Once upon a time in West Auckland, Denis Welch

Black and White
John Tamihere (with Helen Bain)
Reed, $29.95,
ISBN 0790009641

Few politicians these days have lives interesting enough to write about, let alone turn into saleable books. No one is going to queue up at Whitcoulls for Steve Maharey: The Early Years or the no-holds-barred biography of Peter Dunne. The days when politicians could draw on colourful memories of life in the backblocks or coalmines before they entered Parliament are long gone. You might enjoy reading the views of, say, Don Brash on the great issues of the day, but precise details of his infancy and passage into manhood would have about as much appeal as a Paul Holmes Unplugged CD.

When the politician himself or herself is the author, the chances of readability shrink even further. If such people write books at all, they generally can’t help producing self-serving memoirs that, in one way or another, get their own back on all those who opposed them during their careers. And when the politician is a minister still in office, bound by party loyalty and Cabinet confidentiality, the likelihood of stimulating revelations is so slight that you might as well go out and buy their party’s election manifesto instead. At least that would be good for a few laughs, as such works of fiction often are.

It is to the credit, therefore, of Cabinet minister John Tamihere that, with the help of erstwhile press secretary Helen Bain, he has produced an entertaining, thought-provoking and remarkably readable book about his life so far. Given that he’s only 45, that’s not bad going. And if the headline-making events that unfolded two months after the publication of this book are any guide (as New Zealand Books went to press, Tamihere had just resigned  from Cabinet while his financial affairs were being investigated), he’ll have enough for at least another volume by the time he’s 55.

The book, it’s true, gets off to a bad start with a foreword by Sir Robert Jones; but whoever said modern publishing was easy? Don’t be put off: the next 100 pages or so are the best part of the book, especially the chapters covering Tamihere’s childhood in working-class West Auckland during the 1960s and 70s. This is a vivid account of what life was like for a nine-child family with a Maori father and Pakeha mother struggling to make ends meet. Tamihere still can’t stand tripe or mashed potato; even his underpants were worn-through hand-me-downs (he was number seven).

He remembers his mother hiding under the bed, trembling, when men came to cut the power and water off because of unpaid bills. One night, aged six, he saw his father, a construction worker, washing off the day’s dirt at an outside tap: “‘Go back inside, boy,’ he told me. ‘I don’t want you to see me like this; I want better for you than this.’” Once upon a time in West Auckland, they said things like that? We’ll have to take the author’s word for it. It’s a damned good story, though.

There is more in this log-cabin-to-White-House vein, with Tamihere taking pride in his humble roots and his own emergence from them, first as leader of the Whanau o Waipareira Trust and then as Labour MP and poster-boy for 21st century Maori-Pakeha relations. His political appeal is not hard to see in this book. He’s a versatile bloke equally comfortable with a lawyer’s brief or a rugby ball in his hand; he takes care not to frighten the white middle class while standing up for detribalised young urban Maori; he does a nice line in self-deprecating humour (his schoolteachers, he says, thought he was a “few kumara short of a full hangi”); he is not afraid to admit when he was wrong; and in a Samuel-Smilesy way he believes in “strong values and a strong work ethic” – thanks, presumably, to Mum, Dad and lashings of tripe.

Regrettably, the book fades away in its second half into regulation politics and politicking: we learn little beyond what the media have told us about such issues as the foreshore and seabed legislation and Labour Party in-fighting. So Tariana Turia is not the author’s favourite person, but we knew that. His relations with the Prime Minister are clearly not of the highest order either, and the anecdote about first meeting Helen Clark in the late 70s when she was a lecturer at Auckland University (she was among “some geeks” who turned up at the recreation centre in pristine badminton outfits “that had even been ironed”) is hardly likely to win him invitations to leader’s drinkies.

One chapter of Black and White is given over to the case of Tamihere’s brother David, who was convicted in 1991 of murdering the Swedish tourists Urban Hoglin and Heidi Paakkonen and remains in prison to this day. The story of David’s troubled youth and earlier convictions for manslaughter and rape is unflinchingly told, with no excuses; equally, in considering the evidence presented at the murder trial and in subsequent appeal hearings, Tamihere hides nothing. He even admits that, before the trial, his brother had the form to be a “good suspect”. He claims, however, that a prolonged campaign of information leaks by the police prejudiced the public against David Tamihere, inflamed the media and made it impossible for him to receive a fair trial. This is debatable. What can’t be denied, though, is that the later discovery of Hoglin’s body discredited one of the central claims linking Tamihere to the tourists – the watch he was alleged to have stolen was in fact found with the body.

John Tamihere says his brother is innocent, and makes a strong enough case for reconsideration of the evidence to dispel any thought of “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” There is nothing black and white about this case. But at time of writing the more urgent question-mark hangs over the future of the brother who wound up in Cabinet, not jail.

 

Denis Welch is a New Zealand Listener journalist.