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Political Roundup: Could John Tamihere “make Auckland great again”? 

by Dr Bryce Edwards

Get ready for a more lively local government contest in New Zealand’s biggest city this year. Recent local election campaigns have been relatively dull affairs. In fact, at the last elections in 2016, voter turnout slumped to the lowest level for some time – with only about 38 per cent bothering to turn out. But this year’s Auckland mayoralty contest looks set to be the most colourful in a while.

Auckland City, the backbone to New Zealand economy.

The contest is shaping up to be between two very different centrist politicians: Phil Goff, the grey technocrat, versus John Tamihere the wild post-political populist.

A red-blue double act of “post-political” unity

Launching his campaign in the weekend, Tamihere surprised many with the campaign he has constructed, which involves big political players from across the political spectrum. In particular, by including Christine Fletcher as his running mate for deputy mayor, Tamihere’s campaign could be seen as a very clever attempt to put forward a “post-political” option for Auckland voters. It’s being sold as a team that is putting its ideological backgrounds and loyalties aside for the good of the wider city. This will have some immediate appeal in our anti-political age.

Auckland Stuff journalist Todd Niall has been covering the recent developments well, and refers to the Tamihere/Fletcher ticket as “a red-blue double act”, but says it isn’t yet clear if the combo is “a stroke of genius, or a strike-out” – see his column today: Which John Tamihere will run for Auckland mayor?

Niall explains the logic behind the red-blue council ticket: “The winners of Auckland’s three previous mayoral contests – Len Brown twice and Phil Goff once –have cleaned up not only in their Labour-heritage heartlands of the west and south, but also done well in blue areas across Pakuranga, Howick and the isthmus. Victory has been about broad appeal”.

But Niall isn’t yet convinced it’s a winning formula, asking the following questions: “Can Tamihere achieve the crossover needed to get election-winning support, and if not can Fletcher’s presence persuade blue voters to “come on in, the water’s fine” ? Can he deliver his strong views on social housing, in a way that doesn’t suggest a conflict of interest with Waipareira? For both Tamihere and Fletcher, can their pairing with a running-mate some might consider a polar opposite, enhance rather than damage their own support bases?”

Nevertheless, Niall also argues that the Tamihere/Fletcher campaign “could be the most intriguing bid yet in four elections in the Super City.” In fact, writing prior to the announcement, he also argued that the campaign was shaping up to be interesting: This year’s race could be the most interesting since the inaugural ‘clash of the titans’ duel of 2010, in which Len Brown beat former National and Act party MP John Banks” – see: The summer of Auckland mayoral wannabees.

In this article, Niall draws attention to the centrist political operating styles of both Goff and Brown as mayors. But he says that a Tamihere-Fletcher combo would be the first campaign to “feature a US Presidential-style running mate”. This “would provide plenty for voters to get their heads around, trying to figure out the direction the pair would take.”

The New Zealand Herald’s editorial on this development in the Auckland mayoral race also says that it “should make for a lively start to local body election year” – see: John Tamihere offers a shake-up to mayoralty but he could be vulnerable to attack .

The Herald explains why the Tamihere/Fletcher combo is strategically clever: “The Labour Party would classify Tamihere on the right too but he will probably have more appeal to many in Labour’s constituency, especially Māori, than to conservative or business-minded voters. It is probably to appeal to the latter constituency that Tamihere is running on a ticket with Christine Fletcher, a former mayor and still a councillor. Fletcher stands to be Deputy Mayor and gives the ticket an element of local body experience that Tamihere lacks.”

The logic of this left-right unity strategy is also put forward by leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury: “that’s important because the fundamental changes Tamihere is seeking in forcing Central Government to pay for Auckland’s growth and the vast increase in social housing he is proposing will demand across the spectrum support. If elected, Tamihere would be Auckland’s first ever Māori Mayor, something that won’t go unnoticed in the South and West Auckland voting bloc. Tamihere’s attack against the large vested corporate interests of Auckland has been part of his previous attack on Goff and his ‘Auckland for us not them’ narrative will be heard across the city” – see: Tamihere brings together left-right coalition to defeat Goff.

Tamihere’s anti-establishment populism

There’s more than a hint of anti-Establishment politics to Tamihere’s campaign. Everything from his five-point plan, which includes the populist promise to “Clean the house” through to the main slogan of “Shake it up and sort it out” is vintage populist politics, and even reminiscent of some of Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign. There’s a very clear theme amongst Tamihere’s campaign, so far, about the need to “take back control”.

