TV talent gets political to paint his hometown red

By Catherine Milford

Labour man Tamati Coffey hopes to win the hearts and minds of voters in his hometown - and is determined to brush off the homophobic and racist `haters'.

Tamati Coffey, potential Labour candidate for Rotorua. Photo / Michael Craig
Tamati Coffey, potential Labour candidate for Rotorua. Photo / Michael Craig

It's a familiar scene: Tamati Coffey, surrounded by a small crowd, his trademark grin plastered across his face as people clamour to talk to him.

But this time the crowds aren't wannabe singers and magicians hoping New Zealand's Got Talent will launch their new careers, or locals who've turned up to watch a TVNZ Breakfast weather scene. It's the people of Rotorua, who are asking Coffey if he can really help them.

"The other day I was having my lunch outside when a lady approached me and asked whether I would raise the issue of the high numbers of youth suicide, as her son took his own life this year, and she feels helpless," says Coffey, 34. "A few days earlier someone else asked me, in tears, what I planned to do about shorter lead times for sentencing, as her child was murdered and she had to wait over a year for the case to go to court. This is my life now - people will walk up to me and tell me their issues."

The move to politics is a bold one from a man who has spent the past 10 years as one of TVNZ's most popular presenters - not least because his decision to enter politics has firmly closed the door on his television career.

That is even more the case since Shane Taurima, former general manager of TVNZ's Maori and Pacific unit, resigned when it was revealed he had participated in a Labour Party strategy meeting and attended a fundraising meeting at work. "That was poor judgment on Shane's part," says Coffey.

"Geographically, the Maori and Pacific department was a real trek away from the rest of the building. They mostly worked on their own - that's how he could do it and it not become public knowledge."

Tamati Coffey chats to students from the Travel and Tourism School.
Tamati Coffey chats to students from the Travel and Tourism School.

Unsurprisingly, the fallout from the Taurima affair has stirred up strong feelings in the former TVNZ staffer, who is concerned that TV presenters may now be forced to air their political beliefs. "I get a sinking feeling - I don't believe people should have to live in fear, and I have encountered a real sense of that in people working in Government-funded industries," says Coffey.

Indeed, his mother Rangi works for the Ministry of Justice in Rotorua. "Mum is so excited about my move into politics, and wants to help me in any way possible, but she is worried about how this will affect her at work," he says.

"People should be able to stand up and be proud of their beliefs, not fearful of showing allegiance for fear of losing their jobs. Your position in a role should be about your ability to do the job well and fairly, not about your politics.

"The role of anyone in the media, in whatever form, is to report the facts fairly. I'm a Labour man but I could still write a credible, two-sided story about John Key, or the Greens or the Maori Party."

His solution? "State your alignments and be proud of them, but know that everyone is always up for scrutiny. And that's as it should be."

Coffey knows a lot about scrutiny, after rumours that his departure from TVNZ was the result of a fallout.

"It was nothing like that," explains Coffey, who had been working for several months as a fill-in presenter on Seven Sharp after Greg Boyed resigned in September.

"I always knew the seat at Seven Sharp wasn't mine. Mike Hosking's name had been whispered from the start, so while it was fine for a time that wasn't my seat. I did everything I was supposed to, did my job - but it was never what I wanted to do.

"So when the role came to an end, and TVNZ asked me if I wanted to stay or go, I chose to go. It was time to take control of my life - there were still a few things on my bucket list."

And so he has returned to his first love - politics.

Coffey still oozes the charm that made him a star 10 years ago when he started his television career as a children's presenter on the TVNZ show What Now in 2004, but he's a very different beast to "that happy bloke from the TV". And he's determined to prove his political chops - despite some opposition.

Coffey is Maori and gay, and has fielded significant racist and homophobic abuse online, as well as accusations that he lacks qualifications for politics. "I've been asked: 'Is Rotorua ready for a gay MP?' Seriously, what sort of a question is that?" he demands.

"What has me being gay got to do with whether I can do the job? I should be judged on what I can do for Rotorua, not the fact I'm gay."

The question over his sexuality clearly annoys Coffey, whose entire ethic is based on people's right to choose who and what they are, but he insists the negativity and whispering doesn't upset him.

"Most objectors don't like the fact I'm gay, others don't like my skin colour. Some of the online reaction has been just feral." He cites a post by Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater, who wrote: "There are already too many gays in [Labour] caucus."

Slater's readers responded in kind: "Another filthy homo swells the Labour ranks"; "Jesus, how many more faggots do they need?"

Coffey says: "I can't help but think, really? There are still people who openly talk like this? But after 10 years working in television I have broad shoulders and a very thick skin. I'm very difficult to offend. I have never let negativity get to me before, and I never will.

"Standing for politics is a lot like television - there will always be people who don't like me but that's not my issue. My absolute passion, my life slogan, is to help make the world a better place, and I think I can do that in Rotorua."

Having grown up in Wellington, Coffey spent many years living between Auckland and Rotorua, where he bought his parents' house for them in 2009.

Coffey is the first to admit he has much to learn but he is pretty confident he understands what is expected of him, and he is determined to help Rotorua find its feet. He's ready for battle, though for Coffey it's more about helping than fighting. He names Parekura Horomia, the former Labour Maori Affairs minister who died last year, as his inspiration.

"He was like the Pied Piper of the East Coast," smiles Coffey. "He was tough when he needed to be but he was a real helper, not the mongrel with the bone like some politicians.

"Horomia did so much for the people he worked for - that's how I aspire to be. I can be tough, and I will be, but I'm here to do good."

So far, Rotorua's reaction to Coffey has been positive - although, he says, he's learning that in politics promises don't mean much until a name is written on a ballot paper. "It's tough - people will fall over themselves to help in person but then aren't so helpful when you call back," he says.

