You are on page 1of 4

+ Christchurch

Who
Tamed
Roger
Sutton?
Grateful Cantabrians
once queued up
just to touch him.
Now quake czar
Roger Sutton thinks
some of them want
to lynch him. Whats
gone wrong? Donna
Chisholm reports.

oger Sutton can pinpoint the moment he suspected his popularity


would inevitably crash back
through the Christchurch stratosphere.
It was June 11, 2011, two days before he
took over as head of the new Canterbury
Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and
Sutton fever was peaking, the mood
epitomised in the weekends Press: HOPE
read the headline. Roger Sutton takes
charge of Christchurch.
Inside, Sutton saw himself depicted as a
knight riding to the citys rescue atop his
charger in Canterbury colours, sword raised
and red cape flowing. Sutton the Superman.
More popular than Jesus. The citys saviour.
Everyone, it seemed, loved Roger Sutton.
It was easy to see why. As head of Orion,
which supplies power to central Canterbury,
hed been a master communicator in the
aftermath of the September and February
quakes. With his hard hat, work boots, high-

viz jackets and pushbike, he became as


readily recognisable as mayor Bob Parker.
Unlike Parker, though, he was getting his
hands dirty. He was a doer albeit one who
knew the televisual appeal of a good prop,
whether it be part of a power cable or an
explanatory graphic hastily drawn on a roll
of butchers paper with a felt-tip pen.
Despite the horn rims and the lisp, Sutton
was a blokes bloke, but one who looked as
if he could be equally at home with a
chardonnay or a chainsaw. Tall, rangy and
charismatic, he seemed the sort of individual
who should get changed in a phone booth
and fly off to his next mission.
Praise for his Cera appointment was universal. Port Hills Labour MP Ruth Dyson
gave him a 12 out of 10 while retiring Wigram MP and former mayoral hopeful Jim
Anderton described him as a quintessential
Cantabrian who understands the ethos of
the city the anguish, the aspirations, the

donna chisholm is north & Souths editor-at-large. photography by guy frederick.

Above: Graham Henry with Roger Sutton at the Christchurch Art Gallery last September.
Below: An electrical sub-station threatened by hardening liquefaction after the February quake.

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

whole works. It was never going to last.


And no one knew that better than Sutton.
They were, he says, expectations which
were never going to be fulfilled. I knew I was
only going to become less popular; less well
thought of.
How quickly hes been proven correct. Fast
forward five months to a public meeting in
the Brooklands community hall in early
November where locals gathered to question
him about the villages red-zoning only
months after the Christchurch City Council
had given post-quake building consents.

72 | NORTH & SOUTH | MARCH 2012

uttons reputation was based on


his stellar performance at Orion
for communication and preparedness. Just minutes after the
February quake which killed 181
people, Sutton had sent out his first press
release on the disaster to key contacts.
After September, we were the only guys
who asked GNS Science about the probability
of another quake which was 25 per cent.
Knowing this, Id sent Doug Heffernan, at
Mighty River Power in Auckland, an email
list of all the key people so when the big one
hit, I rang Doug at around 1.45 40 minutes
afterwards and said, Hi Doug, its Roger
here. Can I send you some words to send out
for a press release in my name to tell people
whats happening?
On Suttons watch as operations manager
at Orion in the late 1990s, substations had
undergone extensive earthquake strength
ening, which allowed power to be restored
in February far more quickly than it otherwise
might have been. It was Suttons pragmatic
assessments of Orions network problems
the earth movement stretched some
underground power cables up to a metre and
caused more faults than the company would
usually see in a decade that captivated
Cantabrians when he appeared, as he so often
did, on television screens. But now some of
them think the master communicator has
gone a bit quiet. Even Ceras own Facebook
page is attracting venomous comments from
disgruntled Cantabrians.
After the residential demolition began in
Bexley at the end of January, posters were
quick to criticise Suttons response. Must
say I thought his response was very cold
Roger you need to wake up and smell the
roses, dude, and also show some understanding of the situation! SHAME ON YOU
ROGER.