Some of this can be seen in TVNZ’s coverage: John Tamihere announces bid for Auckland mayor, crosses party line for running mate. This article reports Tamihere’s “promise to ‘open the books and clean the house’ at Auckland council, ensuring a thorough audit of where taxpayer money is being spent.”

According to TVNZ, Tamihere “said he wants control of the city to go back to the people instead of ‘faceless managers in central Auckland’. Other issues Mr Tamihere has pledged to address include social housing, homelessness, the regional fuel tax and council spending. Key themes of his campaign are integrity, efficiency, democracy and leaving a better legacy for the children of our generation.”

Some of this will resonate widely, especially for those who believe Phil Goff hasn’t been active enough as mayor. See, for example, the Herald’s editorial comments on Tamihere’s pitch, pointing out that Goff hasn’t delivered: “the shake-up he promised for the council last time has hardly happened. The council still seems detached from the needs and concerns of citizens and may need a new broom.”

Tamihere’s running-mate is also channeling a more outspoken style. Bernard Orsman reports: “Christine Fletcher has unleashed an extraordinary attack on Phil Goff, accusing the mayor of weak leadership and failing to make Wellington sit up and listen by holding their feet to the fire” – see: Christine Fletcher calls Phil Goff a weak leader who has failed Auckland.

Amongst many criticisms of Goff, the article points out “Fletcher was one of nine councillors to sign a letter to Goff last year saying he runs a ‘non-inclusive style of leadership’ and trust and transparency at council is getting worse. As deputy designate on a mayoral ticket with Tamihere, Fletcher said Goff works alone behind closed doors with bureaucrats, commissioning expensive reports from consultants that only come to light for councillors under the Official Information Act.”

Phil Goff has responded to some of this criticism, especially about the so-called “Goff gas tax”, pointing out that Fletcher actually voting in favour of it – see RNZ’s Phil Goff fires back: Dumping ‘Goff’s gas tax’ would create $4.3b revenue gap, Auckland mayor says.

Goff adds: “Before anybody criticises a form of revenue, they’ve got to say how they’d fill the revenue gap of $4.3 billion if they were to do away with it, and if you don’t do that there’s a real question of credibility.”

Tamihere’s past 

Tamihere’s possibility of success might hinge on whether Auckland voters care about his past controversies – which are very well covered in Scott Palmer’s John Tamihere’s most controversial moments.

Will people hold past misdemeanours against him? As Grant Duncan of Massey University comments, “Possibly people are prepared to put that in the past. But people I’m sure will start to drag up some of those old stories as the campaign goes forward” – see Newshub’s ‘Old stories’ may derail John Tamihere’s mayoralty bid – expert.

Duncan also says: “One thing you can’t accuse Mr Tamihere of is political correctness. He is entertaining and an outspoken person, and it will be interesting to see how he gets along with Christine Fletcher.”

Todd Niall has also dealt with this, reporting from the Tamihere/Fletcher announcement: “His running-mate Christine Fletcher said at their campaign launch that Tamihere had ‘matured and moved on’ since the episode in which he’d described women as ‘frontbums’. Tamihere’s demeanour went steely when his past was raised, obliquely asking in return whether anyone had not learned from mistakes.”

Tamihere was also interviewed this morning on RNZ’s Morning Report, and responded to a question about his past controversies, saying “Here’s the thing, my name is JT not JC. I’m not totally in control of the whole shooting match all the time, I make mistakes. I’ve indicated I own them, what do you want me to do – jump off the Harbour Bridge?” – see: Tamihere bids for Auckland mayoralty: ‘My name’s JT, not JC’.

It’s possible that raising these controversies might even work in Tamihere’s favour. As with the 2016 attacks on Donald Trump – especially by Hillary Clinton and her supporters – sometimes this can actually play into the hands of those under fire. Martyn Bradbury has put the case for this: “I think a woke attack by Goff could be terribly counter productive. Many Aucklanders stuck in traffic every day are furious at smug pronouncements from woke activists on cycling, and if the attack against Tamihere are seen as coming from that part of the political spectrum, Tamihere could throw caution to wind, assume he has nothing to lose… and come out with some populist attack on cycle lanes and reap the vast angry chunk of Auckland’s gridlocked voter block.”

Finally, for the most in-depth and recent examination of Tamihere’s past and present orientation to various controversies, as well as how he plans to take Auckland forward, see Simon Wilson’s John Tamihere on Roast Busters, front bums and running for Auckland mayoralty.