rather than proactive.  Muldoon’s National Government was forced into extreme national protectionism and regulation by way of reaction.  Lange’s Labour Government was then forced to go extremely open and in pursuit of the free market by way of reaction.  Helen Clark’s Labour Government, post 2001, was the lucky one, because it got to react to good economic times.  It was lucky, because as a result of the success generated on the international free market it was able to oversee a speculative rise in property, financing and construction, which like Spain and Ireland brought a lot of money and jobs into the economy.  2001 was also the defining year for New Zealand in that China joined the WTO and Fonterra was established.  If you want to get a grip on why things are so in New Zealand at the moment then we only need to take a look at Spain, Ireland and many other parts of the world that too heavily depended on property, finance and construction to fuel their economies.

Anyway let’s move on.

The next point I would like to make is that there is not much a Government can do to keep unemployment low.  It can, to a certain degree, in the case where a Government employs a lot of people.  The Government would only need to lay off a required number of civil servants in order to meet a certain measure for the purpose of meeting a particular target percentage of unemployment.  The National Government has in deed been doing this, however this has been done for other reasons, which I will get to later.  In the private sector, demand for labour is unregulated.  When the private sector needs labour it simply takes it.  This is what happens when an economy is picking up.  When it is slower then the private sector doesn’t so much demand labour and so unemployment increases.  As I’ve stated.  This is an unregulated market Government cannot interfere with.

Another point of criticism I would like to make is in regard to the correlation between employment and inflation.  The man who officially argued the connection was the New Zealand born economist William Phillips.  He has, as a result, left to the world the “Phillips curve”, which states that when unemployment is high then inflation is low and vice versa.  This is evidently so, because as unemployment increases the supply of money decreases and therefore producers will be forced to put their prices down.  However Phillips argument was based only on research done in the United Kingdom between 1861-1957.  It has been apparently disproved by the many economies which have both high inflation and high employment.  However I would only take the rebuttal theories with a grain of salt, simply because they are argued first and foremost by Milton Friedman.  I’ve looked at Friedman’sstagflation theory and to be honest with you all, it stinks.  It stinks of the modern financial system and perspective engineering.

Friedman’s stagnation theory argues that when unemployment lowers this triggers a rise in wages and a rise in wages eventually means that unemployment will return to its previously higher level, so far correct, but then he goes onto say that inflation will remain high.  This is how the Phillips curve was disproved and forced to give way to Friedman’s theory ofstagflation.  Philips argued that inflation would eventually reduce too.  Now in pure theory, I’m going to go with Philips on this one, because in a self-regulating market, producers would bring their prices down to match the reduced supply of money in a high unemployment economy.  However we no longer live in a self-regulating market.  We now live in a market regulated by financial systems and the domination of credit.  If cross border credit didn’t exist then the pure theory of Phillips would prevail, but in a world where cross border credit is the main regulating force behind an economy then it is sadly Friedman’s version of events that will prevail.  What I have just discovered is actually quite brilliant and deserves to be written into a doctorate.  Anyway, I’ll come back to that in my own time.  We need to move on.

So there we have it Barnaby and others.  I have successfully altered the direction I was sending this article.  Friedman, being the worshiped economist that he is, was meant to be right and then I was going to proceed to make my final points.  However I’ve just proven him wrong and as a consequence, my further points wrong.  Or have I?  Perhaps I am still on the right track.

Let me just state that the reason unemployment is high at the moment is not so much due to a political engineering campaign by the National Government to keep inflation steady.  Employment is high, because there is a whole bunch of debt to pay off.  This situation has in effect squeezed the life blood out of the economy.  The situation is complicated, but I will try my best to explain it.

Government is not something that renews itself every three years.  It is an ongoing entity.  All that changes is the party or the leadership voted in to manage and direct it.  Debts and surpluses incurred by one government will be inherited by the next and so on.  In the same way, long term debts incurred now, let’s say in the form of a 10 or 30-year bond issuance, will be paid off by future tax payers in 10 or 30 years time and not the current ones.  The current taxpayers reap the benefits, so to speak, for what their children will be forced to pay off.

Now let’s look closer at Government.  It is such a beautiful monstrosity.  Government has revenues and costs just like any enterprise, whether that be yourself, the corner dairy, Telecom or whatever.  As such, just like most other enterprises, it needs to prepare a number of statements and plans.  Let’s start with the statements.  The first statement is the “Statement of Financial Performance”.  This statement records its revenue against its expenses.  The next statement is the “Statement of Financial Position”.  This one records what it owns against what it owes.  The third is the “Cash Flow Statement”.  Now this one is fairly self evident.  Now the important thing to note is that what appears in these statements, generally becomes the basis for preparing the next very important document.  That next document is the “Budget”.

It is likely that bad news in the 3 above statements over a period of previous years will most likely contribute to the publication of a bad news “Budget” for subsequent years.  The “Budget” then gets translated into policy and policy gets translated into execution, which is the responsibility of the party in power.  So hopefully the chain is now obvious.  Bad news in the statements, will lead to bad news in the budget and subsequent bad news in policy and as a result, in execution.

Now, as a result of the sudden contraction in the global economy, the private sector took one hell of a hit.  Let’s not go into too much detail.  It was a bust.  A bust is a cataclysmic event and everyone gets hurt.  Even Berkshire Hathaway stocks went from $150,000 a pop down to $60,000.  A raging private sector is fueled by a need for two things.  It needs labour and capital, the two main inputs of business.  The banks provide the capital and the people the labour.  As such, capital and debt markets boom and unemployment drops.  As a result Governments will receive more taxes and spend less and Reserve Banks will lift interest rates to keep inflation steady.  Up until 2008 the NZ Reserve Bank had the OCR, the primary interest rate of the economy, set at above 8%.  At the moment it is down at 2.5%.

