Building more social housing is at the heart of John Tamihere’s mayoral campaign, writes Simon Wilson.

Everybody makes mistakes," says John Tamihere, standing in the kitchen of his house in Te Atatu. Black T-shirt, black pants, groomed silver hair, a suddenly defiant stare. "We all have our ups and downs. We all say things."

So I ask him, what have you said that you now think was a mistake?

"I don't know, you tell me."

Okay. Front bums?

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In 2005, Tamihere said, "I don't mind front bums being promoted, but just because they're [women] shouldn't be the issue, they've won that war."

At the time, he was an ex-cabinet minister, having resigned from Helen Clark's ministry in response to allegations of financial impropriety when he was CEO of the Waipareira Trust, before he entered Parliament. He was later cleared of the charges, but remained out of favour for a series of attacks he made on the party and some of its members.

"Yeah, well," he says. "There was a lot going on. I made a mistake. You can be burdened with your mistakes or you can overcome them."

Any other mistakes he'd like to mention?

"You tell me."

What about the Roast Busters?

In 2013, a group of teens who called themselves Roast Busters boasted on Facebook about their sexual activities with underage girls, some as young as 13. At the time Tamihere was a co-host on Radio Live with Willie Jackson, who is now a cabinet minister. At least five girls laid complaints with the police.

Live on air, Tamihere and Jackson interviewed a girl who said she was a friend of one of the complainants, who alleged she had been raped.

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The two men seemed to belittle the girl and trivialise the accusations.

They cast doubt on her story, suggested the youths' behaviour wasn't serious and wondered aloud whether blame should be shared by the girls as well as the youths.

In the backlash that followed, both hosts were censured and Tamihere lost his job.

When I ask him about it, the first thing he says is: "It's not widely known but I got a six-figure settlement from MediaWorks after that had all died down."

Willie Jackson and Tamihere were slammed for their Roast Busters comments. Photo / File
Willie Jackson and Tamihere were slammed for their Roast Busters comments. Photo / File

I ask him, is that his response now? Does he regret anything he said?

"You tell me what I said and I'll tell you if I regret it."

What he and Jackson said, in a series of questions, was that perhaps the girls should not have been drinking or out late at night, that they were "free and easy", and that perhaps the sex was consensual.

They said the youths' behaviour was merely "mischief". They laughed at the suggestion of rape.

A few days later, I read those comments to him. He says "Well they're the sort of thing you say as a talkback host".

But is he suggesting the girls should share the blame or that rape was not involved?

"Let me ask you this. How many people have been charged with rape?" he says.

I tell him the answer is none. I ask whether he has anything else to say about it.

He says: "You are now making things up in terms of connecting dots."

He gets up, says "thank you very much", and walks out of the room.

JOHN TAMIHERE, JT to the public, Johnny to his friends, is standing for mayor of Auckland. The election is in October.

"He's a flawed genius," Tau Henare says over coffee this week. "It's cool that there's a Māori willing to say sh*t and do stuff. But he's a flawed genius because he has no diplomatic skills."

Henare and Tamihere are both former cabinet ministers who were on different sides of the party divide, although they were never in Parliament together and they remain political opponents today.

Henare is a member of the Auckland Council's Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB), a position Tamihere held for six years until Henare and others manoeuvred him out of it.

What does he think Tamihere would be like as mayor?

"He's a dictator, it's his way or the highway. He's a typical league player, there's only one way to the try line and that's straight ahead."

Tamihere has been involved with league for most of his life.

Does Henare welcome Tamihere standing?

"I like Phil [Goff, the present mayor] but he's such a f***ing politician. He doesn't do anything. Tamihere would let loose the dogs of war. And whatever was left over, he'd work with."

Councillor Christine Fletcher will be Tamihere's running mate.

"JT has bravado," she tells me, sitting on a couch in her comfortably sprawling house overlooking Mt Eden. "Phil is not sufficiently charismatic."

Tamihere has just rushed away, that Roast Busters conversation abruptly ended.

Fletcher says she voted for Goff in the last election, but she fears the council is drifting and the Government is stripping it of its power.

"Wellington's got us by the balls."

Having Tamihere in the race is definitely raising the energy levels of the language.

And she thinks he can do better?

