Mark Thomas was just 30 when, on the cusp of becoming a National MP, he was publicly knifed by his own Prime Minister and made history.
He was our first sacrificial lamb under the MMP electoral system, ruthlessly cut by Jim Bolger two days before general election day in 1996, when National decided Act’s Richard Prebble was the best chance of beating Labour in the Wellington Central seat.
Thomas, a curly haired idealist who was leading in the polls, starred in a remarkable fly-on-the-wall TV documentary, Campaign, which captured him hearing on his big, old-time cell phone of Bolger’s moment of betrayal.
It is one of the saddest sights in New Zealand politics. Sadder, possibly, than those images years later of Bill English being heckled as he walked home alone and desolate across Parliament’s forecourt after being deposed as National Party leader.
In Tony Sutorius’s documentary, Thomas let off one F-bomb on camera (“Fucking Prick”), as he took calls while driving, eating a pie and changing gears on his manual car simultaneously. Remarkably, he re-gathered himself, behaving for the rest of the film with more decorum than any dead man walking could be expected to exhibit.
Three years later he just missed entering Parliament on National’s list. Then he disappeared into the safety of corporate life, restaurant owning, fatherhood, business consulting – which included working with the Auckland Transition Authority that formed the Super City – and, for the past five years, politics-of-sorts as an Auckland local board member in Orakei.
Which is a long way of saying some famous political roadkill from yesteryear is re-entering the ring of big time politics; Thomas is the “other guy” in the Auckland mayoralty race.
At 49, he is as bright-eyed, self-confident and motor-mouthed as the young man in Campaign. Back then, he is captured on film thinking out loud how he can spin the Prime Minister’s words. Now, he’s ready for the obvious discussion on whether he should stand aside in this election and allow the other main centre-right candidate, Victoria Crone, a clearer run to defeat “independent” Labourite, Phil Goff.
“It was 20 years ago,” he says, anticipating reference to Campaign as we talk at the one table in the Golden Heart Bakery on Queen’s Rd shopping strip in Panmure.
He claims not to have taken the betrayal personally, not to have been crushed, scarred or even disenchanted with Bolger or National. “Jim Bolger was very kind in his memoirs, saying it was one of the hardest things he had to do. And my philosophy in life was not to take things personally.”
Thomas stayed a member of National. Never thought about leaving. However he’s not tempted back into seeking a Parliamentary seat. “No, not really. I went to too many MP farewells for people who never saw their families. I always thought if I do it, it would be when I was younger, that’s why I stood in 96 – when I was 30.”
Today, married to Deloitte senior partner Wendy Lai and with two children aged 13 and 10, Thomas is standing for a role some say is even more demanding than being an MP.
He is a networker. A former C&R activist and member of the Institute of Directors, Thomas says he involved himself in this mayoral campaign initially to find someone good enough to stand. “I wanted to get the best candidate. I spoke to Michael [Barnett, of the Chamber of Commerce] and Cameron [Brewer, councillor). I met all the CEOs and it was going nowhere and the Goff clock was ticking.”
He idly mentions some names of CEOs sounded out or on target lists – Rob Fyfe, ex Air New Zealand, Ralph Norris, ex Commonwealth Bank, and Stephen Tindall, the Warehouse founder. And then an unlikely name, one Thomas almost swallows as he utters it: Mark Weldon of MediaWorks.
“I asked 17 councillors if they wanted to be mayor. I know them all. Desley [Simpson, the Orakei board chair and a likely council candidate] wasn’t interested. I got to a certain point where there was no one. People started saying: ‘Why don’t you do it. Someone’s got to put some skin in the game, or we will have a coronation.’”
He’s not an Aucklander, having been born in Te Kuiti, then farm-raised and schooled in Rotorua. (Te Kuiti! James Brendan Bolger, MP for King Country, how could you?)
But given he’s been closely involved through local board work in the council’s finance, strategy, unitary plan and economic development areas, and with his Auckland business experience, he decided to put in. And stay in.
With the centre-right having found Crone, the former Xero managing director, why doesn’t Thomas bow out? His answer is blunt. “It’s about serious people who have serious things to say. You have got to know what you’re talking about. Having been part of the council for five years and with the background I have, I’ve got a good handle on it.”