When the private sector is booming there is money left, right and centre, which means prices will go up causing inflation.  Reserve Banks react by lifting interest rates so that people get enticed by the returns to be made simply by putting their money into Government securities.  This takes money out of the economy and keeps inflation steady. When economies are stagnant like now then Reserve Banks react by lowering interest rates making it cheaper to borrow and thus causing an inflationary effect of sorts.  However this gets countered by the lack of economic activity and therefore money.  What I want to describe to you in the boom picture, which lasted from 2001-2008 is how easy the Labour Government had it for that time period.  There was absolutely no need for austere measures.  Their Reserve Bank needed to do the opposite and reduce the amount of money. They were lucky the private sector was booming, takes the weight off their shoulders.

Since 2008 and the arrival of National, Government experienced a reversal.  Their revenues decreased and their expenses increased.  This was a direct result of the bust, not the arrival of National in and of itself.  Remember this is the same Government as always, just under new management.  Not only did tax revenue fall, but the taxpayer had to bail out the broken economy putting further pressure on spending.  As a result the weight got put on the shoulders of Government.  In the performance statement of 2009 there was a surplus between revenue and expenditure, but an overall decrease from 2008.  In the performance statement of 2010 there was a deficit of 2.1%, by 2011 a deficit of 3.3% and this year a deficit of 8.4%.  The large deficit recorded this year was mostly a result of an increase in the “insurance expense” column between 2010 and 2011 of some $8 billion.  It’s all recorded in the books.

Now what these widening deficits do is they force Governments to draw up budgets and policies which will cause a good deal of pain and frustration when they are executed.  Think about it.  If you record a 2.1% deficit this means that the budget for next year is going to come down to either one or two options.  The first is to adjust income or expenses.  The second is to put down a bond issuance and borrow in order to cover your costs for the next year.  The second move means that you need to borrow now, but as a result, future tax payers will be hit with the bill.  Not only that but your credit rating could be effected, which means that the cost of borrowing money next year will go up.  This means that you will hit the pockets of future tax payers even more.  Borrowing more also means that you are creating more expenses.  These expenses get recorded in the books as “interest expenses”.  The more debt you take on the higher this expense column climbs.  This will likely increase your deficit even more.  As a result it is best to resort to the first option than to resort to the second one.  There is a third option.  You can sell some assets, but we go into that.

So the first option is what governments will resort to.  They can increase revenue by hiking tax rates.  However this move is further bad news for the economy.  What they should do is increase taxes on mega profits, however this move causes big business to kick up a fuss and threaten the government with relocation to another part of the world or some other form of rebellion.  This eventuates into further bad news for the economy.  What the current government is doing is they are looking at other sources of national income such as the taxes and royalties generated by mining operations and other economic operations in the long run.  On the other side there needs to be a reduction in spending.  This is evident by the reduction in staff in the public services, a lowering of the teacher to student ratio and a tightening up of welfare services.  For the record, social security and welfare currently costs the Government $2 billion a month.  Education and Healthcare both come in at $1 billion a month, only half that of welfare, but in times like this the welfare is needed.  These three cost centres out shadow all others.  It’s all there in the books.

So I hope I have explained how increasing deficits and spiraling debt forces reactive governance.  It is usually the Finance Minister, who is also the automatic Treasurer, who holds the purse strings.  It is their responsibility, in their role, to create a long term plan, in this case a three year or five year one, to get the books back into surplus.  In order to do this the Treasurer needs to sit in his office, study the statements and a whole host of other reported information from his departments and as a result draw up, to begin with, a budget. The budget will most likely be produced, in a time of deficit, so as to reduce expenses and suggest increases in revenue sources, without needing to borrow too much.  The budget is then communicated through to ministers.  They will be told that they need to cut spending by such an amount.  The minister will then set about turning the expenditure reductions into policy.  The policy will be communicated to the public and, in a time of forced fiscal austerity, they will not react too kindly to it.  The appropriate ministries will then set about executing policy.

Budgets are limited, but relatively precise in that they only look upon the next financial year.  The next level of planning is what is known as the strategy.  Strategies look over periods of three to five to ten years.  They cannot be as precise in their financial estimations and therefore provide only rough projections of future Government revenues and expenditures over, let’s say, a five or ten year period.  They provide direction more than anything.  For example, the Petroleum Action Strategy of 2009 estimated that the mining of New Zealand’s minerals reserves could turn a $3 billion per annum industry into a $30 billion per annum industry by the year 2025.  As such Government would be set to earn from both taxes and royalties and the economy will be boosted.  Now we know that these figures are such an extreme estimation, but they at least provide guidelines to get the ball rolling, develop policy and debate the costs.

The sale of state assets is also set out in a strategy as opposed to budget.  The financial return on the assets will be estimated from, for the most part, an uncertain future.  The estimated return for example might come to $10 billion over four years.  This $10 billion will then be calculated into an estimated budget and performance scenario of Government four years into the future.  The Treasurer will then make a rough estimation and let’s say he concludes that Government will be back in surplus in four years time provided all policies and strategies have been successfully executed.  He will no doubt in include margins of risk to strengthen the estimations.  If the figures add up then Government will go about putting plans into action and when the chain is a result of bad news inputs, like they are at the moment, then there will be bad news outputs.