John Tamihere and Christine Fletcher outside the Auckland town hall. Photo / Michael Craig
John Tamihere and Christine Fletcher outside the Auckland town hall. Photo / Michael Craig

"Yes I do. I watched JT on the IMSB. I can tell you, I was determined I wouldn't like him, but I became more and more impressed. He can be feisty, and that can be good. I see him being an excellent negotiator."

ON A RECENT Friday morning John Tamihere is sitting at his desk in Whanau House, part of the Waipareira Trust complex in Henderson. He's squashed in a corner, back to the room, wearing an old pink polo shirt and fretting about drugs on Waitangi Day.

Tamihere is the trust's CEO, a job he had before becoming an MP in 1999, and a job he returned to after losing his seat in 2005.

He has a large office, largely unadorned, an empty space on the fourth floor of an ugly office building with a view down to unlovely streets below.

It is the last day of the holiday season and things are very quiet. You can smell the antiseptic: everything is clean, tidy, everyone waiting for another year to crash around them.

Waitangi Day at the Hoani Waititi Marae in Oratia, run by the trust, is a big, picnic-style family affair with lots of entertainment. A great day out. It's an "urban marae", dedicated to Māori who live in Tāmaki Makaurau but do not primarily identify with a local iwi. In the last census, 84 per cent of Māori met that definition of "urban".

The drugs problem is this: Waitangi Day at Hoani Waititi is just so popular.

"We have people working the crowd," Tamihere said. "They know who the local dealers are, but it's a bit harder to spot the others. The people up from Southside."

Tamihere is on the front line of issues that many people in other parts of the city don't have to think much about, so they're not voter issues, so they rarely get the attention, in any constructive way, that they deserve.

But they're big, and critical to the well-being of Auckland as a whole, and that, in a nutshell, is why he says he's standing for mayor.

Few of the officials who run this city know what it's like to be brown in Auckland, let alone brown and poor, and Tamihere wants to change that.

It's an impressive organisation, the Waipareira Trust. It runs health services for tens of thousands of people, with fees kept low and prescription medications kept free.

There's kōhanga reo. It bought the Kip McGrath school tutoring model and adapted it to suit local needs.

He wants more from local schools.

"I tried to get information on the schools that have cohorts in trouble, but they told me they are 'not responding'. It's not good enough, you've got to stand up against poor performance. And bugger the union movement."

He laughs as soon as he has said it.

Waipareira is a Whānau Ora operation. "It works because it has collective impact. Tony Blair tried with some of it. Jacinda is following it too."

What does "collective impact" mean? He talks about co-ordinating the services and peer reviewing the work. "Bill English was on the right track."

John Tamihere and his wife in 1999.
John Tamihere and his wife in 1999.

With social investment?

"Yes. He believed in funding achievements, not funding noise."

Tamihere keeps throwing out these ideas. He goes round in circles talking about them, mainly looking out the window, and then bouncing on to the next.

He stares at you when he's angry. Otherwise he avoids eye contact as he talks, almost completely.

We go on a tour and he introduces some of the staff who are back, working on systems management, quality audits, IT.

The trust is strongly entrepreneurial: it has contracts with welfare agencies throughout the North Island, which helps pay for the free healthcare and other services.

"I brought the companies that do this work back from the Viaduct and Newmarket. It's important that people can see there's no magic, everyone can have a go, right here in Henderson."

THE TAMIHERE approach is personal: it's about what he does. He says, "My dad never used to go on school visits. I asked him why. He told me, 'I don't want to embarrass you'".

So now, he said, he gets parents to turn up by involving them in ways they know about.

"You've got parents in the rugby league club, you say, 'You can do security, you look after the car parking, you can run the bar'. They get it if it's in the right environment and it's not formalised."

If he wins, I ask, what would he eventually like to be remembered for?

"I'm clear about that. No homelessness."

That would mean mental health programmes, drug policies, the practicalities of providing help, all the wrap-around services to help people re-establish their lives and move on.

A full systemic approach? "Yes of course. Wraparound care, the trust has done that from the get-go."

But the personal approach seems to count for more. Twice he tells me stories about what he's done to help rough sleepers.

"I won't have it," he says. "I told this guy, 'Get up, you're demeaning yourself and you're demeaning me as another Māori. Get up and come with me and we'll sort something out'."

But the man told Tamihere he was fine. He made about $180 a week begging, enough to buy "a bit of piss and a bit of P".

