At the mayoral debate at Grey Power, John Tamihere was among friends, or at least enemies of his enemies (Photo: Hayden Donnell)

Inside the enclave of old that may win John Tamihere the mayoralty

The Spinoff is covering local elections across the country with a new pop-up section. To kick things off, Hayden Donnell went to a mayoral debate at Grey Power on the North Shore of Auckland.

This feature was made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

John Tamihere walked into the mayoral debate at North Shore Grey Power on Friday just minutes after revealing his plans to turn the Auckland Harbour Bridge into an 18-lane, double-storey behemoth. Outside the meeting, people were saying “WTF”. Bike Auckland had linked to a photo of the Harbour Bridge doing a loop-de-loop on Twitter. NZTA was revealing it hadn’t been consulted on the idea. Mayor Phil Goff’s campaign manager Leroy Beckett was on his phone, frantically trying to approve a statement saying the bridge makeover would cost $10 billion and bankrupt Auckland. News organisations were scrambling to cover the idea in varying shades of scepticism.

None of that mattered inside the enclave of old at the Netball North Harbour Centre. There, Tamihere was among friends, or at least enemies of his enemies. The almost entirely Pākehā audience of Grey Powerites hadn’t come to talk about the feasibility of Harbour Bridge upgrades. They’d come hungry for mayoral blood, and Phil Goff was there to serve it to them. 

The first smattering of boos came after about an hour. A man had risen to ask about plans to develop a carpark in central Takapuna into a town centre. His contention seemed to be that council was going to use a replacement carpark it was developing as a cash-grab. When Goff said consultation had shown people support the town centre plan, the hecklers erupted. “Rubbish,” one shouted. North Shore Grey Power president Bill Rayner called on the questioner to relinquish the microphone. He would not. It was eventually cut off by the sound technician.

Even that could not defeat the man, for he was legion. When he sat, more disgruntled people rose to take his place, in a kind of aggrieved, geriatric version of the “I’m Spartacus” scene. Some backed Grey Power’s call for a rates freeze on the elderly. Goff, 67, pointed out he’s mortgage-free while his grandchildren have mortgages worth five to seven times their income. He wouldn’t be able to face them if he gave himself a rates discount while they missed out. “Would you be able to look your grandchildren in the eye if you got a rates freeze and they didn’t?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply. 

They kept getting up. The crowd hated the council’s useless consultation methods and its out-of-control council-controlled organisations. At a more fundamental level they were upset at all these plans to change the sleepy suburbs they felt like they used to know.

Tamihere isn’t a natural ally to this crowd, with his Labour roots and his history of unpredictability. But he was in his element on the roiling ocean of discontent. He opened with a threat to sue Goff if he ever again accused him of being sacked as a cabinet minister. It got more negative after that. Cheers erupted every time he spoke about the ways the council was screwing up. Rates were going up too much, he said. Goff was useless at negotiating with his “Labour Party mates”, who’d saddled Auckland with an 11.5c petrol tax that no other region was paying. “I had the displeasure of being in the same party for six years in parliament,” he said. “What torture.” Most of all, Panuku and Auckland Transport were running roughshod over the people. “I’ve already said Auckland Transport’s board is outta there the day I become mayor,” he said. “Hooray,” someone shouted back.

The audience’s eyes only started to glaze over when Tamihere started talking about actual policy. They didn’t care so much about his plans for the port. They wanted to hear about how Goff was “waging war on motorists”. It wasn’t what Tamihere was for that counted, it was what he was against. And what he was against could yet be his ticket to the mayoralty.

The crowd had come hungry for mayoral blood, and Phil Goff was there to serve it to them (Photo: Hayden Donnell)

While the Grey Power meeting was more fiery than most, different versions of this same fight are playing out across the country. Tamihere may be trying to ride a wave of conservatism and dissatisfaction to the mayoral office, but he’s far from the only one. In Wellington, Sir Peter Jackson is bankrolling a mayoral bid by councillor Andy Foster, and has sent an email out to Weta Workshop staff inviting them to consider echoing his support. The multi-millionaire director is opposing an apartment development at Shelly Bay, accusing the council of “dodgy behaviour” and “crazy, idiot decisions”. In Hamilton, the battle is playing out in reverse, with a cluster of progressive mayoral candidates led by 26-year-old Louise Hutt looking to dislodge the business-as-usual approach of the incumbent, Andrew King. Most elections can be boiled down to a referendum on change, and whether councils are making it too quickly or too slowly. 

In that environment, progressive candidates often have a harder path to victory. Say what you like about the crowd at North Shore Grey Power, but they vote. Turnout in the last local body elections was around 44% nationwide. But that was distorted by turnout at both ends of the age spectrum. Nearly 90% of people aged 70 or more voted, compared to 34% of people aged 18 to 29. In Auckland, the average voter was a Pākehā man aged 55 or older. Unsurprisingly, 75% of the candidates elected to the council and local boards were age 45 or above. Just more than that – 76% – were Pākehā. 

Tamihere isn’t a natural ally to this crowd, with his Labour roots and his history of unpredictability. But he was in his element on the roiling ocean of discontent (Photo: Hayden Donnell)

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Back at the Netball North Harbour Centre, Tamihere emerged from the meeting into the harsh glare of scrutiny. Newshub had set up in the carpark outside and its reporter wanted an interview. In it, Tamihere admitted he hadn’t thoroughly costed his Harbour Bridge plans, saying the “back-of-the-envelope” estimate was $2 billion. The proposal was about having a “conversation”, he said. 

Meanwhile, Goff was arguing upgrading State Highway 1 on either side of the bridge to accommodate the traffic generated by Tamihere’s proposal would mean the destruction of hundreds of homes. It looked like he was winning the battle when it came to issuing logical, feasible policy ideas. But inside Grey Power, none of that mattered. Saying sensible, calming things doesn’t work when people are hopping mad, and if recent political history has shown anything, it’s that promising to hurt the people that voters want to hurt is often more effective than coming up with sane policy

Goff quickly strode to his car after the meeting. When asked how many in the audience he thought would vote for him, he didn’t have to think long. He quickly looked up, then channelled Scribe. “Not many, if any,” he said.

This feature was made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.



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