So there we go everyone.  This is how austere governance works.  Perhaps, after writing this, I now feel quite austere myself.  My main argument is that austere measurements, just like liberal ones are a result of reaction to a given economic environment.  It does not matter if you have a Labour or National party in power.  The boom of 2001-2008 allowed Labour to be liberal, but the dire economic situation of 1984 forced the then Labour Government to be austere and same with Muldoon.  My other argument is that keeping unemployment low is not so much a tool Governments use to control inflation.  If the private sector needs labour then there is nothing Government can do to stop this.  Labour is controlled by the market.  High unemployment usually means that the private sector is not demanding so much or that Government itself is forced to cut back on spending to reduce its deficits.  On the other hand there is a correlation between unemployment and inflation, which Friedman denied, but as I showed you guys I suspect Friedman’s theory of being subject to a regulating factor and that is cross border credit.  Therefore his theory of stagflation should not qualify as pure economics and the Phillips curve should be given its rightful position at the top again.  My final argument is that austere and unpopular policies and executive consequence are the result of bad finances caused by external economic conditions.  This is evident by the way continuing deficits, as a result of a bust, causes certain reactive policies to bring the books back into the black without having to borrow too much.

That is where I will finish.  Barnaby I certainly enjoyed reading your article and, as has been obviously displayed, it did make me think a great deal in order to give you a response you can seriously consider, warts and all, not the pretty picture anyone wants.  Monetary and fiscal policy, when the going gets tough, is not a place for the faint of heart.  However I will leave with a final thought.  What I have given you is my honest description as a result of my education and research.  Austere governance is austere governance.  There are no two ways about that.  It has its place and its time.  The power and influence of fiat money or credit creation on the other hand is a whole completely different set of bad news.  This system likes to pretend that it acts in the interests of deregulating economies, but the truth of the matter is that it has itself and is fast becoming, the ultimate and central power of regulation.  In this sense it is now the state being regulated.  There has been a fundamental shift in power and dominance.  Think about that for a second and the consequences it spells for the future of economy and government.  They will both be locked into cycles of boom, fueled by credit creation and cycles of bust, fueled by credit crunches, which Governments will be forced into taking the rap for.  It is the simple system of credit, which is what we need to look out for.  This is a game John Key and the rest of us are all pawns in.  It is a system people like Friedman have argued into the academic literature as being the way it is.  This is something I can’t quite grasp without speculating and making up conspiracy theories.  So for the moment it is best we keep silent about it and only think on it.

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Freerange Cooperative?

Dear Freerangers!

Things have been looking up and up for Freerange. We have now released 4 journals (with two more to come this year!), around 6 books, and have a functional and awesome website with 2 new articles a week appearing on it.

We have around 2000 people on our contact list, and around 2000 people a month visit the website.

We don’t really make any money, but do cover our costs and are about to give $2000 to Architecture for Humanity to do a project in Christchurch from the sales of Chur Chur: Stories from the Christchurch earthquake.   We do have enough funds in stock to continue printing future copies of our Journal as they come out (and hopefully pay myself back soon for the original investment.)

The increased participation and consolidation of Freerange has been massively helped by the ongoing support of folk like Shakey Mo, and Gina Moss and more recently by Nick Sargent, Byron Kinnaird and Jacqui Moyes.   Plus heaps of others that help edit, write, produce, consume the online and printed content.

All this makes me think it might be time to formalise the organisation of Freerange.  So far it has legally just being me operating as a sole trader, and with the informal notion that this is a cooperative.  I’d like to look into setting freerange up as a proper legal cooperative, which would share the ownership and the gains of ownership between us in some way.  There are a number of different types of Cooperative, and it’d be great if any of you were interested in participating in working through how we might do it. is good, or just google around.

The one that jumps out initially is a kind of producer coop where we are join as creative producers (of text, images, design etc) and Freerange is a vehicle for us to spread, sell and disseminate our work to producers (and each other). i don’t think this would significantly change they way we operate now apart from:

  • Making the whole thing more inclusive and transparent,
  • Setting us up as a proper company (we can be a not-for-profit if we want)
  • We could use it to increase the subscription rates if we wanted by making that a mandatory act of being in the cooperative so we pay to join, but all get copies of the journal for that cost.
  • If we do this we can buy a .coop web address.  How funny would be?  Like a chicken coop!

So what does everyone think? any thoughts?


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Another New City Plan for Christchurch

Between the anti-government reflex to hate everything they produce, and the pro-Christchurch desire to support any sense of progress and vision is a more constructive critique of the announcements of the new city plan. This is an attempt to make such a critique, quickly.

 The CCDU documents can be downloaded from here.

In short, it doesn’t seem like enough information to justify 100 days of hard work by a large team of international and national designers and planners. If we accept that everyone was working really hard to achieve this vision, then we have two options, either I’m underestimating what it takes to get to this level of details, or there is a lot of decision making that has taken place that is not in this plan. I’ve seen small teams of architecture or design students produce as much as this in 100 days before, so I’m led to believe the gritty detail in this has been left out on purpose. I’m also inclined to belief that some big and controversial decisions have been made and not announced today to protect the good news of the delivery. The absence of any announcement on the town hall is characteristic of this. It doesn’t appear in the plan, and rumour suggests that a decision has been made for it to be demolished, yet it makes only some vague comment about it, with no information about land quality, cost, or decision making criteria.

The announcement today was always as much about how well it was delivered as it was about the content. I don’t mean this to dismiss the huge importance of the contents of the plan for shaping the future of Christchurch, but the dominant processes that constitute the rebuild are controlled by CERA via Gerry Brownlee and cabinet and must always be read first and foremost as political decisions. As such, today was the governments bold attempt to regain control of the rebuild narrative in Christchurch and shatter the unsettling sense of crisis establishing itself here. A good delivery would create a sense of vision and progress that would both appease the increasingly restless population, and bring certainty to investors and businesses. A bad delivery would see the crisis evolve and spread, something this government can’t afford on a national level. How funny as it that the Waitangi tribunal decision on water rights came out at the perfect moment to disturb the attempt at relentless good news of the the New Christchurch Plan. The government knew the delivery of this plan is everything which is why we saw the three salesmen, Gerry Brownlee, John Key, and Bob Parker out in force today.

