Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: MPs unleashed in Twittersphere

Tau Henare. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tau Henare. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It has been just over two years since National MP Tau Henare was anointed Minister of Twitter for his alacrity with the medium.

There has been a significant reshuffle in the portfolio area since then. That was a time when relatively few MPs were on Twitter and most were too scared to take the new toy out of its box, let alone play with it with any vigour.

Henare is still there and still covers a wide area of topics. He recently managed 135kg in the deadlift. "Am I happy? Damn Skippy I am."

But the landscape now is a lot more like the Wild West and some surprising gunslingers have emerged in the likes of Act leader John Banks and United Future's Peter Dunne, who tweeted through his journey from common-sense Peter to the beleaguered martyr in his very own spy melodrama, facing allegations he leaked a GCSB report.

Justice Minister Judith Collins is the biggest surprise in this regard. While many MPs delegate tweetery to their staff, Collins runs her own with a steel fist.

And with what unbridled glee does she deploy that fist. She alternates between Agony Aunt and Iron Lady, dispensing kindly advice to some, but getting others with a swift upper cut.

So an exchange with Clare Curran over Family Court reforms somehow ended up being a critique of Green co-leader Metiria Turei and her jacket, both of which Collins decreed were "vile, wrong and ugly".

She revelled in Labour's man ban, telling Trevor Mallard she could see why Labour wanted a man-ban "if you're anything to go by". She reserves her best patronising tones for Chris Hipkins: after finding out he was calling her "Cruella" she replied "Chris is a dear boy. Probably stayed up all night thinking of that one."

Collins revelled even more in the coup rumours swirling through Labour, especially after Labour MPs took to Twitter themselves to deny it.

If political parties have codes of conduct for social media, they are apparently flexible depending on how senior the MP is. Collins is senior enough to get away with more than a little backbencher, but not so senior that her sledging is completely inappropriate. Steven Joyce is in a similar position, and he too enjoys a good Twitter sledge but lacks Collins' bloodlust for it.

MPs on Twitter play to a relatively small audience. It is mainly beltway or enthusiasts of politics, rather than undecided voters who might be swayed by the persuasiveness of an MP's tweeting skills. It can be useful for making announcements though - one of the more astonishing moments in recent times was last week when Labour MPs turned to Twitter to reject reported rumours that a coup was under way. Grant Robertson, Annette King and Chris Hipkins led the charge, getting their message out but also turning it from a virtual non-story to a story about their vigorous denials on Twitter.

The predominant motivation for those MPs, therefore, is pure fun. When the Speaker calls order on the interjections, the MPs simply turn to Twitter where there is no Speaker to rain on their parade. Should some earnest person try to intervene, they can simply be taken out of the game by being blocked to shut them up. There are no whips on Twitter, no Speakers. An honourable mention also goes to a former MP who may be an actual MP again in the future, Labour's Kelvin Davis, @NgatiBird. His recent contributions include this on the Pakeha Party: "they want what Maori have. Excellent. They are welcome to our 16 per cent unemployment rate, lower life expectancy, and gout."

The MP who most people want to join Twitter is Labour's Shane Jones, the master of the backhanded compliment. His recent insults include this, about the Green Party's Ikaroa-Rawhiti candidate Marama Davidson: "Marama is a younger, somewhat smarter, version of Metiria." It is a perfectly formed tweet, but in this case was said during an interview with yours truly, who never found an opportunity to use it. The Metiria in question, Greens co-leader Metiria Turei, also had a tweet- worthy response, saying that finally there was something she and Shane Jones agreed on.

The only people who do not want Shane Jones to join Twitter are the Labour Party communications staff, who quiver in fear at the very thought.

Happily for them, Jones appears to still think Twitter is the noise the bellbirds make in Northland's forests.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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