Another described Cera as a useless government department, which listened only


to itself.
Cera have done as close to zero that you
can get without being at zero. Sure they have
[spent] a lot of taxpayer money, got them
selves some nice jackets and iPads and a
whole bunch of other items that they do not
need. When asked for the slightest bit of
info, they stand behind the OIA and give
feeble excuses as to why they cannot release
the info. Cera. Canterbury? Everythings
Rooted Actually!
Rumblings about Sutton and Ceras performance had begun months earlier.
Whats happened to Roger Sutton?
correspondent Judith Asalache wrote to The
Press on October 15. Has Wellington
hobbled his white charger?
Two weeks later, Christine Connor of
Cashmere followed suit: Along with many
Christchurch people, I was delighted when
Roger Sutton was appointed head of Cera.
But since his appointment we have heard
nothing. At this time we are sorely in need
of able leadership and open communication.
We hoped that Sutton would fill that role
and he certainly has the capacity. There is
a rumour in the town that he has been
muzzled. Mr Sutton needs to be free to get
on with the job.
The muzzler and hobbler to whom the
letter writers obliquely refer, of course, is
Suttons boss, Earthquake Recovery
Minister Gerry Brownlee. Canterbury-based
Labour MPs Dyson, Clayton Cosgrove,
Lianne Dalziel and the ousted Brendon
Burns all told North & South they believed
Sutton was being shackled by the minister,
and the fact he had to work within a
government department was stifling his
natural instincts as a communicator.
Says Cosgrove: Its as if you tied a conductors arms behind his back. Hed be
squirming and he couldnt do the job.
Cosgrove lost his electorate seat but returned to Parliament as a list MP after Canterburys swing to blue. The results suggest
that constituents approve of how Brownlee
has run the quake recovery even if the MPs
dont.
Roger is cauterised, Cosgrove says. He
points to a public meeting at which Sutton
told residents of red-zoned Kairaki Beach
that there was no reason they couldnt have
the geological and technical information
on which the decision was based. He goes
back to the ranch and Gerry says, Like hell.
He was undercutting Roger and saying
were not going to give it.

Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Martin Hunter / Getty Images

The Sunday Star-Times reported how the


mood became increasingly angry, leaving
Sutton struggling for answers. He was described as giving stock replies: Im not
the council, Im not the insurance industry, I dont have an answer for you.
Residents were worried developers might
nab and fix their land to resell it. If I turned
up today after red-zoning you and said, We
have all these other plans youd bloody
lynch me, Sutton told them. I think youll
lynch me anyway.
And yet, at meetings just like these immediately after his appointment, locals
would rush up to him just to touch him
as if he was God, said one observer.

Roger Sutton and Gerry Brownlee survey earthquake damage in the


CBD during an earthquake recovery update visit last August.

Sutton is diplomatically noncommittal


when North & South raises the issue. He answers, as he does every question that he finds
a bit tricky, with a slightly mirthless chuckle
and the phrase: Good on you, Donna.
Then he explains the u-turn on the geotech reports. My experience up till now is
you just give everybody absolutely everything and when youre running a monopoly
[at Orion] I felt that was the only way... The
problem is, we fear if we give them geotech
information, armchair engineers are going
to start second-guessing land decisions that
havent yet been made, which will bring a
whole lot more stress.
Sutton concedes though, that at times its
been frustrating adapting to life as a public servant and head of a government department, and all that entails. At times I
may have wanted to run an announcement
or a decision slightly differently. At the same
time, to be fair, when Ive come up with an
issue I think we should be bringing up, Ive
nearly always got the minister over the line.
When we were pulling down the Grand
Chancellor, I said, Gosh guys, weve got to
get the media in and just show them all this,
and they said yes. When Ive come up with
my bright ideas for trying to demonstrate
things, I havent really had any significant
push back. No more than I would have expected from a board.
Brownlee dismisses the suggestions of
Sutton being muzzled as politically motivated and says his relationship with his CEO

is extremely positive.
His styles a little different to a lot of
others but thats something that can be
appreciated. Thered be no other chief
executive in New Zealand that does weekly
talkback radio to say hes somehow media
muzzled is absurd.
Its the lack of a layer of board governance
between Sutton and his minister that has
attracted criticism from Labour MPs and
some business observers. Steve Clark, CEO
of the Canterbury University-based Centre
for Advanced Engineering, a trust set up to
develop new solutions to issues of national
importance, says while there were benefits
in having a close, hands-on minister to cut
bureaucratic red tape, Sutton would not
have been left to run this as his baby.
If Cera had been set up with the CEO reporting to the board rather than directly to
the minister, the perception of ministerial
interference would be less likely.
Clark says the classic Roger style tell
it bluntly like it is had attracted comment
from one or two government minders who
noted it was clear Sutton hadnt come from
a government background. You dont want
the cult of the individual to be driving this,
but I think he has not as much freedom
to speak in the way he would as CEO of a
private-sector entity.
But Brownlee says the structure is designed to get decisions made to speed the
recovery process. It feels slow but internationally were moving very quickly.
NORTH & SOUTH | MARCH 2012 | 73

Que Cera?

