John Tamihere has spent the best part of a decade in the political wilderness. STEVE KILGALLON reveals he's ready for his return.
Everyone is pissing in everyone else's pocket," declares John Tamihere. "People even have to whisper at their own barbecues. That's what I think is wrong in this country - everyone talks in hushed tones."
Not that Tamihere shouts. His is a rather soft voice, punctuated by a girlish, Billy T James giggle, and a winning smile. But what he says has plenty of impact. It seems, sometimes, he rather wishes it didn't.
"Gareth Morgan says kill all the cats, how does a man get away with it? If I said it . . ." he trails off, pondering the thought. "What's wrong with pointing out my truth?"
It's nearly a decade since Tamihere somewhat sabotaged his own political career with his indiscretions (the Labour frontbums etc) to Ian Wishart; just a couple of months since his putative comeback was marked by calling National minister Paula Bennett a fat girl and TV3 reporter Tova O'Brien a silly little girl.
He resiles from neither criticism. "Do you want me to say she's morbidly obese? You don't say that. Do I have to be so dumbed down and talk in this grey language?"
Tamihere reckons it's not what he says, but how he says it that gets him into trouble. He reckons people know he's saying the right thing, "but they might be far more genteel or academic [how they say it]. I'm not".
And so, in the course of an hour, he casually insults Helen Clark, most of Labour's front bench, radio broadcaster Danny Watson, Bennett (again - still fat), TV3's Tova O'Brien (again - still silly), former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, Wishart (scumbag), the Act Party (also scumbags), the Maori Party (incompetent), the unions (lazy), academics (timid), me (loser), and himself.
And, amid all that, for the first time, he announces he definitely wants to become a Labour MP again.
But first, we embark on a guided, rather brisk stroll around Henderson, the working-class West Auckland suburb where Tamihere was raised as one of 12 children. Several flirted with the wrong side of the legal system, John, the first Tamihere to be university-educated, became a lawyer, then a Labour MP. Now he runs the Waipareira Trust, a voluntary social work agency employing 550.
On his turf, all he needs is the upraised red umbrella and he could be the perfect tour guide. As we storm through the shopping centre, we greet a couple of derelicts, a fearsomely tattooed man in leathers, several more respectable citizens. Tamihere doesn't know them, but they know JT the radio talkback host.
Then we burst into Waipareira's stylish, newly refurbished medical and social work complex, once the local picture house, and into the downstairs coffee shop - via a detour to point out Work and Income and the local gang chapter's headquarters (which seem to be of equal distaste for Tamihere).
"This is Warriors country," he grins. "All dressed by Stephen Tindall by the look of it." (He's in a pastel designer shirt, chosen by his wife).
Tamihere is great talking about what Waipareira is doing and wants to do for his community - he tells me about reduced medical bills, crime-cutting initiatives, his great team of drug and alcohol counsellors, even a tale of "some big ape" who once bust up the office, and later had his ribs broken and hand smashed in a car door by an aggrieved local who wanted to remind him every time he went to the toilet of how stupid he'd been to attack such a local asset.
This daily work with society's strugglers, he says, has convinced him to have another go at politics, because he can see the damage done by the government's social policies. And, of course, he isn't cowed by the fact the government is one of his biggest customers. "Am I supposed to shut up because my main contract is with the government and I am meant to kowtow to them? Cut it out." Waipareira are engaged in a court battle right now over losing one such government contract.
Bennett, despite being both social development minister and the MP for the area, has never visited the Waipareira Trust, which seems astonishing. Everyone else has, says Tamihere. Bob Harvey has, but then, "he'd turn up to the opening of a f...... oyster".
So he feels licensed to call Bennett fat whenever he likes. "I can't stand what she is doing to beneficiaries," he says. "I just won't tolerate taking a stick to the most vulnerable, who, by and large, don't want to be there."
Tamihere is something of a Cassandra: he can see great social upheaval on the horizon, but nobody is listening. So the only answer is to get back into government.