"I told him I'm not helping him buy his piss and his P."

So what does he think we should do about rough sleepers?

"Why do social workers only work nine to five?" Do they?

"Well name the ones who don't."

He sure doesn't mind insulting people.

They should work split shifts, he says, and we should get more people into emergency housing.

He never does say what he did for that rough sleeper. "Look, homelessness is a Government issue. I won't have it on my watch."

HE LOOKS AFTER the trust's staff: five weeks' holiday, $20 per hour is the minimum wage. And the trust looks after him. He got a golden handshake when he went to Parliament, despite announcing publicly he wouldn't take one.

A political marriage: Labour Party member John Tamihere and National Party member Christine Fletcher are running together for Auckland mayor and deputy. Photo / Michael Craig
A political marriage: Labour Party member John Tamihere and National Party member Christine Fletcher are running together for Auckland mayor and deputy. Photo / Michael Craig

He bought his house in Te Atatu with a mortgage involving trust money that ended up costing the trust hundreds of thousands.

There was also a point in 1996 when, as he explains it to me, the trust was "seven days off statutory management" because of non-payment of GST and PAYE taxes.

He was in Cabinet by the time that was investigated, but he stood down, then fell out with his colleagues and was never returned. In the next election, in 2005, he lost his seat to the Māori Party's Pita Sharples, who is also closely associated with Hoani Waititi Marae.

Tamihere was eventually cleared of wrongdoing over the tax issue and was not held responsible for the trust's losses in the mortgage controversy.

He has a five-point pledge for his mayoralty campaign: it's all about bringing financial accountability, transparency and democratic control to the council.

He has, as yet, nothing at all to say about the usual things like rates and priorities and strategic planning.

THE WAIPAREIRA Trust doesn't just offer welfare, health and education services.

It builds houses. A block of 72 units for the elderly will go up soon in Henderson. There are 120 social housing units (the successor to state housing) in Waterview, begun under the previous government and now almost ready for delivery to Housing NZ.

This issue — building social housing — is at the heart of Tamihere's mayoral campaign.

The trust wants to take on more projects like Waterview but neither the council nor the Government will help it do it. They prefer mixed housing, preferably on a 30:30:30 ratio of social, rental and market housing.

Mixed housing avoids the risk of building slums for the future, but Tamihere isn't having that. He's furious.

The greatest need is for social housing and he doesn't want to waste time or resources on anything else. He says he knows all about the slum risk at Waterview.

"We'd like to manage those units. We see them as setting new standards, being like a village, and there'll be village meetings. You want to live there you'll have to take part, and the village will be in charge, not the regulators."

Tamihere is so angry about it the trust is taking the council's development arm, Panuku, to court for breaching the Human Rights Act.

It's even in his campaign launch material: "The higher up the chain I went [at Panuku]," he wrote, "the more arrogance and sense of entitlement I faced. It became ... abundantly clear to me that Panuku was a billion-dollar council controlled organisation that gave no sense that they were there to serve the ratepayers."

Those dogs of war? Tamihere is unleashing them on the council.

He complains about the Auckland City Mission. "I don't want to knock them, they do great work, but I do knock where they do it."

Last Christmas the City Mission set up new food bank delivery sites in the south and west of the city and the demand was unprecedented.

"They didn't have a system, so they were subject to middle-class capture."

People who didn't need the help were turning up and freeloading?

"They didn't know who the people were. Look, welfare is well funded in this country but it is not well managed."

HE COMPLAINS about council consenting officials. "I want regulations to help you get over the line, not set you back 21 days."

Is that what the consenting officers do?

"I've got enough evidence to show that, yes. I know about a contracted inspector who failed a project, but said to the guy, 'Look, you come to my private business and I'll sort you out'."

Will he be producing evidence of that?

"Yes I will."

Is it a widespread problem?

"I think so."

In a surprise move, the Labour Party has endorsed Phil Goff for mayor this year. Goff hasn't even announced he's running again and last time he stood as an independent.

It's a slap in the face for JT. Is he still a member?

"I'm a financial member of the Labour Party, yes."

Does he worry about not having the confidence of his party? "I have the confidence of the rank and file. But not the people at the top, no."

He also has the confidence of National Party stalwart Michelle Boag.

