Opinion: Should John Tamihere be allowed to shrug off past homophobic comments?

Hayden Donnell writing for The Spinoff.

Opinion: The afternoon before he fronted a crowd of LGBTQ+ people at a Rainbow Auckland debate, John Tamihere was in Takapuna talking about patients who've fallen through the cracks of the mental health system. "They've been brutalised, sodomised," he said, speaking figuratively to describe their "heinous" treatment.

Maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Maybe he didn't mean anything by it. But "sodomised" is often used as a pejorative to dehumanise gay men and paint homosexual sex as degrading, and Tamihere hasn't exactly earned the benefit of the doubt on Rainbow issues.

The biggest controversy of his political career was over a 2005 Investigate interview where he called gay MP Chris Carter a "queer" and a "tosser" and said he had a right to believe homosexual sex was "unhealthy and violating". Seven years later, he spoke out against legalising gay marriage in a Herald interview covering his attempt to rejoin Labour. "Look, I don't have to get on with these people," he said. "I'm not joining the 'Women's Party', I'm not joining the 'Union Party', I'm not joining the 'Gay Party'."

The question is how much Tamihere has changed; whether he's truly moved on from those beliefs or if that "sodomised" betrayed a lingering attitude about the queer community.

You'd think that would have been raised during the debate at Generator, above Takutai Plaza, on Wednesday night, where Tamihere joined fellow challengers Craig Lord and Tom Sainsbury and mayor Phil Goff on stage to be grilled on everything from what they would do to alleviate safety issues on Karangahape Rd to how they would spend a $10 million grant given at random for Auckland (Goff: "I'd give it to the City Mission". Lord: "I'd buy roads").

It wasn't. The closest Tamihere got to addressing his past was talking about his conservative, religious upbringing.

"I was brought up in a world that was black and white," he said. "My mother was a strong Irish Catholic and but for her faith in that church, we would not have been fed. I do not walk in your shoes. You do not walk in mine. But what we've got to do is understand each one's journey." 

He went on to say he had whānau who identify as LGBTQ+.

"I'm a whānau man. I'm a whānau man, a family man. So they're part of my family. And I'd never turn my back on my family."

When Tamihere launched his campaign in January, his advisers admitted part of the reason for the early announcement was to give people space to get over his past controversies. Campaign director Matt McCarten said he wanted to buy time to "change the narrative".

"His thing is to say, 'yep, I made a mistake,' and hope people vote," he said in an interview I carried out in April for Metro magazine. "That's why coming out early is important. So we can get that out of the way."

Whenever he's been asked about the Investigate interview during the campaign, Tamihere's default response has been to acknowledge past mistakes and say it's time to move on. Sometimes he'll say he's "'fessed up" and paid his penance. Always he'll register irritation at being asked.

But I haven't heard Tamihere actually apologise for what he's said. He hasn't openly grappled with how his words were hurtful or wrong. He seems to want to leave his mistakes behind without properly admitting to them.

Auckland Pride director Max Tweedie was at the Rainbow Auckland debate, and was disappointed by what he saw as a cop-out.

"It was just this kind of elephant in the room where he's kind of said he's apologised and he's moved on but I've never heard an apology. I don't know who that apology has gone to because it certainly hasn't been the Rainbow community."

Tweedie said most LGBTQ+ people would move on if Tamihere said sorry, recognising it had been a long time since his comments on gay marriage or his Investigate interview. But he needed to show contrition and explain how his views have evolved, he said.

"It's not like it's a harmless mistake, and I think that's the thing here: it's not just a gaffe where he got a policy wrong or he misquoted statistics. He actually perpetuated really harmful stereotypes and comments and views that have actual effects on our Rainbow community, and if he wants to move on from them, the only way to do that is to not just apologise but to apologise for the harm those comments caused."

Tamihere was given the chance to do that again after the debate. Radio NZ reporter Rowan Quinn asked him whether he supports gay marriage now, but was repeatedly told he wouldn't "dignify" that with a response. "We all have experiences, we all learn and we all change. If not, you just become an old, shitty bigot," he said.

I managed to catch Tamihere on his way to the exit as well, asking whether he still believes what he said about gay sex being "unhealthy and violating".

"I'm not going to give that a response because it doesn't deserve it. It doesn't deserve it because we've all moved on, including me," he said. Then he walked away, got in the elevator and hit Ground.

The Spinoff