For me the plan largely produces a sense of relieve in that it broadly follows the logic of the council plan released late last year, but with a a more aggressive approach to key sites. It announces nine key precincts where government or council money will lead building. Look at the plan here for details of these but they include large areas for sports, cultural, arts, justice precincts.

Like much of the todays announcement these seem like a good idea in principle, but don’t give enough information to verify whether they have been thought through thoroughly. There is no population metrics to test the scale of these versus the need. There is no budget or business case to show if the income generated matches the cost. There is also no clear sense of who might design and build the large areas, or how a process might work to decide this. It is the same firms who did the master plan? Will there be international competitions? Will it be split into smaller jobs? Will it be by design build entities? Is it going to be PPPs or more conventional modes of procurement? Jessica Halliday has noticed the frightening news that the previously announced urban design review panel has being reduced and will now have one representative from the Christchurch City Council, CERA, and Ngai Tahu. Which is just plain strange. This is a city blue print designed with out any urban designers, and an urban design panel with no specific architecture or design expertise.

We have some sense of a master plan for the city now. We do not have:

– Any detail at about existing buildings. Which current buildings get to stay? who decides this? through what process?
– Any costings at all. Sure a stadium is a nice idea, but how much does it cost? How much will it earn each year? etc.
– No real timeline. This plan is at best a ten year plan, and probably closer to twenty, and yet there is little or no indication of which project happen first, which ones are financial priorities?
– Any real sense of the architectural values of the buildings. They have thankfully kept the 7 story limit in most of the city, but we have no sense of scale or material with the projects. The precincts are far too huge, and are likely to become large deadzone for much of the time in the city.
– Any mixed use in the planning. The plan cites best precedent but seems to have dismissed the importance of mixed use in the huge precincts.

I don’t mean this to come across entirely negatively as the basic decisions seem sensible. But this is the barest possible amount of information to produce a vision for the city. I wrote a letter few months ago that criticised this government and its approach to Christchurch for a lack of shared vision and a complete lack of transparency. The announcement today goes someway to establishing a shared vision but does almost nothing to address the astoundingly small amount of information about why and how decisions are being made.

I think the plan contains the seed for a great new city, but it needs install a process to assure that these projects and the plan is able to catch the mistakes that are inevitably made, and to enable the people of this city to gain ownership of it again. While it would be nicer not to read this whole process as a series of political acts, the lack of real information forces us to critique what we can. The increasing sense of crisis across the city has probably been just diverted by the announcements today, but at the same time it enables the focusing of a larger number of smaller acute crisis to develop. This is an good step for the city.

There are many varied battles to continue in Christchurch, the most pressing of which is to get the housing crises moving and to take some responsibility to get people out of the terrible housing conditions at the moment. The plan needs to address a number of other things such as:

-The need to establish a heritage policy for what is left of the CBD.

– It needs to reintroduce the mixed use principles that were in the last city plan, and

– Reconsider the huge scale of the precincts.

– Most importantly CERA needs to establish some proper modes of consultation and communication with the city.

Um, I suppose I should conclude with something.

Of course, my favourite Voltiare quote.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Its ok to make mistakes, lets make sure there are processes in place to catch small mistakes before they become huge ones.


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Ducks (and Architecture) in Christchurch

It closes soon but I encourage anyone with interesting ideas and the time to enter.

It is a peculiar brief that demands some radical creativity to transcend it.    Three of the five goals of the brief are about the promotion of: architecture, architects, the local branch, and the New Zealand Institutes of Architects.  One is for it to be relocatable, and the last for it to be usable by other groups.  Incongruously, the brief asks that the project provide weatherproof and secure space for exhibitions, and that the exhibitions be able to be viewed by the public after hours and without anyone resident.  This is a great design challenge.

In light of the enormously generous projects that have popped up around Christchurch that provide physical and cultural amenity for the city such as neighbourhood water fountains, dance spaces, free cinemas, petanque courts and a new cross-city mini golf course, it seems extraordinary that the primary goal of this building is to promote architecture and NZIA.   We might as well install a giant sign saying THIS IS ARCHITECTURE.

Although, perhaps this is an enlightened challenge to the architects and designers of our times. What is architecture about architecture? Is this possible? Is it is an oxymoron?  What is the function of a building that primary purpose is to promote architecture?

We all know that this city is in desperate need of good architecture, and to develop a culture that promotes and understands the role that design can play in making this an even more beautiful and liveable city.    But I’m not sure if we need architecture that is about architecture.   It reaks of the eighties.    One of the great post-modern texts on architecture called Learning From Las Vegas says there are two types of building.  The first, Decorated Sheds are generic buildings with expensive and expressive signage that communicate its function; think service stations, the warehouse, and even the new gallery in Christchurch. The later is The Duck, which raises the symbolism of what it is to the architecture, at its most literal a duck is building that sells ducks, a giant hot dog that sells hot dogs, a building with a steeple that reaches to the sky is obviously a church, you get the idea.

Should the pavilion be a duck or a decorated shed?  Well to answer that we need to understand its function. What is this building for?  To promote architecture with exhibitions about architecture by architects.  Its all spirals into self-referentiality;  I can’t help but think the first exhibition will just have pictures of the building inside it, will those pictures have little pictures of the pictures that are in the building in the pictures?

Perhaps we should just build a giant duck that acts as a building, and it can sell little bath-sized-duck-buildings.  This surely is what the brief is asking for, this giant duck will once and for all convince the public on the need for good quality architecture.

