Around 1,500 – 2,000 people attended a lunchtime rally next to the Christchurch City Council offices today. The protest was organised by No Pay Rise for Tony Marryatt, although organisers made it clear that reversing his pay rise and getting him to hand back all the increase he had so far been paid was not the most important object. They want him sacked, they want Parker to resign and they want new council elections in autumn. These positions drew rousing cheers from the crowd. The organisers and crowd also made it clear they did not want interference from the government – they don’t want the government getting rid of Marryatt/Parker and their cronies; they want the protest movement to do it themselves.
As well as more mass protests, other ideas were put forward about how to get rid of Marryatt/Parker. At one point, for instance, hundreds of the crowd began spontaneously chanting “Don’t pay the rates”. One of the speakers, a respectable-looking middle-aged guy, suggested this was a good idea and should be taken up.
The mike was opened to ‘ordinary citizens’ to get things off their chest and people from different parts of the city spoke about the problems they faced and the cavalier attitude of the Marryatt/Parker cabal. Several speakers, including Rev Mike Coleman of Wider Earthquakes Communities Action Network who chaired the protest, mentioned the way in which decisions were made by Marryatt/Parker in secret – in a number of cases city councillors first heard about decisions when they read about them in the newspaper. In response to a question from the crowd, Coleman noted how the deal done with local property ‘developer’ (and now bankrupt) Dave Henderson – the council bought some Henderson properties for over $17 million without having an independent valuation done, Henderson being a mate and all – was an example of business secrecy and cronyism by those who sat atop the council.
One of the professionals speaking mentioned how housing was an urgent need. But while Parker swanned off to Asia and Marryatt was sunning himself on the Australian Gold Coast, people were being left homeless. The council has 1,200 employees in its offices and the PR department alone has 21 people to do its spin work, but there are only three people who are allowed to sign off on building consents. One result of this is that only 2 new houses per 1,000 inhabitants are getting built in Christchurch, while in the neighbouring counties of Selwyn and Waimakariri, the figures are 10 per 1,000 and 12 per 1,000 respectively. In Christchurch the building rate is not even at renewal level, let alone the level required to deal with the amount of homes destroyed by quakes. He also pointed out that while the average household income in Christchurch is $55,000 the average house price is 6.3 times as much. Moreover, if someone bought a section on the city outskirts, where the quakes are less felt, they’d pay $200,000 for the section and $250,000 to build a house. He suggested that house prices shouldn’t be more than three times the average household income in order to have anything resembling access to housing for the mass of people.
The composition of the crowd showed that the royal couple have managed not only to piss off much of the working class in the city but also the civic-minded sections of the liberal middle class and even a chunk of the local bourgeoisie, along with the local Anglican Establishment. Of course, this breadth is also a political weakness of the protest. It is a cross-class affair and so no-one is supposed to speak about class for fear of scaring away the upper class and less radical middle class elements. Nevertheless, the speaker who got the best reception of all was firefighter Kelvin Hampton. He talked about how he had “complete contempt” for Marryatt’s claim that since the quakes began he had been working harder than at any time in his life. The firefighter pointed out that while Marryatt was sunning himself on the Gold Coast with that attitude, he himself (the firefighter) had been in the PGC building with a fellow firefighter performing a double amputation on a trapped person, using a hacksaw and a pocket-knife. Yet, he said, his total annual pay was a lot less than Marryatt’s rise and firefighters had been without a contract for a year as they struggled to wrestle an offer above 2.7% out of their employer. His comments were met with massive cheers and support. (See also our article 2.7% rise for the firefighters: 70% for their boss.)
Our Redline leaflet (Sack all the Marryatts and sack their system too) included a section on the firefighters and hundreds of copies were snapped up by people taking part in the protest. It was the first protest in a very long time where people have had their hands out to get a leaflet before I’ve got to them and people have come up to get copies. One young woman asked if she could have a bundle to hand out. A comrade from Beyond Resistance, who also had their own leaflet, offered to help with handing out the Redline leaflet. So it was good day for our leaflet.
On the way back to work I passed the ten or so rather forlorn-looking tents which make up whatever is left of the Occupy site in Hagley Park. The big “We are the 99%” banner looked surreal. Having just been at a much, much larger and broader protest, where no-one claimed to be the 99%, the Occupy rhetoric seemed rather eccentric. Of course since the protest outside the council offices really was reflective of the 99%, no-one needed that sort of rhetoric. They were the 99% and they knew it and could see it.
While the liberal campaigners are playing a progressive role in taking up issues of democracy and economic disparity, this is certainly not any sort of class-struggle movement. However they have the honesty not to pretend that they are, either. They also have the merit of being able to mobilise large numbers of people and to at least ask questions that provide a space for more radical voices to be sounded and to be heard.
Natural disasters may, as Naomi Klein has argued, provide opportunities for disaster capitalism; however, they also provide opportunities for the left to raise issues more specifically focused on workers, like the firefighters’ struggle for a new contract and a decent pay rise, and get out a critique of capitalism in general. The political fallout from the quakes in Christchurch may just be getting started.