Is Thomas National’s man, though? “I’m definitely not. I think that locks you into a way of thinking that I sense Aucklanders do not want. I am the man in the middle here.”
Thomas was young and hungry in the documentary and seems always to have been in a hurry.
His “passion” and “intensity” might have helped him as a young worker at McDonalds to end up representing New Zealand at its “Olympic” event in Los Angeles in hamburger making. He was, at 21, the company’s youngest restaurant manager, running the Queen St golden arches.
Now, he rat-a-tat-tats out his key messages rather than burgers – figures, council acronyms, and the names of those he “gets on well with” from all ends of the Super City.
He’s also in a hurry to get going, if elected. While Crone talks of the need to improve Auckland’s planning to, say, 50 years ahead as in her business experience, Thomas wants to be the man for action.
“I’m looking at the next five years to hold myself accountable for getting things done. And I’ll be around to see it happen. The liveable city, and the 30 year plan – that’s too much of the 30 years and not enough on the short-term. We’ve had five years of planning. We’ve done planning for Africa”.
Although he’s an insider in the Super City apparatus, he claims to be the change candidate.
“I’m in a hurry, but it’s a purposeful hurry.” Revealingly, Thomas mentions a term from his business consulting work: “It’s called taking advantage of the ‘change halo’. You’ve got to keep low and move fast.”
He wants to sell the port company and the council’s airport shares, an “asset swap” to move the proceeds into public projects such as transport.
More from Tim Murphy on the Auckland 2016 mayoral race:
Thomas is keen on bucking the tradition of a new mayor presenting a “status quo” budget within weeks of being elected. His immediate budget would go to public consultation offering voters a “pick and mix” – a zero increase in rates, with $35m cut from council spending immediately, or a 2% or 4% option. They’d “choose” by submitting their views.
He wants to make rates variable – with the city divided into six rating regions. So, one part of Auckland could opt for no rate rise, others for up to 4%, their services amended accordingly.
Thomas reckons he’s seen more of the Super City than anyone bar the incumbent Mayor Len Brown. “It’s 4900 square kilometres … In the last little while I’ve been in Puhinui, Whenuapai, Warkworth, the AUT ethnic summit, here in Panmure and tomorrow to Pukekohe.”
When the interview is over, he merrily hands his campaign business card to a bemused baker behind the counter, slings his smart light brown suit jacket over his shoulder and strides off like a 30-year-old to the Panmure rail station to ride back to the CBD.
Thomas exudes a feeling of freedom in this mayoral push. His fate is in his hands. There’ll be no Bolger, arm raised Caesar-like, to decide whether Thomas the candidate lives or dies.
Mark Thomas on:
Success of the Super City
“I would never go back, but it hasn’t worked well enough. I absolutely do not believe it’s delivered the savings numbers. The ATA business case has not stacked up in a lot of ways.”
“I’m going to reorganise Auckland Transport. I’ve worked out that under the Act, Auckland Council can set operating rules for it. And I would set up six regional transport boards with members from AT and local boards. These would have much more focus on the things Aucklanders want done, like fixing Lake Rd (Devonport-Takapuna), the Waterfront Drive and Dominion Rd.”
“I have a target to cut the Council’s ‘governance and support’ budget of $400m per year, and its ‘economic and cultural’ budget of $817m a year. That (latter) one is largely Ateed. I would prioritise what they are doing; I don’t think they’ve been very effective on their economic development area. I would encourage the private sector to get more into that. And the other functions I would merge with the Regional Facilities Auckland.”
“This is all about Auckland’s growth. We need to focus on land supply, funding and importantly, the processing by the Council. We need quicker customer management processes. Not enough land has been released quickly enough.
“I may need to be more of a self-promoter, maybe in asking my supporters to be less quiet in their support. There’ll be more visible publicity. It is my strategy to be the most credible candidate to take on Phil Goff.”
What car he drives
“Umm, a diesel … Ah, a Santa Fe [Hyundai].”
Please note that the occasionally troublesome opinions expressed above are not those of our wonderful sponsors at NZ On Screen.