Six months or so ago I wrote an article for the very excellent Staple Magazine. I normally give politicians a wide berth (once bitten) but I had really wanted to have a long chat with Labour MP and Minister of This, That and the Other, John Tamihere. Staple very kindly provided me with a few pages in which to do just that.
While I prepare another post for a few days' time, (I'm still quivering with excitement from the news that Pacifier are once again Shihad) I thought those of you who missed the print version might appreciate having a read. The magazine version looks much prettier of course, and comes with some stunning photos...but for now:
JOHN TELLS IT LIKE IT IS
Despite a law degree and five years as a politician, John Tamihere maintains a reputation for plain speaking. He made headlines and caused a stir early last year when he accused senior Labour colleague Steve Maharey of “bullshitting” about welfare. Parliamentarians were set off giggling and repeating the word in the House for days, while the fledgling Minister was reprimanded by the Prime Minister and hung out to dry in Parliament.
This fits the perception many have of Tamihere. He opens his mouth without thinking, he’s too impulsive – a political risk. But it’s not a view that bears closer scrutiny. Here is a man voted New Zealander of the Year by North & South Magazine in 1996, and Metro’s Man of the Year in its 1997 annual readers’ poll. A qualified solicitor, at 29 he was the Auckland Regional Manager of the Maori Affairs Department – the youngest to ever hold such a position. In six years he turned West Auckland’s struggling Waipareira Trust into a success story, while battling for the rights of disaffected urban Maori. Is it possible John Tamihere achieved all these things without knowing when to speak, and when to keep his own counsel? It seems unlikely.
Tamihere acknowledges this. “Most things I do are very, very carefully thought through. And so to get the change in delivery mechanism on welfare I had to make the Knowledge Wave speech, position myself within the cabinet and just start grinding at it, and saying, well if you wanna fuck up your communities, go for it, but I need to sort mine out.”
While he doesn’t shoot his mouth off lightly, speaking out has become a bona fide Tamihere trait. In 1996 he was attacking the leaders of the “brown table”, men such as Tipene O’Regan and Bob Mahuta for refusing to let non-iwi urban Maori share in Waitangi settlements. Seven years later, he’s publicly calling for elders like Sir Graham Latimer and Ngati Porou leader Api Mahuika to step aside in favour of younger, more talented leaders. While many consider questioning the authority of elders as questioning everything Maori, and off limits, for Tamihere the two are quite separate.
“My whole life existed for – my whole law degree was built around – a court case I took over our own block back home in the Waihi area. After we’d secured it there was a hui and dad wasn’t with me, he was crook, so I went to this hui myself. One of my aunties wanted us to mortgage the block, but she never had the ability to pay the debt. So I objected, and she says in Maori to me, ‘enoho tama’ and so I sit down, and she gets the vote through. I was really pissed off, and I come home and dad says ‘how did it go?’ And I told him Auntie got it through, and he said, ‘why didn’t you object?’ And I said, ‘well I tried to but she told me I’m just a boy, sit down and respect your elders.’ Dad says ‘what did you do?’ and I told him, ‘I sat down.’ ‘Well what the fuck are they teaching you at that university!’ he said, ‘When her and I went to the native school as seven year olds, she was a maniac then – what’s changed?’
“And I thought to myself, that’s spot on, why is it just because someone hits 65 or 70 everything changes? All cultures work on merit. Why elders were traditionally deferred to was because we had so few, there was a continuity issue. It doesn’t mean just because you’re an elder you now can tell me all things about my life and how it works. It doesn’t follow that you should be my leader, my chairperson, my director, my trustee, my whatever.”
It was his penchant for fighting that eventually led to Tamihere entering Parliament. After fighting O’Regan, Mahuta and their successors for urban Maori’s share of the Treaty of Waitangi fisheries settlements. With over a million dollars already spent on lawyers fees, John decided to “just piss off down [to Wellington] and do it myself.” The fisheries legislation is now in the House, and with $20 million set aside for urban Maori, Tamihere regards it as a ‘win on principle’.
