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John Tamihere at Auckland Council

AucklandSeptember 27, 2018

Passion and fury as John Tamihere revs up Auckland mayoral ambitions

John Tamihere at Auckland Council

A challenge for the Auckland mayoralty is looming next year, with John Tamihere today turning up at Auckland Council to rattle some cages. But what is he actually standing on? And will he really run? Alex Braae went along to the JT show.

John Tamihere came in early, to stake out a claim on a front row seat in the audience at the Auckland Town Hall. He greeted and shared hongi with supporters who had turned up to watch the show. Mayor Phil Goff came in a few minutes later and slowly made his way over, doing his own meeting and greeting along the way. “Hello John,” he said bracingly, offering his hand. They didn’t speak for long.

The first order of business was to swear in new Howick councillor Paul Young. As the first Auckland councillor of Chinese heritage, his inauguration was marked by lion dancers. Tamihere sat motionless throughout in the front row, one leg crossed over the other, the only movement being occasional twitches of his foot. His shoes looked sharp. He was here to do battle.

But there was a false start. John Tamihere was seated in front of the council before it was realised that another petition had to be presented first. It was to keep the Auckland Dockline Tram running. The petitioner Puneet Dhall boasted that there were now 800 supporters behind the movement. “We love life. And we love the tram,” he began.  He then accused Auckland development CCO Panuku of maximising returns at the expense of community – in a way, it would turn out he was there for the exact same reason as Tamihere.

He stood to deliver a mihi, turning and acknowledging his supporters, and to mark the recent passing of legendary West Auckland local politician Assid Corban. And then, it was all on. Panuku was arrogant. Council housing policies were “discriminatory and egregious.” Auckland Council officials were “corrupt.” What exactly was he on about?

The issue in question, as John Tamihere’s Waipariera Trust sees it, is that Panuku’s cap on social housing within developments discriminates against the poor, beneficiaries and the elderly. Grey Power’s President Bill Rayner was there to back him up on that point. Tamihere brandished a legal opinion saying the 30.9% cap on social housing development (as part of the mixed development practices sometimes called ‘pepper-potting’) was discriminatory. He said he had taken that legal opinion to Panuku, and their response had been to tell him to get lost.

Every now and again he’d head down a different tangent, finding a different populist issue to rail about to illustrate the wider thrust of his argument. At one point Tamihere brought up Auckland Transport’s proposal to lower the CBD speed limit to 30kmh. “You’re out of control!” he exclaimed. Perhaps in an effort to take back control of the floor, at the end of it, Goff icily remarked that the council had given him twice as much time as he was entitled to. 

And it went back and forth between them throughout the question and answer session. The mayor attacked Tamihere’s “unfortunate and defamatory” description of council officials as corrupt. Councillor Penny Hulse did the same and asked why there was even a discussion over the “trumped up legal nonsense” that had been brought in. “That was a great speech in normalising the abnormal,” shot back Tamihere, raising the hackles of everyone around the table. “There’s no such thing as a trumped up legal opinion.”

But hang on, said the mayor. He had talked to the housing minister Phil Twyford, and there was a budget for 1,000 social houses to be built each year. If they weren’t built in one development, they’d just be built in another. It rather skewered the passion underpinning the points being made by Tamihere – that more social housing needed to be built.

But the way the morning went wasn’t really a reflection on policies, facts or data. It was about the mood of the many Aucklanders who’ve been left out of development and growth. The 60% of Pacific Islanders and 55% of Māori who are renters rather than owners. People sleeping in their cars. When pressed for evidence by councillor Chris Darby, Tamihere deftly pivoted back to what he actually wanted to talk about, reiterating the points again and again about poorer people suffering from social housing shortages, and attacking Panuku. “That’s my empirical evidence,” he finished with a flourish, after passionately delivering a series of qualitative denunciations. His supporters stood in waiata when he was done.

John Tamihere turning to address the audience at the Auckland Council meeting (Alex Braae)

The subtext to it all was recent comments made to the NZ Herald that if Phil Goff didn’t “sort out social housing”, John Tamihere would run against him next year and take his job. There’s an eight-week deadline before he throws his hat in the ring formally – all Panuku needs to do is get a competing legal opinion and provide it to the Waipareira Trust, and the whole thing would go away. Except, it didn’t seem like it was about to all go away, because Mr Tamihere framed himself as “an advocate of one half of the city”. The small end of town, the downtrodden and dispossessed. And if he didn’t stand up for those people, who would stop them being “ground down by the ratepayer chequebook”? And if he did have to run against his former Labour caucus colleague? “Oh, so sad too bad for Phil.”

And there’s been a lot of support for him running, he says. There were a few major issues that a mayoral candidate would need to run on: bring public service back into the council controlled organisations, changing the culture from the top. Invest in infrastructure with money from central government, to help Auckland with the “human tsunami” hitting it with population growth.

He hasn’t yet decided about whether he’d stand down from some of his many roles if he does run. He hasn’t yet got his wife’s agreement to run. It’s not a done deal yet. But there’s been an issue to grandstand on, he has a profile, and he’s even had a crack at a mayoral race before in Waitakere. On that run, he said he took a number of issues to then-mayor Bob Harvey about things that weren’t right in West Auckland, and was told “to get out of his office in graphic detail”. Tamihere said he resolved then and there “in a fit of pique” to run against him, and cut Harvey’s vote share to below 50% for the first time. Would spite drive him to try and take down Phil Goff? “It’s not out of spite, it’s because little people have a right in this city.”

The press conference finished with Katie Bradford from One News pressing him on whether he would have done anything in his previous political and media careers differently. He effectively lost not one, but two jobs, for comments that many women considered deeply offensive,. First of all describing his Labour caucus colleagues as “front-bums,” and then later finishing up his Radio Live show after victim-blaming questions to a girl who was friends with someone allegedly sexually assaulted by the so-called Roastbusters. So would he change anything? “I was in too much of a hurry, and I ran into the sisterhood of Clark and co, so I didn’t fare too well.” Do you still think there’s a sisterhood? “Oh, I suspect so, hashtag Me Too and all that.”

It was a morning of passion and fury, the likes of which councils rarely get to see, a spark of life that enlivened the normally pedestrian proceedings. But when the press conference after the presentation was over, the council was still sitting, grinding through the business of the day. The public gallery was almost completely empty. The show was over, but the work had to go on.

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