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On the campaign trail with John Tamihere

The explosive mayoral candidate is meeting voters and it's making him miserable

On the campaign trail with John Tamihere

Aug 28, 2019 Politics

John Tamihere is out meeting voters and it’s making him miserable. 

The man challenging Phil Goff to be Auckland’s next mayor is at the Otara Markets at 9 on a Saturday morning, walking around with a small team of campaign staffers and volunteers. But it’s early in the campaign and few people are focused on the city’s mayoral race. Most have no idea he’s running for the job. Hardly anyone wants to talk to him. It’s awkward.

When faced with this kind of adversity, many politicians would plaster on a fake grin, don a campaign badge and glad-hand every potential supporter in sight. As he often has during a career pockmarked by controversies, Tamihere adopts a more defensive posture. He seems resentful of this ritual humiliation; embarrassed by his relative anonymity. Instead of strolling up to the shoppers, he strides around the market sipping a coffee. He briskly bypasses the man preaching about Jesus, avoids the customers buying fruit. Only two stalls warrant stop-offs. At one, he buys a mere as a birthday present for an employee of the Waipareira Trust, the housing and medical-care provider of which Tamihere is chief executive. At the other, he talks to an elderly woman selling hand-knitted baby clothes. Mostly he zeroes in on people he already knows, talking in hushed tones to his staffers or stalling for time by holding overlong conversations with the few people who recognise him from out west. When asked whether he’s enjoying himself, he shrugs in resignation and says, “All politicians have to prostitute themselves like this.”

For someone who’s spent a lot of time as a politician, Tamihere doesn’t seem comfortable with the expectations of politics. Most political figures are motivated by some strange concoction of neediness and civic duty. They aim to please. Tamihere can be prickly and standoffish. His motivations often seem more personal: frustration, or, sometimes, revenge. The last time he ran for mayor, it was because he got mad. It was 2007. He was two years removed from losing the Tamaki Makaurau electorate seat he’d held for Labour to Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. He hadn’t planned on going into politics again until what he describes as a heated meeting with then-Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey at the mayor’s office in Henderson. Tamihere says he criticised Harvey for not doing enough for the Maori of west Auckland. The mayor responded indignantly. “He said, ‘I’m the first mayor to set aside five acres for Maori to get buried at Waikumete Cemetery’,” Tamihere recalls. “I said I wanted something done for the living. Then — as Bob is wont to do — he said, ‘Fuck off out of my office’. So I said, ‘Fuck you’. So he said, ‘If you think you’re any good, why don’t you run for mayor?’ So I said, ‘Okay, see you in the ring’.”

Harvey disputes that account. He says he had a good relationship with Tamihere both as an MP and as chief executive of the Waipareira Trust. “I never have and never would ever say that to John or anyone,” he says. “I find his comments simply untrue.” Harvey won by 4000 votes, but Tamihere claims a moral victory: it was the only time Harvey received less than 50% of the vote in his 18 years as mayor.

Tamihere says the reasons for his latest tilt at the mayoralty are “much more considered”, but its origin story sounds almost as mixed up in his own grievances. Asked why he’s running, he pulls out a dossier of documents detailing his attempts to negotiate a Waipareira Trust housing development with the council’s development arm, Panuku. Tamihere wanted to build extra social housing into the trust’s plans, over what was allowed under the council’s Unitary Plan. The deal went sour. In Tamihere’s eyes, Panuku was arrogant. Out of touch. “When you’re looking at that you say to yourself, ‘Well, I hold a double degree in law and I’m not too bad at negotiations’, and these people tell me to bugger off as a ratepayer that pays them. What happens further down the food chain?”

 Tamihere in Mangere. He hopes his Labour roots will pull votes in the south.Photo: Adrian Malloch
Tamihere in Mangere. He hopes his Labour roots will pull votes in the south.Photo: Adrian Malloch

Most people would write that off as a peril of bureaucracy and move on. Tamihere was spurred into an expensive and time-consuming political comeback. He went public with his frustrations, and was surprised how many similar complaints came back. “I got a torrent of people coming to me with significant other matters. From resource- consenting issues all the way through to waste disposal,” he says. “Then I began to understand Panuku wasn’t the only [council-controlled organisation] out of control.” He called former Auckland-area mayors to ask their opinion on whether he should run. John Banks. Len Brown. Dick Hubbard. George Wood. “The wanker that was over in North Shore who got caught weeing,” he says, in reference to former North Shore mayor Andrew Williams. He says they all told him the council was dysfunctional.

