A man who reminds Labour of old Labour values

The Olympic Games start this week. Breathlessly we will watch to see which of the drugs giants wins as their machines run, prance, swim and ride.

Sport at Olympic level has become a mixture of the chemical, the mechanical and celebrity. The television sport we watch — as distinct from the character-building sport we play (and fewer of us do, it seems) — is now lions versus Christians: keeping the masses doped up with spectacle.

And we, the puny, the slow and the uncoordinated, will thrill and despair that in some inclusive and defining way national pride is on the rink, in the pool, on the track at Athens. Will we win more medals per capita than Australia?

The stars at Athens, just like the All Blacks and the Silver Ferns, carry something of us with them. Television has made them celebrities, which diminishes them even as it builds their egos. But nevertheless they represent us, even if through a glass darkly.

But do they lead us anywhere? Celebrity dopes the listless. It does not lead. For that we need do-ers, people of strong character and determination, of courage and some daring.

Which brings us to John Tamihere — brash, angry, funny, likeable and a bit wild and dangerous. Not just a celebrity. A leader.

Helen Clark agonised whether he was a safe bet as a candidate in 1999. His volatile personality had got him into trouble with the law in his past. It burst out again last week in the Amokura Panoho affair.

But Clark’s unease on that score was outweighed by his leadership of the Waipareira Trust in West Auckland turning round the lives of poor Maori. His entrepreneurial energy there prompted ACT and National to pursue him to stand for them. Nationalists have often asserted to me that, deep down, he is one of them.

But Tamihere says he could be neither ACT nor National. He is tribal Labour, as Mike Moore used to say.

This sort of tribal Labourite, however, is not 1970s-80s liberal-left Labour, which is the dominant strand in the present leadership.

Nor is the tribal Labourite a tribal Maori in the traditional sense, though he is moved by a version of kaupapa Maori: he threatened that if he did not get the Labour nomination for the Hauraki Maori electorate in 1999 he would team up with Derek Fox, which might just have been enough to get an independent Maori group in Parliament. He initially fudged his comments on Tariana Turia’s new party, encouraging some to think he might join.

But in his book launched today [Tuesday] Tamihere makes it clear he is not a traditionalist Maori. He sniffs at the “reconstructed feudal model of iwi that has become accepted as ‘traditional’ ” which he sees in Turia’s sort of Maori politics.

He lives squarely in the here and now of the politics of disadvantage. Explaining why he could not join ACT or National, he says in his book: “I came from the working class.” Hardly anyone says that these days. The liberal middle class in charge of Labour is as uncomfortable with that old formula as with Tony Blair’s vacuous “third way”.

What can he mean?

Forget the “class” and focus on the “working”. The old Labour party wanted employees paid enough in wages to keep a household in dignity and wanted access for their children to self-bettering education and their families to decent health care.

It did not excuse them their misdeeds or failures as the fault of “society”. It aimed to help self-help.

That sort of Labourism has been too often seen by modern-day Labourites as “rightwing”. Tamihere has that reputation.

But Tamihere is no Remuera toff. He grew up in straitened material circumstances with an abusive father who twice put his mother in hospital.

Tamihere says he resolved never to be that sort of man. His brother David, by contrast, is in jail for murdering two Swedish tourists in 1989, after earlier stints for manslaughter and rape. “Society” gave both the same start: they have gone different ways.

In small ways we can see Labour inching back Tamihere’s way. Helen Clark has promoted him: expect another lift in her pre-election ministerial reshuffle. Trevor Mallard has taken middle New Zealand’s line on indigeneity. Phil Goff is toughening criminal law and sentencing. Steve Maharey has been edging towards demanding more from beneficiaries in return for their handouts.

The challenge Tamihere lays down to Labour is to go further, notably on welfare.

The right says “welfare is not working” , to which it now adds this slogan: “We want not to save money but to save children.” That rules out 1990s formulas, which punished parents and ended up punishing kids, thereby perpetuating the problem.

But more of the same is equally untenable. Labour’s own wage-worker constituency will some day baulk at eternally rising welfare rolls.

Tamihere has suggested decentralised social services, based on communities, with assistance tied to need. It isn’t the whole answer. Its importance lies in its aim: dignity and self-improvement. Which sport at its non-celebrity, non-doped best aims at, too.