John Tamihere is the dream Labour Party candidate. He’s earthy, articulate and charismatic. But the thing about dreams is that you wake to find the reality is quite different. And they are sometimes followed by nightmares. You won’t find a person who embodies and articulates the values and attitudes of the New Zealand working-class man better than JT – not in a month of Sundays. But come Monday, the golden boy with the silver tongue could be a dead weight, a lead zeppelin crashing to Earth, punctured with his own dagger of indiscretion.
It really depends on which Tamihere shows up. The one sitting near the back of a central Auckland bar with a glass of white wine and a dozen oysters is a good bloke – the kind often approached by other good blokes. Maori, Pakeha, businessmen, sportsmen – they all want to talk to JT. Stewart Cron, the former All Black, stops by. He recently went to Sir Wilson Whineray’s funeral. “There are two guys that shouldn’t have died,” says Cron. “Him and Sir Edmund. Those two guys should have lived for ever.” JT jumps in: “Hey, mate – they are quintessential Kiwis in terms of everything we wanted from them. They had the humility and the dignity.”
Tamihere used to sound out Whineray for political advice in Parliament back in the years 1999 to 2005. He talked to Sir Ed, too. It’s perhaps not surprising that among Tamihere’s sounding boards were towering figures in both the Maori and Pakeha world. The political scientists call it “crossover”. Tamihere calls himself a “half-breed”. Whatever: it’s the ability to appeal to New Zealanders across race and class, and Tamihere possesses this rare talent in spades.
So what’s the bad bit? Well, just as he opens all those doors he slams others, often jamming fingers. It’s not uncommon for him to upset women, Maori, Pakeha, gays, the cringing left and the rabid right – all in one interview. He doesn’t sound so jarring in a bar, but in print his quotes can shock. Those entering politics are often frightened some skeleton will be revealed in the closet. But for Tamihere, as he contemplates a return to Parliament, that isn’t an issue. His skeletons left the closet long ago and are merrily clanking about the house, sure others will join them.
Being JT isn’t so bad. With Willie Jackson, he hosts the afternoon show on Radio Live to an audience of some 56,000. “They ain’t thick,” he says of the audience. “On a particular issue you can elevate the conversation from ‘Bash the Maoris for abusing their children’.” Those who can’t do that don’t survive, he says. “That’s why Michael Laws has lost his job.”
As for Tamihere’s potential return to politics, it’s important to remember he never really left. He has joined the Maori Council, partly out of respect for co-chair Sir Eddie Durie but also to lend heft to its water claim. The Maori Council also fits his world view of pan-Maori power and his longstanding animosity towards the iwi elite. “It’s the only statutorily licensed organisation with the gravitas to take a pan-tribal approach. See, as iwi-tanga has broken us apart we need commonality, and it provides an opportunity for that.”
Maori with tribal status and commercial power have long been in his sights. “If you have a look at Moana Pacific and at Sealord, they don’t employ Maori in leadership. Our young people can gut fish and clean the floors, but they won’t expose them to administration, management and directorships.” Clearly he has strong political views and gets a chance to air them on radio and debate them on TV.
So, why return to Parliament? As Tamihere defines his political passions, two strands emerge. Economically, he’s hard left, but socially he’s very conservative – not unlike a younger, Labour version of Winston Peters. It’s hardly surprising that some suspect he may be flirting with New Zealand First. When asked recently if he was on good terms with Peters, he reportedly replied that no one was.
What is unquestionable is his grasp of how economics affect ordinary folk and his ability to articulate that. With unemployment once again in the news, it is Tamihere who has been quoted. “Out in West Auckland, I know for a fact, in this economy the first thing that goes are car registrations and warrants and then you get the police traps on our poorest streets,” he says. “Our mothers don’t want to break the law, but they have to get their kids to school.”
He’s equally comfortable discussing the bigger economic picture. “To believe that the private sector is going to salvage us out of the settings of Rogernomics 25 years ago is a joke,” he says. But is Labour the right vehicle for him, given that it didn’t work last time and that many of his views don’t fit? “The Labour Party in history and in principle is okay. The Labour Party as presently manned – for want of a better term …” He shrieks with laughter, not finishing his critique, although it’s no less clear for that. “The party is still a broad church on the ground and is still predominantly low-income, middle-income sweaters. The people who represent them in Parliament are no longer of them.”
He is going to have to fight the party to return to it. “Having a scrap with them is no problem,” he says. “I’m out of heartland Labour. I am one of 12 kids. I’m a half-breed, for Christ’s sake. I don’t limp, so I can’t get the disabled vote.” He shrieks again. He says Labour is struggling. “I would have thought at this part of the electoral cycle, given how bad this Government is doing, they would be going up in the polls rather than back.” He traces the problem back to factions introduced by Helen Clark in the early 1990s. “Not ideological factions but factions based on identity – therein lies the nub of their problem. Then she asserted control of the party by playing off Pakehas vs Maoris vs Pacific Islanders vs gays vs the women vs transgenders,” he says. “So instead of an ideological debate we had an identity-politics debate. Now I want the debate back on the table which is all about economics.”
Has party leader David Shearer the strength to keep that focus? “I think that he is a genuinely decent bloke,” he says. “I think he is well-intentioned. I think he has got the makings of a good Prime Minister, but I think he just doesn’t understand that there are certain apparatchiks in that party that have got other ideas for him.”