Tamihere decided to get serious about his putative campaign. He managed to convince an unlikely constellation of political veterans to support it. Former Alliance president and trade unionist Matt McCarten agreed to run an on-the-ground campaign, while long-time National Party grandee Michelle Boag came on as a senior adviser. They got former Auckland City mayor and National government minister Christine Fletcher to put herself forward as his prospective deputy mayor.

When Tamihere launched his campaign on January 26, he did it with Fletcher at his side and Boag and McCarten in the wings. Few New Zealand political campaigns have had a senior team with such wildly divergent backgrounds. The message is clear: this is a cross-party endeavour, equal parts blue and red, just like its branding. Tamihere wants to position himself as the de facto alternative to Goff for right-wingers, while hoping his Labour roots will help him swing votes in Auckland’s south and west. If the strategy pays off, Tamihere will owe his victory to a coalition cobbled together from the richest and poorest ends of town.

“Do you think it’s too much?” asks McCarten as he motions towards the Tamihere campaign truck, which he has had painted bright red and emblazoned with huge pictures of Tamihere and Fletcher. McCarten is setting up the stage at the Otara Markets, where Tamihere will soon deliver a brief stump speech. He makes no secret of the campaign strategy. “John will get a large Labour working-class vote out south and west,” he says. “What about the blue end of town? Because that vote’s gotta go somewhere. And they’re thinking, ‘We don’t like Goff, but what about you?’” That’s where Fletcher and Boag come in, McCarten says. He hopes their right-wing bona fides can draw in some of the 111,731 voters who supported National-endorsed candidate Vic Crone at the last election. “They’ll be looking for reasons to support John. They’re not looking for reasons not to vote John. They’re saying, ‘I know you’re a bit of a maverick, but how much?’”

The problem for Tamihere is that saying he has a reputation as “a bit of a maverick” is like saying a tsunami has a reputation for being “a bit wet”. When people think of him, the first thing that springs to mind for many is still his career-derailing 2005 interview with Investigate editor Ian Wishart. Tamihere called female MPs “front-bums”, complained he was “sick and tired of hearing how many Jews got gassed” in the Holocaust, and said he had a right to think a man having sex with another man was “unhealthy and violating”.

The interview was a precipitating factor in his political downfall, but it wasn’t the only time Tamihere would get in trouble for saying ill-considered and offensive things. In 2013, when he was working as a talkback host on RadioLive, Tamihere and his co-host, Willie Jackson, received a call from an 18-year-old woman called Amy, who said one of her friends had been sexually assaulted by the Roast Busters group. The ensuing conversation prompted an advertiser boycott of the show. Amy was questioned over when she lost her virginity, why she and her friends were drinking alcohol, and whether they should have been out late at night. “How free and easy are you kids these days out there? You know, like you were 14, yeah?” Tamihere asked. The pair were accused of victim blaming. They apologised the next day.

Back at his sparsely decorated corporate office at the Waipareira Trust headquarters in Henderson, Tamihere visibly bristles at being questioned about these incidents. He squares up and straightens his back. Most of the time, he looks into the middle distance as he talks. Here, he makes eye contact. “I’m not going to be framed by that,” he says. “What I will say to you is this: I will have lived 35 years in the public eye. Very few people have put their hands up to have a go. When they do, people will always want to besmirch them. I get that.” But surely he can see why calling then-Cabinet minister Chris Carter a “queer” and expressing disgust at homosexual sex would attract criticism? Why describing women as “front-bums” or asking a young woman live on radio when she lost her virginity would get people angry? Tamihere won’t say sorry for those statements now, instead urging people to “go back and look at the recordings” of his past apologies. But he will say he’s learned from them. “You name one person — oh, probably Israel [Folau] — you name one person who’s not better for their mistakes.