Has the NZIA  demonstrated an extraordinary inability to connect with reality. Look at all the suffering, people living in garages, extraordinary high flu rates, destroyed heritage buildings, angry red zoned people, a council that has lost its democratic powers, a broke and broken university, a bully with dictatorship powers ruling the city, inefficient and non-communicating layers of government control; eqc, sera, council, and the strange sense that its the Insurance Companies with their $20 billion mountain of cash that is making the calls in this process.  All this and the architects of the country think the most important way to spend $30,000 is to design architecture about architecture.  Its like the organisation that represents architects like to think that architecture isn’t political.

Now, I would enter this competition. You think I’d be the sort of person they’d want to enter this competition.  I’ve been involved in the design and fabrication of complex contemporary pavilions in both Melbourne and Sydney, won design awards in NZ, Australia, and Europe,  worked on the design of temporary builds for the Rio Olympics, and now I’m doing a PHD looking at the emergence of temporary architecture in post-earthquake Christchurch.  But the rules of this competition state you either need to be a member of the local branch of the NZIA or team up with one.  So not only is it an architecture about architecture by the institute of architecture; only people associated with the institute of architecture can enter the competition.  Which is funny given how few of the amazing projects that have arisen since the earthquakes have any architects involved with them.

This is either a remarkably self-serving display by the NZIA, or a move of critical genius designed to facilitate much needed discussion about the role of architecture in the rebuild.  The latter seems unlikely, but then the former is too depressing to contemplate. I don’t know what to believe.

The only thing I have any confidence is that we can, on occasions, do brilliant design, and that there will be some people much less cynical than me who will push their way through this peculiar brief and propose a building that contributes meaningfully to what is happening to Christchurch at the moment.

I also have confidence that the judges will know what this is when they see it.

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Dear Gerry and Roger pt I

[This is an open letter sent to The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, and the Cera CEO, Roger Sutton]

Dear Gerry and Roger,

Re: Red Zone Decisions.

I am writing to express deep concerns about critical aspects of decision-making in Christchurch since the September 2010 earthquake. There are two areas in which your governance is failing. They are both difficult, but history and international precedent tell us they are critical to good governance. The two areas are transparency and vision.

Transparency is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy; it enables people to see why decisions are being made. In one of the most successful and well governed cities in the world, Vancouver, all council and planning meetings are held in public, filmed and archived. Deals between land-owners, councils, and governments are made in public, and are subsequently made in favour of public good.

I accept that decisions like red-zoning properties are not taken lightly, and that the motivation to protect residents in these areas is a noble one.  I also appreciate the incredible amount of detailed engineering expertise that is constantly contributing to our understanding of this very complex situation.

The people who work at Cera are, in my experience, very hard working and act with the utmost care and respect. I can only imagine the emotional toll it must take to announce night after night to communities that their homes and neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.

This is, however a political issue, and the processes which have been created to work through these issues are, in my opinion, deeply troubling. There are much more complex and difficult situations in developing countries where the informal residents, who don’t own land, are accorded more respect and greater legal rights than the residents in the Christchurch’s red zones at the moment.

In its decisions to remove entire neighborhoods, the government has followed a course that has involved no real public or community engagement. Information is not shared with communities until a final decision has been made. For some residents, this vast chasm in communication has extended over a year now.

The decision to red-zone land is a complex one that necessarily draws on knowledge about geotechnical information, land use, property prices, and re-insurability. While there is undeniably a technical aspect to this work, the complete absence of community engagement in the decision-making process is paternal in nature and suggests a deep fear of or disrespect for the citizens who live in these places.

While it is obvious that there are complicated issues surrounding the liability of EQC and private insurers, the government should not permit this complexity to obscure the accountability of its own processes. Indeed, this complexity should encourage transparency of process. The “offer” to buy out houses cannot be presented as such if its refusal entails the withdrawal of both services and insurance. What is really on offer here is a forced removal from the land. The government knows well that the latter would call for  consultation, transparency, and for rights, such as the option of first refusal (if the land is resold at a future date) to be extended to residents. In its present terms, the government is offering a Claytons choice that illustrates cowardice in the face of the incredible bravery shown by the people here in Christchurch over the past 18 months.

We ask that you start to engage with residents before decisions are made. Tell them what is going on. They have lived through the past 18 months, why is there a need to keep information secret from the public? This invites rumours and gossip. There are two types of information at play here; that which is not of the government’s making: the land condition, the engineering reports, people’s insurance contracts etc. We understand that the current government is not to blame for the immense difficulties with these issues. Then there is another type of information which the government is responsible for: the communication, the decisions since the earthquake, the amount of money currently at stake. Acknowledge that people are mature enough to make the distinction between these. Let the sunlight in.

Please consider extending the offer on red-zone land. Five years seems a more appropriate timeframe. If you want to leave now then great take the offer, start afresh in a new house. If however the residents want to know what is happening to the area, if they think there might be a review process, if they are worried their land is going to be a park or a condo, then give people 4 or 5 years to work this out. There is a housing shortage in the city. Why force people out of perfectly good houses for no immediate reason? Time and some sense of stability are the fresh air that people need in Christchurch right now. It is your job to give them this. Not to pressure them into decisions without full knowledge of their situation and in order to conform to timelines that have no apparent logic.