To evaluate the merits of Tamihere returning to Parliament, you have to recall how horrible it was for him last time. In 1999, before he was elected, he had to pre-empt a smear campaign by going public about being accused of rape. The allegations were never passed to the police. It wasn’t long before rumours about his handling of the finances at the Waipareira Trust began. In 2004-05 he was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, the police, the Audit Office and the Maori affairs select committee over his financial dealings. He stood down from his ministerial roles. He was never charged but he never got any clear air, either. Along the way there were revelations about drink-driving convictions – and claims he mistreated his cats. Even the things he regards as triumphs were disasters, such as his key role in shaping Labour’s foreshore and seabed legislation. “I had to get the best possible result in the worst possible predicament,” he says. “When we went out on those huis, it was my support team that kept a bunch of those morons in check,” he says. “We just got attacked for being house niggers – that’s what they called us.”
It all ended when he gave an interview to Ian Wishart of Investigate magazine in 2005 – a rambling diatribe against gays, unions, his colleagues and many things they held dear. Tamihere recalls telling the Prime Minister. “I said to Helen, ‘Look, Wishart’s got me hook, line and sinker.’” He lowers his voice to imitate Clark. “‘Don’t worry about it, Johnny – no one reads that filthy rag.’ Next minute: ‘I’ve never read anything so despicable in all my life.’” “I helped slit my throat with my own tongue last time. I accept that, but you have got no idea of the frustrations and constraints.”
Fellow Westie and Labour Party president Mike Williams often picked up the pieces. Yet Williams is supportive of a Tamihere comeback. “When it was floated he was going back, I had very mixed feelings because there were times when he was the bane of my life,” Williams says. “The upside is that he is highly intelligent, he is charismatic and he has clear leadership abilities.” The downside: he is hot-headed, macho and a magnet for controversy.
On balance, Williams says Tamihere is an asset for Labour. “I think John has got more of an idea about what is going on in the head of a bloke in a panelbeater’s shop than the majority of them.” Others disagree. Labour MPs are reluctant to discuss the prospects of a candidate before the person has officially declared his or her interest. But one insider says Tamihere would struggle to get support, and questions whether he’d be effective if he did. The former minister puts Tamihere in the same category as Michael Laws and Pam Corkery – high-profile, populist types who lack the patience and collegiality needed in politics.
“How can you be an effective politician when you act like you want to be an independent?” the former minister asks, adding it is hard to believe Tamihere has changed. But Tamihere, now 53, disputes this claim. “Hey, time mellows,” he says. “I’ve got my first two mokopunas, you see? The smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder is in the house again.”
He knows what he wants to do if he does return. “I would properly revolutionise welfare,” he states boldly. “I know absolutely what would be required and what grows mana in a person who is taking something for nothing.” Tamihere knows a lot about moving people from welfare to work through his time at the Waipareira Trust, which he first headed in 1991, at the age of 32. The trust now employs more than 200 people and was using a form of whanau ora – the one-stop-shop for social services delivered with a Maori world view – before it became government policy. Tamihere returned to the trust after he lost his Tamaki Makaurau seat to Pita Sharples in 2005.
Of course, controversy is never far away. The trust took on former police boss Clint Rickards, who was accused but eventually acquitted of a 1980s rape. “It was controversial. The women’s groups had a meeting with me. I said to them, ‘We’re not a women’s group – we’re whanau and we understand massive imprisonment rates.’ This guy faced a double whammy because he used to lock a lot of their blokes up,” he says with a laugh. “After giving them a beating,” he laughs again. “The guy has a clean record,” he says. “I am not the moral compass of the nation. I run Te Whanau Waipareira and our job is to give redemption if possible, reconciliation if possible and a compassionate chance. So beat that.” He’d rely on this organisation should he run for Parliament again. “They are very gracious and good people; hard, working class people; low-income people. They are all bloody dressed by Stephen Tindall, but that don’t matter – they are still great people.”
They are Tamihere’s kind of people. The 10th of 12 children, born to a Maori dad and a Scottish-Irish mum, he was the first in his family to attend university, where he got a law degree. He was on the fast track to success in the Maori Affairs Department and the law when his brother David was convicted for the murder of two Swedish tourists. “My brother’s murder trial made it extraordinarily difficult for me to operate,” he says. “If the case went against you – was it because of who you were and what you were carrying?” Does he think David is innocent? “I have a vested interest to protect my brother,” he says. “The evidence did not align to a guilty verdict … there was a small matter of finding a body 85km away from the police crime scene,” he says.
As a talkback radio star and the head of a Maori social services agency, Tamihere is a good barometer of Maori-Pakeha relations. Have we become more tolerant? Had the water rights debate happened a decade ago when Don Brash was arguing that Maori enjoyed too many privileges, things would have erupted. Tamihere says the water debate – and Brash’s Orewa speech – have shaped a bicultural nation. “They are quite nationbuilding and nation-changing events. The Brash speech was. That was cathartic because it released a lot of ugliness.” So the Pakeha volcano needs to blow occasionally? “Mike Moore said to me, ‘No one will ever beat the Fowma, right?’ Ever.
He said black men and brown men have to understand that a Fowma will always win. And I said, ‘What is a Fowma?’ He said: ‘It’s a F—ed Off White Man,’” he says, laughing. “That’s what the Mayor of Hiroshima thought the day after.” Gulp. Tamihere might be a trained lawyer, but he’s also been a construction worker. “I’m an earthy, rugby league sort of bloke and I like that sort of humour and it’s earthy and that. Mate, talking to Clark – f—ing hell – different planet, you know? I couldn’t get a connection there.”
There are current Labour MPs he connects with, although he’s reluctant to name them. “Most of them down there are well-intentioned. They are quite patriotic bastards. The fact that half of them are stupid is beside the point. Most of them are there with the right intent.” He’d take a pay cut if he returned to Parliament: “Half my income and my freedom of movement in regards to what we are doing on the street.” But it seems it’s a price he’s prepared to pay. The question is whether his colleagues are also willing to pay the price: having a dream candidate who may cause them recurring nightmares.