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‘We need to look in the front-vision mirror’ – a very odd afternoon with John Palino

Tim Murphy heads to a café in a South Auckland garden centre to witness a most peculiar mayoral campaign launch.

It is fitting that John Palino’s campaign launch is on February 29. He, too, is a peculiarity who pops-up awkwardly once every few years. It’s also Oscars day, drowning out all but the most melodramatic news.

At his Friend of the Farmer cafe within King’s Plant Barn at Takanini, in pouring rain, Palino has gathered friends and stray gardeners who can afford $6 a cup for a flat white. Journalists have congregated at one end of the eatery, and the ever polite PR man Carrick Graham hovers.

John Palino holds aloft his hat, before throwing it into the ring. Photograph: Tim Murphy

John Palino holds aloft his hat, so that he might throw said item into the ring. Photograph: Tim Murphy

It is a flatteringly heavyweight media contingent: Rebecca Wright, just back at TVNZ from maternity leave, was the journalist who famously car-door-stopped Palino after the last, sprawling, cluster of a mayoral scandal in 2013; Richard Harman, of the highly informed national and international Politik site is standing under a palm; Rob Hosking, NBR’s wise political editor is in town and joins the fray; Todd Niall of RNZ and Maria Slade of Fairfax are getting into position and the Herald‘s team of Bernard Orsman and David Fisher arrives, wet and noting motorway traffic, just on time.

There’s no music. No Burlesque dancer as warm-up. No sponsorship messages from the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. Palino’s announcement itself is short and unenergised. He’s done in a couple of minutes. He’s going to cut rates by 10 per cent and give Auckland the leadership it so lacks. The 10 per cent thing will get the immediate 2pm website headlines.

But Palino knows, the journalists know and probably the crowd, too, that what people want to know from this man is what he had to do with the outing of Mayor Len Brown’s affair with council adviser Bevan Chuang three years ago.

He fronts the media pack, waits for one camera to be adjusted and Wright, in the way of television journalists, takes the lead.

“You talk about restoring trust in the council,” says Wright. “Do you need to restore trust with the people of Auckland given the shambles that your campaign ended in last time?”

Palino: “Well look Rebecca, I wasn’t the one who was found with his pants down in the Ngati Whatua room. Next question, please.”

And so it begins. Journalists want to know why Palino is using the dark presence of political operative Simon Lusk as his campaign chief; why Cameron Slater of Whaleoil set up an interview for him in the Sunday Star-Times, who approached whom to work on this gig, where is Luigi Wewege, the campaign worker who courted Bevan Chuang as go-between, and lots more about dirty, dirty politics.

At first Palino is forced smiles and hands-up exasperation but within minutes his smile is upside down and a sudden bellicosity appears. “I don’t need to lower myself to the dogfight you people want.”

John Palino takes questions from members of the press. Photograph: Tim Murphy

“What ya looking at me like that for, Rebecca?” Palino takes on a puzzled press pack. Photograph: Tim Murphy

Stabbing the air and waving his arms he challenges journalists: “You wanna talk about dirty politics, I’ll tell you about dirty politics”, before offering the view that Len Brown’s team told the media back then that Palino’s people had been involved.

His one-on-one discussion with Chuang before the big scandal broke was actually a chance meeting in which they discussed “opening a Chinese restaurant”. (Chuang later tweeted simply: “The Story keeps changing”). Orsman asks drily: “Why would you have that talk in a car at Mission Bay at 10 o’clock at night?”

The continuing questions on Lusk and Whaleoil – on who is calling the tune in this campaign – provoke a “Whaleoil is not working for me. Why do you keep saying that?” He organised an interview. Would Palino object if he organised more interviews? No answer.

Harman asks if the Palino campaign might go after Michelle Boag, National identity and backer of centre-right mayoral rival Victoria Crone. Of course not. “We will not be running a smear campaign.”

After minutes of this, Palino gets shouty. His voice cracks and he points out at the crowd. “I care about these people,” he says, and proceeds to list the problems of those hurting in the south and other parts of Auckland. “I don’t play dirty,” he adds, looking towards Wright and asking, “What ya looking at me like that for, Rebecca?”

By this time some of the crowd have moved over behind the media pack, gasping at the impertinence and mumbling about not buying any media again. They erupt in applause when the candidate regathers himself and grabs on to his anti-corruption plank.

“There is an awful lot of corruption in this town. If you want somebody to get rid of it…” More applause. He recalls an outrageously expensive public toilet, $15,000 for a plumbing job or something, as an example of the city being bled dry. Fisher, of the Herald, asks if he can reveal the name of the corrupt plumber. Jeers. But Fisher persists. The plumber who committed this act, does Palino have his name. “You’re the reporter, you find out,” one man heckles. “Wood from the neck-up,” chimes in another.

Orsman asks how he rates his chances. Harman wants to know if he’s talked to the National Party, warned the Crone camp he’s entering the fray. The ever calm Todd Niall asks hard questions about the aftermath of 2013 in that low-key and measured way that for a time de-powers the palpable Palino tension. Hosking (the greater) grins enigmatically.

It’s hard not to suspect Palino planned to hit out, to look tough and to play the anti-media line. He probably didn’t expect to have to do it for the entire presser or to open his campaign talking about Len Brown’s bare arse.

Towards the end, he implores the media to stop looking in the rear vision mirror. “We need to be looking in the front-vision mirror.”

The presser concludes and Palino retreats to the rear of the cafe briefly before joining Maori TV for a one-on-one interview. Other media sidle off, one TV cameraman gazing warily beyond the foliage of the garden centre, just in case a posse of angry Palino fans is lying in wait.

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