Will it faze him? "God no," he says. "You've got to remember that the gentle, fun-loving Coffey was my face for TV. I am gentle, and I am fun-loving, but I'm really passionate, too, and I believe I can win this.

"With the good heads we have in the Labour Party in Rotorua, and my profile - I can't escape that I have a high profile, and I choose to see that as a positive - I think I can motivate people to vote Labour."

He's certainly got the history and, contrary to accusations, the qualifications. With an honours degree in political science from the University of Auckland, Coffey has always been a political animal. It's just that when you're working in TV, he says, that's not what viewers want to hear.

"As a 19-year-old whose family had never been to university, I was blown away by the knowledge I discovered.

"I was fascinated by the world and the significant people and events that had changed history, and I thought, one day I could be one of those people."

It's a big dream, and for the moment he is keen to "shut up, listen and learn" what is needed from the people in a town whose population is facing a decline - figures last year put the numbers at 65,280, a decrease of 621 since 2006. But he has his work cut out, not least to convince people that there's more to him than a winning smile and charm.

"I became very politicised at university, but right after I'd completed my degree I was offered the role on What Now. I have always been passionate about politics but people don't want the kids' TV presenter, or the weatherman, to be politicised, so I kept quiet. It was always bubbling away though - the roles I took completely contradicted what was going on under the surface.

"The weatherman has grown up - it's time for me to stand on my own two feet, to do what I believe I was always meant to do." And he's ready for whatever gets thrown at him. "Politicians do like to throw a punch, and I'm expecting some tough days, but I'm ready for that - I've got the boxing gloves out," he laughs. "You have to be a quick thinker in this game, which I am."

As one of three candidates for the Labour nomination - up against Rotorua Lakes High School deputy principal Dr Angela Sharples and Integrated Health Services company director Hugh Kininmonth - Coffey won't know until later this month whether he has the nod to stand as Rotorua's Labour candidate.

And that's just the first hurdle. He then has to topple the incumbent National MP Todd McClay to get to Parliament. "It's far from a given but I've got a lot of ideas. I just want Rotorua to learn to love itself again."

Coffey and his civil union partner Tim Smith moved to Rotorua last year. They have turned the house they bought and renovated into a Labour Party "campaign HQ".

Smith is hugely supportive of Coffey's political ambitions. "Home has been transformed. There are papers everywhere, flip-charts in every corner and maps and phone numbers on every wall - and he's not even a candidate yet.

"But it feels good - it feels like we're alive. There are so many people coming through the house, it feels like we are living and participating more than ever before. It's a very positive feeling."

Coffey's first mission is to persuade the under-30s to care about where they live, he says, so they will actually vote in the on September 20 election. "I think that young people in this country have a real problem in that they don't feel part of the political system - there are 79,000 unemployed people under 30 in New Zealand. No wonder they feel like they don't count."

He turned up last week to front a Labour stall at Rotorua's Waiariki Polytechnic, and discovered the polytech has no Young Labour group - symptomatic, he says, of a bigger issue. "A million New Zealanders didn't vote in the last election - politics is becoming the domain of the few instead of the many. I want to make politics accessible, make people want to participate."

Although Coffey's high profile has made him the target of what he dismissively calls "the haters", he thinks it will help when it comes to revitalising trust.

"The biggest influence on New Zealanders who didn't vote was a mistrust of politicians," he says. "I intend to give the people of the Rotorua electorate faith in me, and make them want to participate in the big decisions that will affect their lives. The people of Rotorua, young people especially, are completely unmotivated - all they want to do is save up enough money to leave. It's such a waste of our talent."

Sounding every inch the politician already, Coffey is keeping many of his policies close to his chest. But he is already hard at work researching some of the possibilities for helping Rotorua, including improving job opportunities in the area's geothermal and forestry environment.

"I think we can actually turn Rotorua into a hub - creating more sustainable products from our wood instead of just sending our raw logs all offshore. There is industry to be created here, pulling in forestry, Scion [a Crown Research Institute that works in forestry development] and Massey University, who are second to none in design."

With 14.7 per cent of the local economy generated by forestry and wood-processing, and 10.5 per cent from tourism, Coffey's dreams aren't small. But then, neither is the amount of work that he says needs to be done.

"The truth is, there are a lot of angry people in Rotorua. Tourism is huge in this town and by attracting more exciting events in, I hope Rotorua locals will be able to feel proud of the district, to fall in love with it again," he explains.

"Rotorua Airport has a direct route to Sydney - which is the flight our guys are taking to leave the country - but it needs better connections and a lot more effort put into the town and its environment if we're going to make the people who live here fall in love with it again.

"That also means tackling the sewage problem at Lake Tarawera, and not just blaming the dairy farmers. I'm not a farmer, have never been one, but I do believe that Maori and farmers share a common goal to look after our land. And someone has to take the lead. So far, of the people I've talked to, most of them don't even know who their MP is."

When Coffey's candidacy was announced on the front page of the Rotorua Daily Post, the paper's editor Kim Gillespie wrote: "You'd have to say it would be a tough job coming up against the popular National incumbent, Todd McClay. But he may have an easier time finding a decent spot on the Labour list."

Veteran NewstalkZB political editor Barry Soper says: "It's hard to know how anyone will cope in Parliament until they perform, but politics is a brutal arena. He could do it if his skin's thick enough, but he will have to be prepared for it. Star quality helps, but in the past, celebrities haven't made that much of a mark on the political stage."

For Coffey, though, a tough task isn't something to be feared. He knows that as one of three candidates taking on an established incumbent, success is far from guaranteed. But if votes are based on passion, he's in with a good chance. "Right now, my priority is to win the hearts and trust of the people, and to get the chance to do good. I'm ready for whatever comes next."

- Herald on Sunday

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