Why John Tamihere could be just what Auckland needs

John Tamihere could prove a more effective champion for Auckland's unique assets as a dynamic, modern multicultural city than the often desk-bound Phil Goff, argues Shane Te Pou

A serious tilt at the Auckland Mayoralty from John Tamihere could be just the jolt of energy local democracy needs.

First and foremost, Phil Goff holds the second-most powerful elective office in New Zealand. He commands budgets that leave most central government agencies in the dust, and the decisions of his council have wide-ranging impacts on the daily lives of Aucklanders, as well as on the city’s long-term direction. If he faces an easy stroll to reelection next year, as seems likely, it wouldn’t reflect citywide enthusiasm for Goff as much as widespread apathy and voter disconnect.

As the council has evolved into a financial and organisational behemoth, ratepayer interest in the grand super city experiment has waned to the point where UK Premiership football is more likely to come up at most Auckland water coolers than local politics. That’s a bad thing. Politicians mean well (most of them, anyway), but they need constant monitoring. A disengaged public, coupled with a decline in newsroom coverage of local issues, is a recipe for poor governance.   

To reawaken Auckland democracy, we need a battle of ideas and approaches to leadership as bold and ambitious as the city itself. There’s nobody on the current council who offers that kind of vision, so an outsider like John Tamihere could be just what we need. If he ran the kind of campaign he’s capable of running, JT could engage huge swathes of suburban Auckland, particularly Māori and Pasifika, and younger voters too.  

Goff, to his credit and detriment, is never more comfortable than in the public policy weeds. He’s a micromanager, a technocrat. Take this week, which saw Goff focus on speed limits for e-scooters because a council colleague was almost bowled over by one. Not to diminish the importance of pedestrian safety, but this is typical of the kind of reactive, small-bore approach to politics under his leadership. As such, Goff would enjoy nothing more next year than facing off against a sitting councillor knowing he could suffocate them with his unrivalled grasp of detail. Even a Paula Bennett candidacy would suit him down to the ground, since it would quickly descend into a party political shouting match in an electorate heavily tilted in his favour.  

Goff would enjoy nothing more next year than facing off against a sitting councillor knowing he could suffocate them with his unrivalled grasp of detail.

John Tamihere would present a different challenge altogether, one that forces Goff to compete on far less hospitable terrain. He could bring sharp and overdue focus to economic and social disparities across the city, particularly as it affects low-income working households forced further and further into the outer burbs, getting slowly crushed by the regional fuel tax and ever-rising living costs.  As he’s shown over his time at the Waipareira Trust, Tamihere is both a powerful advocate and an astute manager with a record of getting things done. 

And his leadership style couldn’t be in starker contrast to Goff’s. Whereas the current Mayor is a study in cautious centrism, Tamihere is a passionate advocate for what he believes, unpredictable but tireless. Goff communicates in carefully-vetted soundbites; Tamihere, in blunt, relatable language. JT isn’t afraid of scaring the horses; Goff is the Horse-Whisperer.   

John Tamihere could spark a real debate about the big forces shaping Auckland. More importantly, though, he can redefine the role of Mayor itself. A classic insider, Phil Goff often comes across as less a champion for the city than a defender of the council as an institution - as if he sees his role as one of representing the council to the community, not the other way around. Tamihere would turn that on its head. When it comes to dealing with the central government, Tamihere would be far less compliant than Goff, under whose leadership the role of Wellington bureaucrats in shaping Auckland policy has expanded unchecked. As for promoting the city’s unique assets as a dynamic, modern multicultural city, and boosting waning pride in the city, Tamihere could prove a more effective champion than the often desk-bound Goff.  

Whether Tamihere enters the race or not, Goff will head into next year’s election as a strong, if not unbackable, favourite. At least with JT, however, the city would get a chance for a compelling contest focused on the right questions of policy and leadership. Whoever prevails would be stronger for it. As would the city itself.

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