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Moving govt functions from Wellington a 'knee-jerk' reaction - Lester

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington mayor Justin Lester says Wellington is "well-placed" to manage further earthquakes, and he doesn’t back the idea of moving government functions to other parts of New Zealand.

Speaking to Q+A’s Jessica Mutch, Mr Lester said he thought that was a "knee-jerk reaction."

"Look, let’s be realistic, I mean, Auckland sits on volcanoes; Christchurch, no one expected to have an earthquake down there, and that was an absolute tragedy; various different parts of the country face natural disaster events. So this is an occurrence in New Zealand, as it is in any other city in any other country in the world.

We need to live up to the risk. We need to manage the risk, and I think Wellington’s well placed."

Mr Lester defended sending out a message saying Wellington was "open for business" just 24 hours after in the quake, in which several inner-city buildings sustained serious damage.

But he said he was surprised at how the more modern buildings performed during the quake, and said questions would need to be asked about the ground conditions beneath them.

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.

Repeated Sunday evening at around 11:35pm. Streamed live at

Q + A

Episode 37


Interviewed by Jessica Mutch

JESSICA What’s the latest on the situation in Wellington at the moment?

JUSTIN Good morning, Jessica. The latest is no news is good news. So we haven’t had any further updates. We’re about to commence a deconstruction of 61 Molesworth Street, so that’s one where there is a cordon in place. And likewise we’ve reduced the cordon around Courtney Place and around Tory Street, which is the Reading car park. And just to stress to people, look, these buildings aren’t likely to collapse, but we want to take precautions in the event of a further really strong earthquake, that safety is paramount.

JESSICA Because that’s what you’re preparing for now, isn’t it? You have to be realistic that, without scaring people, that more quakes are likely.

JUSTIN Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve actually stood up really well here in Wellington. We haven’t had any interruption to water or to power, our sewerage system is still in place, our transport corridors have largely remained in place. But it’s about what happens next from here. We want to make sure that we’re prepared in the event that we have another earthquake in the future.

JESSICA You talked about being focused on people. Do you feel like that was at the forefront of your mind when, on the Tuesday, just 24 hours after the quake, you said, ‘We’re open for business,’ and sent out that message? Did you get poor advice?

JUSTIN No, I think we’ve had really good advice all the way through that’s proven to be correct in the events that we’ve had in the course of the last week as well. So we sat down with New Zealand Police, with the Fire Service, with our emergency response officials, and they’ve worked through other earthquakes and, for example, down in Christchurch. And that was absolutely correct. We’ve got a situation and a complex decision. 17,000 people live in our CBD. Hundreds of businesses would be affected. So we want to make sure we make good decisions based on accurate information.

JESSICA Was it a risky decision, though? Was it a risky decision to make, given you hadn’t checked all of those buildings?

JUSTIN It was a difficult decision. What we had checked was all of the public spaces, but we made it very clear when we said to people, ‘Look, the CBD is safe, however, employees and tenants within buildings, you must check with your building owner, with your employers, before you re-enter those buildings.’ And we’ve seen that people have taken good steps too. People haven’t gone back into buildings until they’re safe.

JESSICA Minister Gerry Brownlee said he was a little bit surprised and somewhat unhappy that that message was given out too quickly. Do you think you put too much emphasis on getting businesses back in there and sending that message and trying to be reassuring to people? Do you think you were a bit complacent?

JUSTIN No, as I said, we had the best expert advice on the ground. And as you’ll talk to the minister, look, we met with the minister a couple of days ago, and he was very comforted-

JESSICA But I’m talking about on the Tuesday, when you sent out that message.

JUSTIN Look, as I mentioned, 17,000 people live in our CBD. We had people in the CBD, in these buildings. They need to know that it’s safe to leave those buildings and to go out and walk on CBD streets. We put cordons in place where was necessary. We decided that we would take a localised approach, and that has proven to be the correct one, because the vast majority of buildings in Wellington have fared very well. The vast majority of people have said, ‘You made the right decisions. We support you.’ And we’re thankful that we’ve taken a calm, a rational approach, based on expert advice.

JESSICA Although some of those buildings, though, that have gotten into trouble, they’re new buildings. Were you surprised by that?

JUSTIN I was a little bit surprised at how some of the more modern buildings performed. And in the fullness of time, we’ll need to ask questions around that.

JESSICA What questions need to be asked, do you think?

JUSTIN Look, we have to sit down and ask, ‘What are the ground conditions beneath those? What were the engineering designs?’ And we’ll to ask in the fullness of time, ‘Do we need to make changes to the Building Code? Or do we need to look at the process that’s informed-‘

JESSICA Or building on reclaimed land. Will that be looked at as well?

JUSTIN Look, you can build anywhere, essentially. I mean, they’ve built an airport in the middle of the ocean in Japan. It’s a question of how you build. And so we need to understand how that looks in to the future, and again, this event will inform those future decisions, which is great, because we’re constantly improving our building practises in New Zealand.

JESSICA Have you talked about a subsidy for Wellington businesses, similar to what we saw in Kaikoura? Around $500 per person if you’ve got fewer than 20 employees.

JUSTIN Yes, we have. We’ve considered that from a city council’s perspective and we’ll also talk to the government about that.

JESSICA How likely is that?

JUSTIN Look, that’s a question that we need to discuss. From a city council’s perspective, relatively likely, but we’d like to sit down with government and see if we can get some support where it’s required.

JESSICA Some people are saying that some of these government buildings that were damaged, it’s an opportunity to move some of those functions out of Wellington CBD into other areas. Northland, for example, have put up their saying, ‘We don’t have many earthquakes up here. Come and start up here with us.’ What do you say to that as Wellington mayor?

JUSTIN I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction. These questions tend to come up from time to time and I think it was raised in 2013 when we had an earthquake. Look, let’s be realistic, I mean, Auckland sits on volcanoes; Christchurch, no one expected to have an earthquake down there, and that was an absolute tragedy; various different parts of the country face natural disaster events. So this is an occurrence in New Zealand, as it is in any other city in any other country in the world. We need to live up to the risk. We need to manage the risk, and I think Wellington’s well placed.

JESSICA But is that really realistic, because Wellington’s sitting in the middle of a zone that has earthquakes all the time. Is it realistic to say, ‘We’re just ready, and we’re going to wait for the next one.’

JUSTIN Look, I don’t think it’s realistic to say we know when the next event is going to occur anywhere. So we have to understand that. We need to live with that. We need to manage every risk. Look, I’m realistic. I think we know in Wellington there will be future earthquakes. It's making sure we’re well prepared.

JESSICA Thank you very much. It’s been a busy first few six weeks in the job for you. Thank you very much for your time this morning.

Transcript provided by Able.

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