What does the Canterbury Earthquake


Recovery Authority actually do?

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

he Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority was established


in April last year to lead and co-ordinate recovery efforts. Its
working with Environment Canterbury, Ngai Tahu, central and
local government and local businesses and organisations to identify
priorities, prepare plans and set directions for recovery activities.
Ceras and Roger Suttons main task in the months after the September 2010
and February 2011 quakes has been to decide what happens next to residential land
and properties. This has involved complicated geological and technical (geotech)
assessments which have taken much longer to complete than originally expected.
Roger Sutton says his predecessor, interim Cera CEO John Ombler, thought
final decisions around orange zone properties those which hadnt been
given the go-ahead to rebuild or order to abandon would be completed by
the time he left in June. The reality, says Sutton, is that the geotech decisions
have been much more complex and hampered by ongoing seismic activity.
Sutton says he regrets that more progress hasnt been made in the formation of
co-operatives to bring more land to market for displaced property owners. Were
dealing with issues that people have never dealt with on this scale before.
Overseeing demolition in the central city has been the other key arm of
Ceras work, a job complicated by demands to preserve heritage buildings.
Sutton says its understandable Cantabrians have been frustrated at what they
regard as a lack of progress in decision-making. Some people come and hassle
me and say, Why cant I start rebuilding my house right now? I say, Would you
put money into your own house right now or wait for the aftershocks to stop?

74 | NORTH & SOUTH | MARCH 2012

Peter Townsend, chief executive of the


Canterbury Employers Chamber of
Commerce, says anyone who criticises
Sutton for a lack of visibility since his
appointment simply hasnt grasped the
enormity of the task he faces.
People think that because hes hard to
get hold of and is keeping his head down,
that hes been suppressed. But he has a job
in New Zealand that is 20 times bigger than
any other job in the country. He is fundamentally trying to run a small state in terms
of the recovery. Hes had to set this up from
scratch and start this massive machine and
oversee the biggest rebuild weve ever seen
so hes not as prominent as far as his public
persona is concerned. The important thing
is that he gets the job done.
Just look at what hes dealing with,
Townsend says. Three suburbs have had
to shift, 11,000 houses have been destroyed,
30,000 houses have more than $100,000 of
damage each. More than 100,000 houses
have sustained some form of damage. Its
so much bigger than anyone can imagine.
While San Francisco lost 378 commercial
buildings in the 1989 quake, Christchurch
lost 1250 within the four avenues bordering
the central city. It took them 10 years. For
us to replace those buildings over 10 years
we would have to open a new commercial
building every three days.
Last month, the Reserve Bank revised its
estimates of the economic cost of the quake
to $30 billion up from $20 billion.
Sutton went into the job with his eyes
open, Townsend says. He probably didnt
realise just how big it was, but he would
have assessed the situation because hes a
clever guy and if he had any misgivings it
would be about the enormity of the task.
Townsend, whos in touch with Sutton
twice a week, believes Suttons relationship
with Brownlee had been positive, constructive and intelligent. They are going to have
to make some very hard decisions and they
wont always be popular. There will always
be niggling in the community and people
will try to find fault.
Part of the problem, of course, is the fact
that until recent months, Cantabrians have
been unable to get into the citys red zone,
and witness the incomprehensible scale of
the destruction first hand.
Ive been to Hiroshima, says Anderton,
and it has this eerie resemblance. Or Dresden in Germany, which took 60 years to recover from the Allied bombing in World
War II. Im not saying Christchurch will
take that long but I dont expect unless I

live to be 110, to be alive when we can sign


off and say, Thats it. Weve done it.
Canterbury Business Recovery Trust Fund
chair Bruce Irvine says business leaders
had all got a lot of time and respect for
Roger. The issue is that most of Rogers focus in his first six months has been on wider
city issues around residential zonings,
whereas in the central city the focus has
been on demolition. There is some frustration we havent rebuilt the city but these
things take time and we respect that.
But appliance store owner Matthew
Carpenter, who set up a small to medium
business enterprise network after the quake,
says Cera has been impenetrable. Its a
government stance keep them as far from
the door as we can.
Roger Sutton was brought in as a figurehead. He was welcomed like a Greek god,
women were almost drooling over him. He
looked like being a man for the people but
he has turned into a ventriloquists dummy
with very few words to say. The public had
an air of expectation and hope and it certainly hasnt been fulfilled. Hes not been
the communicator, he hasnt stood on the
issues and grabbed them and said this is
how were going to do it. Hes constrained
and really doesnt have a voice.
While he was originally ambivalent about
the Cera role, after 20 years with Southpower and its successor Orion, the challenge
became one Sutton could no longer resist.
Though born in Wellington and schooled
in Gisborne and Hamilton, Sutton has become a fiercely loyal Cantabrian. He studied
mechanical engineering at Canterbury University where he met his wife Jo Malcolm,
a television journalist, who subsequently
became a lecturer in journalism and media
contractor for the All Blacks. The couple,
who wed in 1996, have three boys aged 11
and under George, Harry and Jim.
Sutton has never wanted to live overseas,
hasnt done the traditional OE and took a
$200,000-a-year pay cut to go to Cera. He
says he took the job because of his strong
connections to Christchurch. This is my
city. I live here. My children live here, he
told TVNZ after his appointment.