At the TEDx conference in May 2011 one of the speakers talked about Christchurch becoming the place that people in the rest of the world will refer to as exemplary: “let’s do what they did in Christchurch”. Coming only a few months after February, this was a generous comment that recognized the city’s potential to pave a way for others.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing us in this vision. Your relationship with the community is paternal rather than constructive, your timelines are slow and opaque, and your power structures are vague and unarticulated. The unseemly haste to demolish the heritage of the city is at odds with the long political delays in decision making in the red zones, planning, and other areas. The people of Christchurch understand the need to make decisions based on economics and supply of capital. You need to understand that while the heritage of the city does not have a direct financial value, it does have an immense social and cultural worth. It is the government’s role to protect this worth, not expedite its destruction with false excuses of haste and cost.   There are dozens of examples both residential and urban, such as the Avon loop neighbourhood and the Anglican cathedral respectably, where there is no need to make decisions yet, time can be used in our favour.

Slow decision-making is fine and often better if the decisions are careful and people are made aware of the processes and information as to why it is taking time and what may happen. The ponderous decision-making currently emerging from Cera is unacceptable because critical decisions, like housing support for those still homeless one year after the event, are late and ineffective. The country continues to embrace the idea that no one should be left ruined or damaged by the events of the past 18 months. The hundreds of families living in cold garages, the elderly living in housing unfit for humans, the people who are soon to be forced out of perfectly good houses, and the lack of appeal or review process all illustrate your lack of ability, or will, to accomplish this.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing to give people a vision for the future, and by doing so you are extending their suffering and sense of powerlessness.  You made the peculiar decision to separate the planning of the CBD from the rest of the city, asking the City Council to create a plan for this central area, but not the rest of the city/  Through the dark times of last year they created a remarkable process and a visionary plan, that was not without problems, but that did give vision to peoples voices and much needed hope to this city.   You then sat on this plan for endless months, only to finally accept to the vision but reject the process, as if the ends can be separated from the means to achieve it.  Once again transparency was removed and powerful decisions were made behind closed doors with out any sense of logic or honest agenda.  They appointment of professional teams to work on the city offers some hope, but again there is no communication about how they were appointed, what they are doing, how they hope to achieve it, and by what criteria their success will be judged.

Soon after the February 22nd quake extraordinary legislation was passed that gave you power to do what was needed to assure that people were protected in this city. At the time, many legal experts were worried at the scope and breadth of these powers. Dean Knight of Victoria University expressed concern that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, “gives ministers vast and untrammelled power to change laws in the name of earthquake recovery – without adequate checks and balances and that this legislation violates basic principles within our constitution and upsets our democratic infrastructure.” His concerns were echoed by others in the legal community. These are concerns which still need to be voiced.

In an abstracted sense the earthquake legislation was concerning and dangerous, but we held our noses and let the extraordinary legislation pass as a response to the extraordinary times in Christchurch. Now, 12 months later, the practical impact of poorly considered legislation is playing out in Canterbury. The last remaining traces of democracy are being folded into Cera’s reach, as if the problems and delays were being caused by a lack of centralized power. Gerry and Roger, you of all people must understand that with power comes responsibility. You cannot demotivate, disempower, and demolish communities without taking on the responsibility to care for these people. Saying that “there is no problem” or that “the market will sort it out” or that we “are being hysterical’ or that you “can’t do anything about it” is simply an abdication of your power. The best that can be said of the Cera legislation is that is sets the conditions for a benevolent dictatorship. The key part of this contract between the government and the people of NZ is a benevolence that is lacking with frequent references the people must continue to suffer until the market responds to their needs.

Gerry and Roger, you have remarkable power in your hands. Please show some humility and change this short-sighted, opaque and ill-timed decision-making. Please engage with the people of Christchurch. If you are not capable of reflection and change, and if you are not capable of articulating, or even enabling a vision for this city, then perhaps it is time to open up space for those who can.

Yours Sincerely

Barnaby Bennett


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Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home

In this issue, our contributors explore home – as a place and a sense –  by literally climbing their local landmarks, by poking around the concept of shelter as a human right, by questioning our cultural interpretations, and more. Some of these enquiries seem timeless, stretching back to before humans were even humans, others are very much topical, predicaments of the 21st Century.

Ultimately home is the whole planet, the universe and beyond. We share our home with billions of other humans, and billions upon billions of other species. As we “make ourselves at home” here, let’s not forget we’re not the only ones. Maybe it is best for everyone if we remain always and evermore “almost home.”

Freerange Vol.4: Almost Home main page. 


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5 creative ideas to save Christchurch

1.  5 days paid leave, (or bonus pay), for all Christchurch residents.

Its been a long hard year for people living in Christchurch: the city is physically damaged and the people emotionally drained from a year of shaking and uncertainty.  Put simply, the people there need and deserve a good break.  As the insurance industry delays and reconstruction and planning are pushed further  back the city is also in desperate need of economic stimulus.  I can’t think of a better time for a clever use of tax payer stimulus than now by giving ALL Christchurch residents 3-bonus days of public holiday to be used by the end of the year.  An early Christmas present.   People can take the chance to go for a drive, visit relatives, go out for nice meal, a bike ride, skiing.  Whatever floats their boat.   I haven’t costed it, but it couldn’t cost less than $10 millon and almost all the money would go directly into the Christchurch economy.

2. International Paintball Championships in the Redzone.

What are three of the main things Christchurch needs now?

Money to start rebuilding,

entertainment to keep people there sane, and

international exposure so people and capital return to the city.

In the spirit of this stunning and quite moving youtube video of skaters using the broken streetscapes of Christchurch, I propose that a large-scale reality tv Paint ball championships be run in Christchurch before it opens in 2012.  Paint ball is water based so will dissolve in the rain.  All the dangerous buildings have almost being demolished, the rest of the buildings to go are economic demolitions not structural ones so safety should’t be a concern.  Perhaps we should take all the SAS and special forces forces out of Afghanistan and let them have a Special Olympic style battle to see which is best.  Give them a building each and see who is left after 3 weeks?!