Never mind the successes. I’m better for every one of my errors.” To explain that history of errors, Tamihere points to what he describes as a rigid Catholic upbringing. “I was born in the ABCDEFG community. Now there’s the LGBT non-binary community. There’s quite a big difference between those two alphabetic formations.”
The one scandal Tamihere does talk about in depth is a 2005 story about two cats being left at his Henderson Valley property after he moved out amid the fallout from his Wishart interview. The cats were found 11 days later, with feline HIV, and had to be put down, the Herald reported. Tamihere says the story is all wrong; that the cats were feral and he was just feeding them to please his kids. He disputes the claim they were sick, saying all cats have a form of the virus they were found with. But he can’t help adding an ill-advised joke. “The second day of that story was a front page saying ‘Tamihere’s cats have HIV’,” he says, “the storyline on that of course was that I was rooting them.”

Mayoral candidate John Tamihere hits the campaign trail at the Otara Markets. Photo: Adrian Malloch
Mayoral candidate John Tamihere hits the campaign trail at the Otara Markets. Photo: Adrian Malloch

Tamihere often delivers these quips at startling times. He seems to get joy out of their shock value. When announcing his parks policy, he told media he would buy former prime minister Helen Clark, a Mt Eden resident, some Prozac if she didn’t like his push for more concerts at Eden Park. At his campaign launch, he yelled, “On Tinder”, when a journalist asked how he met Fletcher. She had to clarify to a group of elderly National Party supporters that they’d met 20 years ago.

At the Tamihere campaign office on New North Rd, McCarten leans in with his theory on Tamihere’s affection for blurting out potentially politically damaging things. He traces it back to Tamihere’s childhood growing up as the tenth of 12 siblings. “That’s what he does,” McCarten says. “He’s mischievous — I think it’s in his DNA from when he was a kid. I know the type — always wanting to say that one thing. He’s got that wicked sense of humour. If he sees that someone could be offended, he just gets going, where wiser heads would say, ‘No, stop that, John’.”

McCarten has been circling dates on a huge calendar covering almost the entire length of an office wall. It counts down the weeks until the election. Timing is important for a campaign, and he’s meticulous about planning when policies should be announced and appearances made. He and Tamihere acknowledge timing is one of the reasons they launched their campaign early — to let the media dredge up mistakes and offences and then, hopefully, stop bringing them up. Another wall of the office is covered in huge electoral maps showing central, north, west, east and south Auckland. McCarten is hatching plans to change minds and win converts across the city. “We’ve got six months to change the narrative,” he says. “Life is a tapestry. It’s not just one or two things that you judge by. Will [Tamihere] make a good mayor? Yes. Could he be an outstanding mayor? Sure. Has he made mistakes? Absolutely. But show me a saint and I’ll show you some anal-retentive sort of hypocrite.”

If McCarten acknowledges Tamihere’s verbal missteps could be a problem, Boag is more bullish. “If John still held those views — if he said, ‘I am morally opposed to homosexuality’, that wouldn’t stop me working for him,” she says. “I’ve defended National Party leaders for decades. How many of them do you think have said stupid things in the past? Not everything that everybody says is sensible or is right.” Boag says she doesn’t care about Tamihere’s past views on social issues so long as he “gets things done”. That’s not to say she shares those views, though. “I’m a very tolerant person. Clearly,” she says, looking pointedly at McCarten.

Boag and McCarten have spent most of their political lives flinging barbs at each other. McCarten is a dyed-in-the-wool trade unionist whose business attire is usually a plain shirt and jeans. Boag’s uniform is a blue power suit with a dazzling array of jewellery. They used to appear on opposing sides of opinion panels, but seem to be able to at least tolerate each other for now. “I don’t dislike him personally,” Boag says. “I only hate the stupid bloody things he said on TV.” If you believe the Tamihere campaign messaging, having the two of them working for the same side shows Auckland is “past party politics”; that Goff has left the city in such disrepair a bipartisan solution is required. The pair aren’t able to name much — if any — policy they agree on, though. McCarten likes the idea of building social housing. Boag murmurs vaguely about agreeing with Tamihere’s parks policy.