He was also inspired, or perhaps compelled after seeing the damage New Zealand First’s ‘tight five’ – Tau Henare, Tukoroirangi Morgan, John Delamere et al – had done to goodwill for Maori. There’s also no love lost between he and Winston Peters, with the elder statesman dragging up Tamihere’s past (three DIC convictions, one discharge without conviction for fraud) in the House on a number of occasions.
“I’ve contemplated why that is. I think it’s because I’ve got a bigger dick, a better degree and I’m better looking, but putting that to one side…” Tamihere bursts out laughing, and unlike many politicians, it’s both natural and contagious. “He’s had his day, he had more than his day, he actually had two opportunities in cabinet, one as Deputy Prime Minister, and he screwed it.”
Winning the Hauraki seat in the 1999 General Election, and the newly formed Tamaki Makaurau seat in 2002, Tamihere has clear, measurable goals. He has a list of 10 things he wanted to achieve, four of are now completed. A backbench MP, he realised that in order to complete the list, he’d need to be privy to the inner circle, and less than three years after entering Parliament, he was appointed as a Minister inside cabinet. Tamihere says he knows all about “starting at the back of the class”. It’s obvious he also understands the quickest way to the front desk is by unruly behaviour in the back. And he doesn’t want to be the Member for Tamaki Makaurau for any longer than necessary.
“I’m not a career politician – I’ve come to this thing in the most unfortunate circumstances!” he laughs. “Some of them have been in the job 12-15 years, and they just think nothing else.”
Not surprisingly, given his charisma, public profile and achievements to date, Tamihere is often touted as a future leader of New Zealand. Whether he’s playing it down for the time being – conscious not to put the cat among the pigeons too early – or is truly not concerned with such matters, it’s unclear. However he is uncharacteristically ambiguous when the subject is raised.
“I’ve never thought about it. And because I don’t think and lust for it and hanker for it, it’s not an issue for me. But as long as I’m feeling comfortable in what we’re doing, I’ll be alright. I don’t need to be in cabinet, I don’t need to be in politics, but I don’t need to be a broken, bitter twisted bastard sitting outside bleating, you know? So I haven’t thought about the position. Others may well say [I’m suitable], but the day I declare it you’ll know all about it.”
For now, it’s all about getting the job done. Frequent swearing aside, he speaks like a businessman, and often drifts into the lexicon of management. He speaks of results-oriented policies, and Key Performance Indicators upon which to measure his achievements in Parliament. Some of his ideas have a distinctly National or ACT Party ring to them, a fact that doesn’t bother him overly – “I’m not an ideologue.”
“I’ve been in the business of trying to make things work. I just think it’s dumb for example, investing more money in prisons, when I know if we could attack – and I mean attack – vigorously and boldly, those families that are waiting to implode and everyone knows it. But everyone’s waiting until the criminal justice system kicks in. And I think it’s just dumb us just building two more prisons in Maori areas, Ngawha up north and Te Kauwhata there, and it’s going to house just on 750 Maori babies, because that’s what they are.”
The “babies” Tamihere speaks of – often – are the next generation of children, to whom Tamihere dedicates most of his efforts. John has five of his own, two to his first marriage, two to his current wife, and from in between the two marriages. Wira, at two the youngest of the whanau, sits on his lap as we talk, surreptitiously trying (and failing) to take sips from his bottle of beer. With race relations once again taking the media limelight, how does he feel New Zealand is progressing – are things going to be different for his own babies’ generation?
John is optimistic. “I think it’s changing. Ten years ago we’d all be tainted by the actions of one Maori, but Kiwis have hit a new level of maturity. There’s a big bunch of kiwis 55 and up who still think that way, but they’re moving on. Whereas the younger generations are a bit more discerning and informed about Kiwiana. When I was at school up in the 70s the only second language to learn was French, and history was all about the Reformation and Tudor England. With the curricula today every kiwi baby can do kapahaka. When I go to visit schools I have a powhiri, and 85 percent of the kids performing are pakeha kids, and all the parents have turned up, and they’re all watching it, incredibly proud. I think that’s a marvellous thing to have happened.”
Republished with kind permission of Staple