3. Eastern land swap

Eastern parts of Christchurch have been badly damaged by the earthquakes and large areas around the river of it are ‘redzoned’, meaning there are thousands of people who need to sell their houses to the government and move elsewhere.   A great idea that I heard from Christchurch Architect, David Hill, is to swap some of the parks and golf courses in the east with this damaged land.   Its a fantastic interventionist idea, but only works if the government gets active and onto it.  The opportunity is there to create new neighbourhoods of well designed, well serviced, ‘green’ housing that enables people to live in, or close to the existing communities. While also getting some much needed stimulus into the economy and getting the trades and professions going.  All it takes is some politicians with some vision… now where were they?

4. Bikes, Bikes, Bikes.

Not a particularly creative one, but this needs repeating again and again. Bikes are the cheap solution to lots of Christchurch’s future problems. Even with the advantage of a massive capital injection and a fresh start, the reality is that Christchurch is the wrong shape and layout to ever have a comprehensive public transport system.  It can have a handy and modern bus system with clever and well designed tickets to make it easy to use, but is never going to have frequent trips to all parts of the city.  It has grown around the expansiveness of the motorcar and will remain locked to its logic.  Fortunately there is a much better way to get around flat wide cities with grid layouts than the car. Bikes!  They are cheap, they last longer than cars, roads can fit thousands of them, its easier to park them,  they keep people fit, they are cheap and choice!   The rebuild is the perfect time to make the roads bike friendly and provide extensive bike infrastructure around the city. Cheap bikes to hire, bike paths on most roads, bike paths along the rivers, bike stands, places for workshops, safe storage, etc etc.  Weather shouldn’t be a big problem, look at how they do it in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  10% of one of the stupid holiday highways being built out of Auckland could fund this for decades.  (The image below is Christchurch in 1937!)

5. Move the World Cup Cloud to Christchurch.

1 +1 should equal 2. Over the next 1-5 years Christchurch is going to be in desperate need of high quality temporary structures to house the civic and commercial activities of the city while the rebuild gains momentum.  In about 30 days Auckland will be left with a large unused high quality government owned structure.  Move it to Christchurch. Simple.

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The Nastiness of the Mainstream Right Politics

I’ve been meaning to write this post for sometime, but have put it off because it takes some small bits of research. Here goes.

While the political division between right and left is overly simplified, in New Zealand there is at least one fundamental difference in policy between the two which for me marks a clear distinction.  It also reveals the deep cynicism of right wing politics.

In recent New Zealand history the left  made it a political and economic goal to have full employment.  The labour government of 9 years from 1999-2008 was lucky enough to have strong local and international growth during this period which enabled them to get very close to the target, in 2007 unemployment fell to historically low levels in 3.4%.

A change of government in 2008 to a right-wing government coincided with the Grand Financial Crises and this of course led a surge in umemployment numbers.  The blame for increased unemployment, at least initially, can not be put on the right wing party.  However it is very interesting to note a change that occurred to the reserve bank soon after National took power.

There is a policy targets agreement between the governor of the reserve bank and the minister of finance.  The 2002 Michael Cullen version is first, and the 2008 Bill English version is second.

Left Version 2002

The objective of the Government’s economic policy is to promote sustainable and balanced economic development in order to create full employment, higher real incomes and a more equitable distribution of incomes. Price stability plays an important part in supporting the achievement of wider economic and social objectives.

Right Version 2008

The Government’s economic objective is to promote a growing, open and competitive economy as the best means of delivering permanently higher incomes and living standards for New Zealanders.  Price stability plays an important part in supporting this objective.

Read them carefully and a clear difference emerges between the left and the right, and how they use the instruments of government to affect the country.  This is one small passage that influences the way the reserve bank acts, which potentially effects thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

From these passages we understand that the left is using the reserve bank to get as many people as employed as possible.  It does this knowing that this may well put pressure on inflation, because as it become harder to find workers they can charge more for their work which if this happens widely enough makes things more expensive which pushes up inflation.  Inflation is bad because it devalues peoples investments and savings.  But the left understands there are vast social, health, and economic gains to be had from having full employment. The least of which is that the states doesn’t have to support as many people.  The strange and misunderstood aspect of this is that there is likely to be less people on welfare under this approach than the right’s, which I will explain now.

The right uses the reserve bank to encourage a strong economy as a means to delivering higher incomes and living standards.  It prioritizes price stability so as to avoid the corrosive effects of inflation.  However the removal of the mention of employment gives us a sense of what this means. If price stability is the priority, then keeping wages down is also a priority, and one of the most effective ways to keep wages down is to keep a level of unemployment.  The employment pool acts as a reserve to put pressure on wages and salaries so that inflation is kept low, so that peoples and companies saving and investments are protected.

Now at this point, it is a largely healthy disagreement on how to deal with the economy.  We have different political parties so that we can have different views and discuss the merits of those views and have discussions and discourse around them.  All fine and good.

The bit that makes it nasty is when we follow the behavior of the right. If we accept the need for a certain level of necessary unemployment, (which I don’t) but seems like a logical economic policy in some regards, then we are in reality asking a certain amount of the population to sacrifice jobs they might otherwise have for the good of the country.   What I find disgusting is the same party that creates this condition then spends vast amounts of energy denigrating and attacking those very people that could otherwise be employed as been lazy and bludging of the state.

In New Zealand around 2008 long term unemployed (as a percentage of total unemployed) was 3.2%. This means for every 100 people on the dole only 3 or 4 of them had been on the dole for more than a year.  From a total of 72,000 unemployed people, 49,000 of them were on the dole for less than 26 weeks; the churn of people losing jobs and quickly gaining new ones. Of the total only 1300 people in the entire country had been on unemployment benefit for more than two years.  Read that again.  It clearly illustrates that the myth of dependency on the dole and preference to want to live off $200 a week rather than work an honest job is a fallacy.  If the jobs are there people take them.