The only belief they coalesce around unequivocally is that Tamihere will be a stronger leader than Goff, someone who will stand up to central government and do what it takes to strong-arm recalcitrant councillors into action. The campaign’s main message is that Tamihere is tougher than Goff; that he’ll fight for Auckland’s residents against faceless bureaucrats and Wellington politicians. They’ve put up billboards calling for the board of Auckland Transport to be sacked, and issued promises to renegotiate the 11.5c-a-litre regional fuel tax agreed to by Goff. “If you go to Wellington with one in three New Zealanders living in your city, you have some leverage,” Tamihere says. “You don’t go to Wellington and sell Auckland out.”

McCarten cites the social housing projects Tamihere has got across the line at the Waipareira Trust as proof his promises are more than bravado. “I think he provides a toughness,” he says. “You’re going up against the government. Auckland keeps getting bigger and bigger. They’ve got to come to the party and not just say, ‘We’re doing you a favour’. Fuck you, you know. Auckland needs a tough, popular mayor with a strong mandate.” Boag agrees. “That’s where we connect,” she says. “I’m more interested in what people do than what they say. And what John has done out at Waipareira is evidence that he knows how to do stuff.”

Goff rejects the accusation he’s too soft in his negotiations with government, saying antagonism and brinkmanship won’t help Auckland get more out of Wellington. “Aucklanders want to see progress — not rhetoric that is counterproductive to cooperation,” he says. But where has cooperation with Wellington got Auckland under his leadership? The mayor points to the regional fuel tax as a win, and cites the $28 billion worth of new projects earmarked for the city under the council and government’s joint transport plan for Auckland. He also defends his more conciliatory tack in dealing with council-controlled organisations, saying a “slash and burn” approach like Tamihere’s would be “immature and reckless”. “If you sack an entire board, you paralyse the work of that CCO for at least four to six months as you rebuild the organisation,” he says.

Goff claims council votes show he’s a good negotiator who can extract bipartisan support. “Under the last council, the Long-Term Plan was passed with a bare majority,” he says. “Under my leadership, it passed almost unanimously.” But that doesn’t square with how some councillors have described working with him. While Tamihere accuses the mayor of being weak dealing with government and CCOs, they see him as autocratic or uncollaborative working with the council itself.

On the stump, though passers-by seem to have other things on their minds. Photo: Adrian Malloch
On the stump, though passers-by seem to have other things on their minds. Photo: Adrian Malloch

Christine Fletcher is standing in the foyer of the Stamford Plaza Hotel, venting about how much she misses Len Brown. Tamihere is about to give a speech to the Rotary Club of Auckland, but his prospective deputy is more focused on the city’s last two mayors. “If I could get Len back tomorrow, I would,” she says. “I’ve hated the last two and a half years. Hated them.” Tamihere has stayed mostly neutral in his public statements about Goff during the campaign. “We’re acquaintances,” he said, when asked on The AM Show to describe their relationship.

Fletcher oozes resentment. She supported Goff at the last election, and says she has weathered a blizzard of let-downs since, accusing the mayor of overseeing a divided council, losing control of CCOs, and, most recently, failing to devote enough funds to maintain regional parks. Her sense of alienation seems to have driven her decisions as much as any affection for her running mate. “I thought that we would have a meeting of minds. That he would understand the gift. He got a Labour government coming in promising to do things that we have long argued for and I am so bitterly disappointed in him,” she says.

Fletcher says she was ready to retire from politics before she saw Tamihere presenting to the council on his problems with Panuku. The pair got talking. Fletcher expressed her disillusionment with Goff and the lack of oversight councillors have over council-controlled organisations. He eventually came back with a proposal to join his campaign. At first, she was sceptical, but says she has since been converted into a believer. “I’ll be honest — a few years ago, I really did not like John. And it took me coming to grips with his presence on council’s Independent Maori Statutory Board and the finance committee, and actually going out to Waipareira and actually going out and talking to people that he’s got housing for,” she says. “For all his bullshit and bravado and, y’know, ‘I’m the brown boy out there’, there’s actually a guy with a big heart, and when he’s not trying to prove himself to everybody, there’s actually a guy with genuine compassion.”