Here's how he puts it: "People are fools sitting on the fence and making a living out of serving those in difficulties knowing certain policies [are bad] . . . it's like, if I invested in fly sprays, knowing my mates down the road are manufacturing a lot of s... to grow flies; that means my flyspray business is going to go good, but it's not right.
"Why aren't people asking these questions? Why is it just me, sitting in this little hovel in Henderson having a conversation with a loser like you?" Uncontrollable giggle. "But why don't people wake up?"
'I'VE GOT TO PERSUADE A FEW PEOPLE'
Tamihere admits his wife isn't keen on a revived political career and his first two mokopuna, who are 4 and 2, have changed his perspective on life. "But I know in my mind what I am doing . . . I've got to persuade a few people to get it across the line."
While the chance of a tilt at the "train wreck" Maori Party in the Tamaki Makaurau Maori seat appeals, it seems more likely Tamihere will persuade Labour Maori members to switch electoral rolls into the Waitakere seat, giving him enough clout to win selection and, he hopes, beat Bennett.
He says with Waipareira, consultancy work for corporates, a seat on Auckland Council's Maori Statutory board, his TV chatshow and the radio show with old mate Willie Jackson, "he can live a very good life on the side. I can put my feet up, pretend I am a top broadcaster".
Or he could make a difference.
"Everyone who goes to Parliament thinks they can but 80 per cent of them never will. Right now, you would be hard pressed to name the five Act MPs who were in power three years ago. Basically, if you can get into the top 20 down there, you can make a difference."
But if he knows they don't want him, how can he make an impact? Being isolated suggests he wouldn't make an impact, except he seems to think if he mobilises enough grassroots support he will be too popular to ignore and could also spearhead a move to drag Labour back to its working-class left-wing roots.
"Up the food chain, anyone with any kaha is seen as a threat. You are going to go and upset their little caucus niches and their mates."
The last time he was a Labour MP, he lost his house, the money spent on legal fees over a claim of financial dishonesty that was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, which cleared him. Mock-serious, he says his caucus "saw fit not to support me in my hour of need, but that's what the sisterhood does. Those days are over now".
THE WISHART INTERVIEW
Then, of course, he gave that interview to Wishart, and it was all over. Tamihere's spell in purgatory is approaching a decade. The going rate these days seems shorter, given Nick Smith's 10-month banishment after he resigned from Cabinet for intervening in his friend Bronwyn Pullar's ACC claim while he was ACC minister last year.
Tamihere bridles at the comparison. "I went out to do the hard yards. He sat for 10 months with his feet up, on $150k, doing nothing." What it all taught him was "you gotta have thick skin, you gotta be able to hit the ropes, and now and then to hit the deck . . . and get up and never give in." He quotes Muhammad Ali: "It's not how hard you punch, but how you take a hard punch."
It's also taught him suspicion, and to have little tolerance for some of his Labour colleagues. Given the election is still a good year away, there is time for Tamihere to play nice, patch some rifts. He won't. He reminds me it didn't go down well when he bagged Labour's performance on welfare, health and education.
"The fact is, it is the truth. But that's not the point. The point is I said it."
Think of all the talkback minutes to come. "The thing about politics is too many people want to be loved and respected. You are there to do a job, and make a difference. I don't want to be called St John. I want to go and do the business."
He's fairly unstoppable when he gets on to policy. There's a lot about the economy, how wrong Rogernomics was, how John Key hasn't made any impact, how he does believe in sensible welfare reform, but not "with a baseball bat", how our tax strategy is wrong, how we've ended up with state-mandated monopolies in electricity, banks, petrol, telecoms, rorted markets where the major players set the labour rates and rort the system.
He says when our biggest industries are the state, tourism ("paying $13 an hour") and dairy, we're in trouble. We must overhaul our economic systems. "In this government, the few get rich in the name of the many. That just can't continue." So government, he says, has to become far more involved. And as he warms up, you can see just how he keeps getting himself into trouble. "People will say that's communism," he begins. A mischievous grin forms. A giggle may be coming.
"But what we've got now is fascism. A nice, soft form of fascism though - I wouldn't call Key Mussolini." A pause. The smile widens. "But he's not far off."
- Originally published in the Sunday Star-Times on February 10 2013