By RNZ

The Auckland mayoral race heated up last night with the third-ranked candidate pulling out and offering John Tamihere an easier path to the Town Hall.

In what's now essentially a two-horse race, Tamihere presented himself as an agent for change, and Mayor Phil Goff as a status quo bureaucrat beholden to Wellington.

For his part, Goff painted himself as the candidate for integrity, reliability and honesty, while attacking Tamihere for being what he called a "failed Cabinet minister".

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John Palino exits Auckland mayoral race, backs John Tamihere

It didn't take long for the Newmarket Business Association debate to hot up, when three-time mayoral hopeful John Palino pulled the plug on his campaign.

"I'm withdrawing from the mayoral contest, because I want to give John Tamihere the best possible chance of providing Auckland with the strongest leadership it badly needs."

That left the two front-runners to go head-to-head on some of the big issues affecting Aucklanders - and to throw a few punches at their opponents.

Tamihere compared the mayor to the much-maligned former UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

"A great guy that came back from Berlin after seeing Hitler with 'Peace in our times', he [Goff] comes back from Wellington - 'Hey, what a deal I've got for you Aucklanders - 11-and-a-half cents a litre, on top of gas!' And like that, the Germans invaded Poland yesterday," Tamihere said.

Goff countered by playing up his political experience.

"We [could] not raise the rates, we could not do the regional fuel tax," he said. "But I'm telling you where the money is going to come from. I've had enough experience in government - 15 years as a minister - to know how to get that money. I've had enough experience to know how you can get it, and I'll tell you what your approach will fail, just as you failed as a cabinet minister."

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On public transport, Tamihere accused the Goff-led council of waging "a war on motor vehicles", citing the length of time work on the Southern Motorway is taking.

"Most of the work's gone into the blinkin' cycleway, you can see it driving up. And yet the congestion costs alone over this project, going for three years - from the Bombays into town - is a national disgrace," Tamihere said.

John Palino has abandoned his bid to be mayor and has endorsed John Tamihere.
John Palino has abandoned his bid to be mayor and has endorsed John Tamihere.

Goff pointed to the many improvements in transport his administration has overseen, including the under-construction City Rail Link and Northern Busway.

"Just to get the facts straight - [the Automobile Association] came out with a survey the other day and found that after massive increases in congestion from 2015, 16, 17, the last two years that has levelled off, but it's still congested. I'm on the motorway every day, that's my only form of transport to get into town. And it's not acceptable as it is."

The debate got personal at times.

"I get beat up for merely calling a spade a spade," Tamihere said.

"It's about time that we put a bit of colour, it's about time that someone started to stand up and champion things. It's about time that you had a bit of emotion expressed in the way in which we care deeply about our homeless and fixing those problems."

Goff took aim at Tamihere's bravado and repeated criticisms of central government.

"Do you need consistency in your policymaking? Do you need somebody that can negotiate to get those things done? Yes. And John, you don't do it by simply going and banging on the desk. They'll just tell you to sod off," he said.

"That's true whether it's a blue government or red government - I've worked with both. And I will go for the best deal that we can get for Auckland. But you have to do it by thinking smart, not by talking loud. And that's, I think, one of the differences between us."

Nominations for more candidates to throw their hat in the ring for the Auckland mayoralty close next Friday.

- RNZ