Week in Review

Could Tamihere win Auckland?

'Has he got any chance of winning?'

It's a question that keeps getting asked about leading challenger John Tamihere's chances of beating incumbent Phil Goff to be Mayor of Auckland.

Usually, it is asked from a position of doubt rather than hope. Those who wonder aloud about Tamihere's chances may not necessarily want him but they seem to be recognising that he is making plenty of noise, getting attention and has won himself a kind-of equivalence with Goff on the campaign trail.

The pair appeared at yet another one-on-one debate, hosted by Aktive Sport and Recreation Auckland and AUT on Wednesday night at the university's campus at Manukau. The 100 or so attendees, plus viewers watching a livestream broadcast, were polled at the beginning and towards the end on their likely voting choice between the two men.

The first surprise was that Tamihere was just ahead of Goff at the outset, with 49 percent to 45 percent of those expressing a preference. Sure, it is a small sample of voters and they are sufficiently politically exercised to attend a mayoral debate. Having said that, they were sports club leaders, sports administrators, academics and health and recreation advocates from all areas and socio-economic communities of the city, so it would be a group broad enough to make it difficult to predict who they might prefer politically.

At the end, the poll results on the big screen showed Tamihere had won across 15 percent of the 138 people voting (about 20) to his camp. Goff had changed the minds of 4 percent (about six people). So a net gain of 14 to the challenger based on the performance in the debate.

Meaningless? Possibly. Indicative of Tamihere holding his own or even impressing? Possibly.

The debate, for which I acted as MC, was spirited - if not overly personal, as some other encounters between the men have been. It ranged across funding and facilities for sports, inequitable treatment of south and west Auckland, the actions of the Auckland Council and Council Controlled Organisations towards clubs, sports and park users and into the needs of cyclists and the so-called 'war on motorists' (Tamihere) or 'war on congestion' (Goff).

From the outset, Tamihere took low-key umbrage at the tone of a question over how he could fund sports and recreation shortfalls while freezing rates. Later, he repeatedly fired himself up, finger in the air, over not being a puppet of Wellington, of focusing on what was possible rather than what Goff said, which was (in Tamihere's view) what could not be done.

Towards the end, he even claimed, when talking about the needs of his Pacific brothers and sisters, that he would not be sent to the back of the bus by Goff and others, that he would not have his views and hopes suppressed by the establishment.

His overall performance was raw. Theatrical. Maybe a touch contrived, but in that politician's way of turning it on, with volume and gestures surging and ebbing.

On the other side, Goff had briefed himself on the sport and recreation issues, was ever-alert to an opportunity to be relatable (grew up in and played rugby for Papatoetoe Rugby Club, met his wife Mary in Mangere Bridge, was happy to see the council help the Otara Scorpions rugby league club, taught at AUT) and became visibly forceful in rebutting some of his opponent's claims.

The two men have now debated so many times they must be getting sick of the sight of their opponent's one-liners and can parry the rote criticisms in their sleep.

From all of this, though, Tamihere has achieved something of an unlikely viability. He has put up unorthodox policy proposals, had them rubbished, mocked or misrepresented, but has been able to segue (one of his favourite words) to something else and still stand his ground opposite Goff.

An 18-lane, multi-billion dollar replacement Auckland Harbour Bridge with heavy trains and exposed pedestrians on the top? His view is that someone's got to propose something to get things moving and an Auckland University engineer has told him it could be done.

Selling 49 percent of Watercare, a policy derided by Goff as privatisation that will immediately raise water bills per household by hundreds of dollars? His retort: it is freeing up equity, retaining 51 percent public control, getting likely public investment from ACC and the Super Fund and providing the council with $5 billion-plus to spend instead of increasing rates.

And so on. 

Through the wild plans and the strong debate, there's a hint some voters might give him the benefit of the doubt: these ideas might not work but maybe the bridge should be addressed earlier than planned and maybe other options of raising money rather than general rate increases might be an answer.

The candidates are talking a lot, but often to 70 or 100 people at a time. There are hundreds of thousands of votes to be targeted so it remains hard to tell whether Tamihere is really making in-roads to Goff's tally in 2016, when he won 187,000 votes and defeated the centre-right candidate Victoria Crone by 76,000.

Tamihere took the chance at the sports debate to urge one woman who said she represented an organisation with 4000 members to get them all to vote - the only way to really effect change for her people.

... even if a reputable poll was to emerge in these final four weeks putting Goff well ahead, it would be unwise to bank on any particular outcome. 

Both men say they have no recent polling, although it would be remiss if the Labour Party which Goff independently represents had not added a question or two onto its regular political surveys.

The Tamihere camp thinks its ground game might still be underestimated by pundits, and with former union and Alliance organiser Matt McCarten in the background that could well be correct. 

Tamihere must overcome his historical baggage, with the infamous "front bums" reference to women still mentioned by some as minimising his electoral appeal for half the voting public. 

Goff must have grounds for confidence given the implicit backing of the Labour machine, his incumbency, his victory margin three years ago and the steady-as-she-goes demeanour which contrasts so sharply with the Tamihere "shake it up and sort it out" mantra.

But even if a reputable poll was to emerge in these final four weeks putting Goff well ahead, it would be unwise to bank on any particular outcome. 

When people ask that question of whether Tamihere has a chance, I answer with two words: 'Andrew' and 'Williams'. 

Andrew Williams was an outspoken, mercurial North Shore City councillor who challenged the incumbent, establishment mayor, former policeman George Wood, in the final election for that city in 2007.  I was editor of The New Zealand Herald at the time and we had polled the various cities making up Auckland weeks out from local election day.

The result of our (scientific) North Shore poll put Wood substantially ahead - yawning daylight between him and Williams. A fait accompli.

Come polling day, Williams overwhelmed Wood and took the mayoral chains. Wood later blamed the Herald poll, in part, for his demise, saying his supporters believed his victory was a given and had not turned out.

In local politics, low turnout and low boredom thresholds can deliver victory to those with a bit of profile and a promise of change. Sure things can never be sure.

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