utton is accompanied during our


interview by one of Ceras communications staff, a young woman
whos taking notes. Her presence
might well remind Sutton of the
tug of the ministerial leash. When asked if his
natural instincts are being muzzled or neutered, hes momentarily lost for words. OK.

Roger Sutton was


brought in as a
figurehead. He was
welcomed like a
Greek god, women
were almost
drooling over him.

Um. Um. No, I mean I always went into this


job knowing Id be working for a minister.
The structure and governance arrangements
were clear from the very beginning.
And, he adds, it wasnt as if Brownlee was
a stranger to him. At Orion, he chaired the
Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority,
which reported to Brownlee. I understood
the final say in a lot of these things is with
the minister.
Asked if the reality has been more difficult
than he expected, Sutton demurs. You keep
chipping away there, before adding,
There are times when me and the minister
want to do things slightly differently. I also
accept that I just have to sometimes be a bit
more thoughtful in how I say and present
things because while at Orion people
wouldnt have gone off and tried to make
political mileage out of some misinterpreted
comment, now they will and the way the
media is, its out there.
Ceras leadership and structure was praised
in November by the Future Canterbury Network (FCN) chaired by former National cabinet minister Philip Burdon despite Brownlee attacking its members as hand-wringing
talkers and time wasters. Brownlee refused to allow Sutton to speak to the FCN
panel assessing Ceras performance.
The minister was extremely suspicious
of any external review not within his control, says Burdon. Its... an exceptionally
defensive mentality.
While the report was largely complimentary saying Cera was performing at or
above expectations as a strategic leader and
co-ordinator of rebuilding and recovery efforts it says some aspects of the evaluation were frustrated by Ceras decision not

to engage effectively with it.


FCN executive director Francis Wevers
told North & South Cera had done a really
good job of communicating important information to the people of Christchurch.
However theres a concern about lack of
transparency of the organisation and one
wed expect them to address.
He says the assessment panel unanimously believed the direct line of responsibility
from department to cabinet was the best
in the circumstance for Christchurch.
Burdon says the hype around Sutton is
legitimately earned. Hes deeply respected and much liked and has come with a very
clean pair of hands. Hes not ideological and
hes not a party animal.
He says Sutton has been successful not
because of the minister but it would be very
unfair to say hes been successful in spite
of the minister.

espite some Labour MPs suggesting Sutton has already offered to resign, the man himself insists hes enjoying the
job, even if sometimes the
sense of progress isnt as fast as Id like. He
thinks he will last five years, despite the high
possibility of early burnout. It may be that
someone [else] will be better at the job.
So what would make someone else better
at running the recovery? Im sometimes
just impatient, eh? I want stuff to happen.
Ive got a bigger appetite for risk than a lot
of other people. Obviously if I started running out of energy It depends where the
emphasis ends up. Someone might have
stronger skills at getting new investment to
come to the city, but I actually think Id be
pretty damned good at that.
Its a hint of the healthy ego that must have
helped carry the Anglican ministers son to
the top but which is usually well masked by
an even healthier sense of humour.
There are signs of both as Sutton drives
around the almost unrecognisable city red
zone and points out pockets of survival amid
the rubble. Heres some good news for you.
Calendar Girls, our premier strip club, is
still standing I thought youd be relieved.
Amid all that destruction it stands strong
and alone, eh.
Why? Apparently the poles are really
strong Ive never been in there, but with my
powers, I can go in there any time! Now Im
no longer being the CEO of a bloody government department, am I?
The communications adviser in the back
seat remains silent. I think I hear her sigh. +
NORTH & SOUTH | MARCH 2012 | 75

76 | NORTH & SOUTH | august 2010

N O R T H & S O U T H | J U LY 2 0 1 0 | 7 7