Rivals stir it up over Tamaki Makaurau

By Jon Stokes

The body language says it all.

John Tamihere, arms folded, eyes fixed forward, mouth switching smoothly from defiance to a crooked smirk.

To his right, Pita Sharples, his opponent in the hotly contested Tamaki Makaurau seat, head bent, eyes down, peering at earnestly clasped hands - he fidgets and looks like a man preparing to pray.

Before the pair is a Radio Live microphone, connecting them to the ears of potential voters, and to casual listeners eager for a sound bite from divergent voices of Maoridom.

The night before, the results of a Maori Television-TNS poll showed the battle for the Auckland-based Maori seat is close. Dr Sharples leads by just 6 percentage points. The margin of error in the poll of 350 voters is about 5 per cent.

Debate is brisk, and opinions divided, but the pair are civil. When the commercial radio station hosting their debate cuts to an ad-break, they chat casually. There is gentle teasing and the odd chuckle.

They talk of mutual respect for Don Brash, despite his recent proclamations against Maori. Dr Sharples thinks he is a humble man. Mr Tamihere doubts he wants to be National's leader.

Back on air, the MP bangs on about a vote for the Maori Party being a vote for National, a campaign started on Maori Radio earlier this week.

The line works, unsettling Dr Sharples.

He struggles to maintain his composure as Mr Tamihere slips in the mantra whenever he can.

Dr Sharples urges Maori to support him and his party as an independent voice for Maori in Parliament. Labour's Maori MPs won't stand up for Maori when the heat from caucus goes on, he says.

Mr Tamihere doesn't argue, but questions how useful the Maori Party voice can be yelling from the sidelines of Government.

At the end of the debate, as the pair head out for more interviews and further campaigning, the good-natured teasing continues.

Out of the public gaze and glare of cameras, frowns replace the smiles.

Mr Tamihere says this election has been the toughest battle of his political career.

He is polite about his opponent, who he describes as a genteel bloke.

He would much prefer to come up against the more radical voice of Maoridom such as Te Tai Tokerau candidate Hone Harawira, or Ikaroa-Rawhiti hopeful Atareta Poananga.

"The brutal face of Maori fundamentalists is a far more appealing target. Pete [Pita] doesn't engage."

Mr Tamihere says the Maori Party has raised plenty of questions, but has provided few answers, unlike Labour.

Working the crowd at Clendon Shopping Centre at lunchtime after the debate, his popularity with flax-root urban Maori is evident.

Warm "kia ora" greetings and quick hugs and kisses follow him through the working-class mall.

"All the best, Mr Tamihere" a smiling Pacific Island woman offers.

Mr Tamihere says the difference between himself and Dr Sharples is his ability and the ability of the Labour Maori caucus to deliver for Maori.

"They can make all these promises and say all these things, but hey, they will never be in Government."

He points at major gains made by Maori under his party's governance. Gains only his party can and will maintain.

"Maori unemployment is down; Maori in industry training and apprenticeships is up; tertiary participation is up."

He says being in Government is about compromise and making the hard decisions, something Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia has shown she is incapable of.

Questions of regret raise the eyebrows of Mr Tamihere.

"Yes, I have one regret - talking to my mate, Ian Wishart."

Mr Tamihere's criticisms of a number of his caucus colleagues, women and gays, run in Wishart's Investigate magazine, cast the MP into the dog-box.

There is a reluctance to discuss what will happen after the election if he is not given the nod by Auckland's Maori.

Before heading off to another meeting, and to rally his supporters, Mr Tamihere makes a final admission.

"Pete's as worried as I am."

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