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Thursday, March 10, 2011

'Timing wrong' for Christchurch earthquake memorial

'Timing wrong' for Christchurch earthquake memorial

Last updated 09:43 11/03/2011
Prime Minister John Key has defended the timing of the national day of mourning for the victims of the Christchurch earthquake after business leaders in the city said it was too soon.

A provincial public holiday has been set aside for Canterbury for next Friday and a national memorial service will be held in North Hagley Park.

The timing has been criticised by some business owners, who say it is too early and comes as many are still struggling to pick up the pieces from the devastating quake.

But Mr Key insisted the timing had been carefully thought through.

''We got some advice about what would be the appropriate length of time to hold a memorial service. You obviously can't have these things too quickly, but if you have them too late, people get frustrated that they don't have a proper opportunity to grieve and mourn.''

He said the March 18 date fitted with Prince William's travel to New Zealand, but at the time the day was set aside, it was not known that he would be coming to New Zealand and his schedule played no part in the choice of day.

''I wasn't aware of it at the time,'' Mr Key said.

It was a 'fair point' that the day off would cost time and money to businesses in the city, but having it on a Saturday would not work as there were a lot of people who played sport.

''In the end, we made the call that it was appropriate to have a holiday in the province of Canterbury, because we think the overwhelming bulk of Cantabrians will either want to attend or be able to watch it.

''When we held the Pike River memorial service, the reality was that the whole community closed down. And we thought, on balance, this is probably the most significant thing that's ever happened in Christchurch. And the counter argument was, well, if you don't have a provincial holiday, are you really taking it seriously that so many people have lost their lives and so much damage has happened in Christchurch.''

Canterbury businesses believe the timing of the memorial service will cost companies desperately trying to rebuild.

The day has been declared a public holiday in Canterbury, which means businesses will have to close or pay penalty rates to workers.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said there was "a lot of concern" from members who believed the date was inappropriate as they were trying to re-establish businesses.

It was important for Christchurch to grieve and recover, but from a business perspective the date would be damaging.

"You're on a hiding to nothing criticising a public holiday, we all know that, but the feedback from my members is that it's just not ideal from a business sense," he said.

Business leaders yesterday were unanimous in their support for the service, but questioned the timing.

CDC Pharmaceuticals chief executive Mike Rhodes said the public holiday would not help his business, which had to relocate and was busy trying to re-establish supplies to customers.

"Basically, it's too soon. Most of Canterbury is still trying to get back on its feet," he said.

"I think the idea is the right idea, but the timing is just wrong."

The extra staff costs could be difficult for businesses, especially after many, including CDC, had continued to pay staff when they could not work.

He also believed the day off would disrupt schools, which had just started to reopen.

Nurse Maude chief executive Jim Magee said the public holiday would cost the company about $60,000.

Services would have to be trimmed to try to recoup the money and only essential clients would receive a visit, he said.

"I'm actually sympathetic for a day of mourning ... but in my point of view, a Sunday would have been ideal," he said.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the date had been decided by the Prime Minister's office and referred all comment to the Government.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said some businesses would face unexpected costs.

However, it was important not to underestimate the quake's emotional impact.

"Tens of thousands will want to attend the memorial service and the best way to allow this is to provide for a public holiday," she said. "It is only one day. But we hope it is one day that will help move Canterbury forward."

- The Press

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