"I've got Boagie," he says, "though she told me she would have to jump ship and support a National candidate if they put one up. That's fair enough."

Are they going to put one up?

"No, she told me that's not going to happen."

And there's his running mate, Chris Fletcher, also from National. Tamihere and Fletcher are a couple of peas outside the pod: both formerly high-flying members of, but now largely estranged from, their parties.

Are they part of the new trend in world politics, to sweep away the old parties and old ways, or are they a couple of disgruntled outcasts?

Or are both things true? Who's going to vote for him?

"All sorts of people," he said. Then he added, "Small to medium enterprise people: sparkies, chippies, couriers, all those sorts of people."

Also people not from isthmus Auckland. "You'd be surprised how out of sorts Wellsford thinks it is. And Papakura, they don't care much about Lime scooters in Papakura."

The next time I meet him he uses the same towns to argue the America's Cup was only for downtown Auckland.

What about the boat builders in places like Onehunga, I ask, and the crowds that will turn out to watch all up the East Coast Bays?

John Tamihere and his wife Awerangi in the courtyard of their home in Te Atatu. Photo / Michael Craig
John Tamihere and his wife Awerangi in the courtyard of their home in Te Atatu. Photo / Michael Craig

"How much of the benefit goes to Wellsford? To Papakura?"

JOHN TAMIHERE, lawyer, alumni of St Peter's College, first member of his family to go to university, lives with his wife, Awerangi, and three of the six kids in their blended family in a big modern house near the sea, on the Te Atatu peninsula.

A small front garden opens into the kitchen with a large atrium/dining area beyond, a mezzanine on three sides leading on to bedrooms and other living areas. It's both informal and a bit stately.

They have eight grandchildren, a V8 Toyota Cruiser with big bull bars, a bach on family land between Waihi and Whangamatā.

He says his health is good. "I've had my quarterly check-up. I've made my annual trip to the gym, too."

He looks fit. How does he do that? "I'm active with the family, I run around with my babies."

Awerangi says she's not surprised he's standing for mayor. "You look at his sense of advocacy and social conscience. I think it stands up quite strongly."

He'll be 60 in a couple of weeks. No big plans: an afternoon do at the bach. And then the dogs of war. John Tamihere's in this to win.

Five campaign pledges

John Tamihere's pledges all focus on the workings of council. They don't address future plans for the city, spending priorities, big projects, social issues or rates. He wants to rebuild council itself. Why that focus? "You can't fix anything else unless you've got an operational machine to fix things."

1 Open the books and clean the house
"Aucklanders pay billions in rates, but where does all that money go?"

Is it a secret? The annual rates bill is $1.75 billion. How it's spent is explained on the websites of the council and its agencies.

"No, it's not. The numbers are there but they're not broken down enough." Tamihere says it's especially unclear which contractors are paid for what, and whether those payments should be covered "in house".

2 Return democracy to neighbourhoods
"Too much power in our city is controlled by faceless bureaucrats ... I will return local resources and decisions to local elected boards and their communities."

For example?

"I don't know yet. I'm going out to talk to all the local boards and see what they want."

3 Bring public assets back under democratic control
Making council-controlled organisations accountable to council was also promised by Phil Goff, last election, and by Len Brown before him, and neither of them did it.

"As a first step" Tamihere says he will appoint councillors to the boards of all CCOs. He'll need a law change for that.

4 Crack down on waste and incompetence
"I will establish an Integrity Unit to investigate corruption, unacceptable conduct, and incompetence."

Isn't it the mayor's job to do that anyway?

"A large number of folk have contacted me about this and I don't believe in any way that complaints are being properly investigated."

Won't he just be adding another layer of bureaucracy?

"I might be. But it will be an overt office.

"Anyone with an issue — a conflict of interest, fraud allegations, anything like that — will be able to make an allegation."

5 Proper partnership with central government
"Why are Aucklanders forced to pay an extra fuel tax when no other region does?

"The huge infrastructure pressure on Auckland is the direct outcome of Government's unbridled immigration. As the mayor that represents a third of the country, I will expect a more equal partnership, especially with transport and housing."

But aren't council and government goals, especially on transport and housing, now very closely aligned?

"No. Goff has been ineffective," Tamihere says.

John and Awerangi Tamihere at home. Photo / Michael Craig
John and Awerangi Tamihere at home. Photo / Michael Craig