That may be, but many of Fletcher’s policies and beliefs seem to have more in common with Goff’s than Tamihere’s. She famously shepherded in the Britomart transport hub while mayor of Auckland City, and has generally supported the mayor’s push to incentivise public transport over cars. Tamihere has slammed what he sees as Auckland Transport’s covert “anti-car” agenda and strongly opposes the regional fuel tax Fletcher supported. Goff highlights that division between Fletcher and her running mate at every opportunity. “Council, including Mr Tamihere’s running mate, successfully lobbied government for alternative funding for transport projects in the form of a regional fuel tax,” he says.

Fletcher says any discomfort she has with Tamihere is outweighed by her dissatisfaction with Goff. “John has come along. If three other candidates had come along, I would’ve looked at them closely and worked out who would be the best can-do dealmaker and I would’ve backed them,” she says. “I want Auckland to get ahead. Phil will not take us there. Will John take use there? Yes, I think so, more so than Phil. If another perfect candidate put up their hand — utterly perfect — I’d have to think really hard about [supporting them] because I’d be looking at those issues I think are important.”

Back on the campaign trail, Tamihere is at the Mangere Market. Just as in Otara, few people seem to realise there’s an election coming up. But he has a more passionate campaign team on the ground this time. One volunteer, who gives her name only as Rima, has filled up four sheets of paper with the contact details of potential supporters.

Tamihere is also receiving help from an old political enemy. Veronica Henare helped run Pita Sharples’ campaign when he unseated Tamihere in the 2005 election. Now she’s doing everything she can to restore the political influence of the man she helped oust as an MP. Electing Tamihere is too important to let old differences stand in the way, she says. “This is bigger than national politics. This is about local body. This is about activating our people in south Auckland to come out and vote,” she says. “We’ll break down those walls of political affiliations because local is different. We want the first Maori mayor here for Tamaki Makaurau. For Auckland.”

Tamihere is walking around Mangere Town Centre, trying to win more converts. He mainly picks the easy targets to talk to: people in high-vis vests or friendly-looking shopkeepers. Nick Wright is one of the people who have already been won over. The Maori warden knows Tamihere from when he was a bruising rugby-league centre. Wright had problems with alcohol during his own league days, but says his career was saved by coach Graham Lowe. He argues that Tamihere deserves a similar kind of forgiveness and understanding after his political controversies. “We all make mistakes. We all get a second chance,” he says. “If it wasn’t for rugby league, I’d be in jail.”

More people are going to need to see things like Wright does if Tamihere is to stand a chance of unseating Goff. Tamihere insists his own polling has him within striking distance of the mayor, who he claims is much more unpopular than many pundits believe. However, whispers coming out of Goff’s office are that his polling has him with a comfortable lead — with the incumbent on more than 50% to 22% for Tamihere and 11% for right-wing candidate John Palino.

Today, it looks like Goff’s numbers may be more accurate. After his stop at Mangere, Tamihere is booked to speak to the Manukau Indian Business Association in Papatoetoe. He has been promised an audience of 250. But when he arrives, only about a dozen have turned up. Tamihere turns around and walks back out again.
Still, it’s early days. If Tamihere has proven anything in his 60 years, it’s that he can take a hit — sometimes a self-inflicted one — and bounce back. Whether it’s as one of 12 siblings, in league, or contesting a mayoral race, he is nothing if not a fighter.

As the campaign team are packing up for the day, Tamihere and Henare are reminiscing about their past battles. Tamihere looked dead in the water early on in the campaign against Sharples, but came back to within 3% in one poll, before losing by 11%. “We were backing Papa Pita,” Henare says. “JT was on the other side. JT knew we had become a real threat. History speaks for itself, mate.” Tamihere takes that statement on board. He straightens up, gives her a grin, and looks her in the eye: “But whenever I’ve gone down, I’ve gone down scrapping.”

This piece originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline “John Tamihere is out meeting voters and it’s making him miserable”.

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