The thing about full employment is that everyone starts to benefit and social, class, ethnic and gender divisions are lessoned by the participatory nature of the work force, and the increased social mobility that employment provides.

The dumb thing about requiring a certain level of unemployment is that inevitably its certain groups, for various geographic, historic, and soci0-economic reasons, that end up without work.  In New Zealand this is the young, some elderly, and Pacific Island and Maori people.  These people end up unemployed because of a way the government chooses to run the economy and then turns around and specifically stereotypes these populations and been deficient for some reason.  Its foul and immoral.

There is obviously some economic incentive to denigrating the unemployed because it makes people even more desperate to work in low-wage jobs, and keep inflation down, and a nice conveyor belt of cheap workers.  The crushing of the unemployed is also managed through giving them less than is needed to survive with any dignity in New Zealand.  A specific policy that was established in 1991 by Ruth Richardson.

I’ll leave the conclusion to the superb idiot/savant of norightturn, who I have sourced most of the links from in this article.

There is an underlying problem of benefit adequacy, dating back to the 1991 benefit cuts. As explained in Alister Barry’s In a Land of Plenty [part 5, from 10 mins, to part 6] experts worked out minimum food budgets for beneficiaries based on nutritional needs and different expectations of diet. Treasury took the lowest level – which was inadequate to meet basic nutritional needs – and cut it by 20% to provide an “incentive”. And while benefits have been inflation adjusted, that basic gap between benefit levels and minimum nutritional needs has remained ever since. And now we’re back in an era of mass unemployment and longer durations on benefits, it is again coming back to haunt us.

This is indecent. No-one should starve in our country, and a government system which guarantees starvation is simply immoral. But it is also stupid. Kids who grow up malnourished and starving have higher health costs and do not reach their full potential. In other words, the short-term “saving” of benefit cuts in fact produces long-term costs. But it won’t be the present government paying those costs – they’ll be well out of office when the bill finally comes due, and cleaning up the mess will be someone else’s problem.

As a society, we have chosen to have a certain level of unemployment in exchange for low inflation. Therefore, as a society, we have an obligation to care for those whose lives and prospects we are sacrificing. Policywise, this means trying to ensure that unemployment is not too great a burden and easy to escape from (or at least, not a trap). This suggests both decent benefit levels, and policies centered around improving “churn”: training, education, active job finding, and an array of grants, loans, housing and transport assistance to help people move or travel to work.



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The Quake

As history uncurls her fingers from Christchurch, the stories of loss, survival, and the stupid blunt force of an indifferent planet emerge from the dust.  For those of us with friends and family in Christchurch, the test of our support is not of the past 6 days, but in the coming days, weeks, and months when the adrenaline will fade and the long slow and tedious task of re constructing lives will begin.

While the pain is individual and the stories unique to Christchurch the pattern is universal and the suffering is the same shared recently by communities around the world, from government murders in Egypt, deadly floods in Queensland, civil unrest in Libya, floods in Pakistan, droughts in China and Nth Korea, and bombs in Iraq, the list goes on.

With this in mind I’ve been impressed by the surprising humanizing role of technology in the last few weeks.  Most of the time these devices and interfaces that now consume our lives seem to take us away from the nature, loved ones, and things we really appreciate.  The frustrations to technologies that not only consume our working and relaxing hours, but are also increasingly providing mundane fodder for our conversations.  It is great then to see some truly mobilizing potential with these ubiquitous technologies.

  • Within hours of the Christchurch Earthquake google had worked with a number of organizations on a very effective missing persons interface Google Missing Person List.
  • Within days, Habitat for humanity had started a very easy to use website for both offering accommodation and finding help for places to stay at the Habitat Shelter Website.
  • A international group of volunteers called Crisescampnz has produced the beautifully designed massive collaboration site titled the Christchurch Recovery Map,
  • The Canterbury University Students Association showed the value of Student Unions with their fantastic Student Volunteer Army.

These are just four of the many responses to the Earthquake we’ve seen in the past week, they illustrate that these new technologies offer not only a speediness of set up and communication not previously possible, but also a radical repositioning of the role of the citizen.  These new technologies are becoming critical tools in what might as well be called the democracies we live in, and its a good reminder that democracy isn’t about voting every three years, its ability to engage with issues of governance as a free citizen.

Internationally we are seeing profound change in the middle east, and here too democratic forces and technology are meeting.  The global advocacy and activist group Avaaz has been enabling internet satellite into parts of Libya and Bahrain so that people there can keep up with important international news.  AVAAZ Satellite delivery. This fantastic sign from Egypt suggests we are seeing the growth of a global activist movement.  Egypt supporting America.

My last comment on the Christchurch earthquake is to realize the important work that has been going on in Nz for the past 50 years that has minimized the effects of last tuesday.  The force on buildings was TWICE what the building code asked for, so its impressive that so few collapsed.  In addition to this the rescue response sounds like it has been extraordinarily well co-ordinated given the desperate circumstances.  Brian Rudman of the Herald states

“as a small bunch of people, spread across a geologically challenged group of remote islands, we New Zealanders actually don’t do such a bad job of looking after ourselves.  Unknown to most of us, we do have structures on which to fall back in times of emergency – like Civil Defence, which had its origins after the Napier disaster and got a pat on the back from the head of the British urban rescue team, who said this was the best-organised rescue effort he’d attended, through which local communities have joined together to assist each other in moments of need.

So hats off to not just the men and women working on the ground, but to the 100’s of planner, bureaucrats and politicians who have prepared funds and expertise for disasters like this.  Here’s to long term planning, long may it continue.

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