Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Super City elections 2013: The front runners - John Palino

Those disillusioned with Len Brown may find themselves voting for an Italian-American political rookie

'I am not a career politician but I am far from being politically naive.' Photo / Herald on Sunday
'I am not a career politician but I am far from being politically naive.' Photo / Herald on Sunday

John Palino is not the gamebreaker the right were pinning their hopes on at this election, but the American-born businessman is the best hope for the conservative and "disillusioned with Len Brown" vote.

It says a lot about the disarray of centre-right politics in Auckland that the political rookie has emerged centre stage at the local body elections.

Big names were sounded out, Orakei councillor Cameron Brewer deemed it too early to run, while National minister Maurice Williamson sniffed the wind and decided Auckland looked better from a taxpayer-funded limousine.

That has left the 53-year-old Palino with a David and Goliath challenge of unseating Brown, who overcame John Banks by 65,495 votes in 2010, with the bonus this election of incumbency on his side.

Palino is an olive-skinned Italian-American who came to New Zealand in 1996 and fell in love with Auckland. He is genial, determined and has chosen the slogan "Auckland I Hear You" to launch himself.

"I am not a career politician but I am far from being politically naive. I'm a businessman and although Auckland is not a business, that is how the city should be run.

"I don't want to change the city, I just want to fix those aspects we know are frustrating Aucklanders - issues such as congestion, public transport access, rates increases, housing affordability and council inefficiencies," he says.

Palino is offering Aucklanders a typically conservative mix of policies, with a twist.

He promises to hold rates at the rate of inflation - the consumer price index, currently running at 0.7 per cent - not the higher, council rate of inflation. He wants an independent review of council spending over the past three years and to monitor staff numbers, wages and the council committee structure.

A regular face at public meetings on the Unitary Plan, Palino wants a rethink of the planning rulebook to give communities and businesses greater certainty, and channel growth into areas where there is local support and adequate infrastructure.

Palino's point of difference at this election is a policy of building a second CBD at Manukau, based around frequent, fast public transport. It would develop commercial growth, alleviate social problems and be funded by selling infrastructure bonds.

"A new CBD-scale urban centre with high-rise living and employment is the most efficient and environmentally responsible approach to managing Auckland's growth," says Palino, who cites it as a better way than intruding into quiet suburbs and crowding out long-standing character neighbourhoods.

On transport, Palino is wary of the big-ticket projects, at one point saying the $2.86 billion city rail link, $5 billion new harbour crossing and $2 billion to $3 billion Ameti project and east-west links "do not deliver good transport outcomes for Auckland".

He is committed to making public transport more attractive - "if we are ever to have the city rail link we're going to have to get the patronage required to justify spending ratepayer money" - and says building park-and-ride facilities is his first priority. These facilities, he says, are the quickest, cheapest and most practical way to relieve pressure on the city's transport network.

These are the policies of a conservative politician, honed with the help of former National Party president and Citizens & Ratepayers president John Slater, who has provided much-needed political advice as his campaign manager. But the truth is Palino has struggled to build his profile - starring in the TV reality show The Kitchen Job does not really cut it - in what has turned into a low-key election with Aucklanders' attention focused on the America's Cup.

It has not been an easy ride - the Palino for Mayor Facebook page was pulled down for several days after Palino tried to invite a number of people to be friends, and there has been sniping from the right.

National Party activist Hamish Price has taken to Facebook to criticise Palino, calling his campaign a joke. National's Howick MP and former Auckland councillor Jami-Lee Ross agreed with Price that the centre-right should focus on winning seats around the council table.

But whatever people think, one thing is clear. Palino is the only serious, right-leaning challenger to Len Brown.

For the record

Age: 53.
Partner: Engaged to Rose Li. Planning marriage next year and having children.
Political career: None.
Ethnicity: Of Italian heritage, born and raised in New Jersey in the US.
Professional background: Entered the restaurant business and studied acting. Moved to New Zealand 18 years ago, worked in marketing and opened Starks cafe/bar in the Civic Theatre. Starred in TV reality show The Kitchen Job. Owns a pizza dough company. Returned to Connecticut in 2012 to open a European-style marketplace.
Other interests: Cooking, building.

- NZ Herald

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