3 Mar 2016

Has Palino got the Trump touch?

11:21 am on 3 March 2016

OPINION: With his Trump-style bluntness and promise to cut rates, could Auckland mayoral candidate John Palino pose a real challenge to Phil Goff?

John Palino announces Auckland mayoralty bid: RNZ Checkpoint

John Palino, whose accent can lend TV coverage of Auckland's mayoral race a gritty HBO feel. Photo: RNZ / YouTube

Thanks for nothing, John Palino.

Two-and-a-half years on from the Len Brown sex scandal, when most of us had successfully buried the saga's tawdry details deep in a tightly secured alcove of the memory vault, you just had to create that word-picture, didn't you? The one involving Auckland's first super city mayor, a young woman and the civic space known as the Ngati Whatua Room. Cue the resumption of widespread involuntary nose-wrinkling.

Two words in particular - "pants down" - ensured those learning of Palino's campaign launch in Takanini on Monday were cast back into the unsettling murk of October 2013, the phrase invoking an image of Brown that will forever obscure the mayor's previous claims to fame as a middle-aged geek-rapper, self-slapper and supposed quiet achiever of local body politics.

With the man himself departing public office later this year, why have we found ourselves queasily putting pegs on our noses to revisit the seamy details? Mr Palino, come on down.

Somehow, the American-born businessman and sometime actor, who picked up 109,000 votes to Brown's 164,000 in 2013, has decided to have another shot. Never mind that entering the 2016 race renews questions about his 2013 campaign's links to the Brown scandal and the late night meeting he had with Brown's former love interest Bevan Chuang in a Mission Bay car park.

He declares himself an innocent bystander and says he and Chuang merely discussed "opening up a Chinese restaurant". (In Palino's New Jersey accent, comments like this, and another about "doing business in Connecticut", briefly lent TV coverage the flavour of something gritty on HBO.) And somehow, three practitioners of political ops - blogger Cameron Slater (who broke the Brown Scandal), campaign manager Simon Lusk and PR man Carrick Graham - have elected to play a part in the attempted comeback.

Considering all three featured in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics, what should we expect from the latest Palino campaign? No dirty politics, the candidate assured us, in a media-bashing launch performance that seemed straight out of the Donald Trump playbook.

Local-body politics is, of course, just as susceptible to hard-ball and rough-and-tumble as the national scene. Just recall, for example, the Auckland mayoral contest of 2004, when John Banks' campaign manager resigned after being outed for distributing a newspaper hatchet job on Banks' rival, Dick Hubbard.

And with two other centre-right candidates - Victoria Crone and Mark Thomas - already in the running this year and rumours of another yet to declare, the contest for primacy among blue-leaning voters is getting crowded. If that support doesn't coalesce around one candidate, the door to the mayoral office opens even wider for Labour MP Phil Goff.

From left, Victoria Crone, Phil Goff and Mark Thomas.

The centre-right is crowded. As well as John Palino, Victoria Crone, left, and Mark Thomas, right, all occupy blue-leaning ground, which may leave the mayoral office doors wide-open for Labour MP Phil Goff. Photo: RNZ

The pressure will be on. Former Xero executive Crone, though backed by some National Party figures, is a political newbie. Fluent in corporatese, she hasn't so far sounded likely to achieve cut-through in an election campaign. The affable Thomas, who experienced the sharp edge of politics when as a National Party candidate he was kneecapped by Jim Bolger in Wellington Central 20 years ago, is working tirelessly to build profile but seems so far unlikely to strike fear into the Goff camp.

Given the past two mayoralty results and the prospect of a split vote, the centre-right's chances for now seem slim. But just maybe, if a star candidate doesn't parachute in, Palino, with his Trump-style bluntness, firm promise to cut rates by 10 percent - and a possible name-recognition advantage bolstered by the raking over of the Brown scandal - will prove its best hope.

Should that happen, could we please just request a moratorium on mentions of the Ngati Whatua Room?

*Bevan Rapson is an Auckland journalist, political columnist for North & South and a former editor of Metro.