Claire Trevett

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

Keeping up without Jones

Shane Jones' sudden resignation has left Labour struggling to prove it can still connect with middle New Zealand. Claire Trevett examines why the outspoken MP will leave a big hole

Shane Jones has been described as a "double-edged sword". Photo / NZPA
Shane Jones has been described as a "double-edged sword". Photo / NZPA

In March last year, Labour MP Jones held a "Lazarus Party" to celebrate his comeback after being cleared of wrongdoing in an Auditor-General's probe into a citizenship decision he made. He went on to ensure that comeback came to fruition, most notably during his unsuccessful tilt for the leadership last year and hyberbolic campaign against Countdown.

Yet one year later, Jones is now planning a "Count-Down Party," one last joke punning on his departure from politics and the crusade against the supermarket giant that had helped with his Lazarus moment.

Whether it is truth or simply perception is irrelevant: Jones was seen as the last bastion of the centre ground for Labour as well as providing an important buffer from the view that the party was more obsessed with identity politics and political correctness than everyday grafters.

He was certainly the one who articulated it best.

The party now has to work out how to at least hold those voters and shed the perception it is lurching ever leftwards without Jones.

Josie Pagani - a Jones supporter and former Labour candidate - says it needs to do that fast.

"With Shane gone, it feels like the message to people who think like Shane, or identified with Shane, none of those people have received a message saying you're still welcome in the Labour Party. I think that's the problem."

She said the anti-Jones brigade among Labour's activists erupted in celebration on social media without appearing to realise they were effectively sending a message to others that if they identified with Jones, they were not wanted in Labour.

"All you have to do is look at the parade of people popping champagne and saying 'good riddance' in the blogosphere. Are we really saying to people who look and think and sound like Shane that they may as well go and vote National because you're not welcome in Labour?"

MPs spoken to said Jones' departure would inevitably have an impact on the caucus and party, at least in the short term, and possibly on the election. It was not all bad - for Jones was, as one MP described him, a double-edged sword.

Jones wasn't the best when it came to discipline and could create distractions. He sucked up a lot of oxygen, and his departure could result in a bit less tension in caucus, where Jones could sometimes stir up trouble. There was also the scale of his dislike of the Green Party and criticism of the Maori Party - both potential coalition partners for Labour.

But those were predominantly in-house issues. MPs spoken to said Jones also had the most extensive business links within caucus; others pointed to his role as Labour's senior Maori statesman. All pointed to his ability to articulate what was important to blue-collar workers in a way that resonated.

The party's leadership has sought to restore a bit of calm and perspective. Deputy leader David Parker says just because Jones has gone, what he stood for had not. He said fighting against inequality and on behalf of workers had been part of Labour's ethos for almost 100 years. It had managed to express them before Jones and would manage to do so after Jones.

"Nobody is indispensable. If you're suggesting, as some have, that the only way Labour connects with middle New Zealand is through Shane Jones, that's just wrong. He's a good person and a more powerful orator in his use of language than anyone else in Parliament. But there is no one like Shane in National or anywhere. The closest would be Winston [Peters]."

This week, it was the more centrist MPs who rolled out to talk about Jones and voice support for what he had stood for.

MP Kris Faafoi said despite the perception Jones was on his own in the centre, others were there as well. "Many think economically he was on the right track as well. I don't think it's a sin to have opinions like Jonesy's in the party at all. I guess it's our job now to fill that void. We need to, because we need that centre ground." He had hoped Jones would be "in the trenches with us" for the campaign.

When Steve Maharey left Parliament, he said a politician leaving was like stepping out of a pool - other water rushed in to fill the space.

There is also the question of whether he'll ever belly-flop back in. Jones says no. Others, such as Peters, the New Zealand First leader, are not so equivocal.

Peters said the loss of Jones was a blow to Labour and to Maoridom but he wouldn't rule out a return. "He's got ability, that's why. There are those who come to Parliament who need Parliament to enlarge themselves. And there are those who come to Parliament to enlarge Parliament. Shane is in the second category."

Asked Peters if that return might be under NZ First's banner and he starts grumping about rumour mongers. Both he and Jones have denied ever discussing Jones' taking over as leader, but the speculation is not without grounds.

The night after his decision became public, Jones was with Peters at the Hikurangi Hotel, a slightly rough area outside Whangarei where the predominant feature is a whale penis above the bar. The locals took the opportunity to have a bit of fun at Jones' expense over the porn incidents, telling him it was from a blue whale. It's no surprise it was Peters he went to to debrief after a hectic day. Peters is a mentor, and Jones says it was Peters who went to his rescue during the Auditor-General investigation into Bill Liu - a time he says he felt the most isolated in his career.

It is because of his relationship with Peters that another problem presents for Labour. Jones would have been critical after the election if Labour needed NZ First to form a Government.

Many believe the sense of drama over Jones' exit was because of the way it broke. Jones had broached the possibility he would leave with MPs he trusted in the weeks before he made the decision. They included David Parker, David Shearer, Clayton Cosgrove, Annette King and Trevor Mallard whom he had grown close to of late. He had also spoken to Peters over Waitangi weekend but Peters reportedly put it down to a rough patch and told him he'd get over it. It was hardly the first time he had made similar noises and most thought he was simply going through another patch of crying wolf and would wait until after the election.

Jones made up his mind on Monday after talking to family over Easter. On Monday night, he left messages on the phones of David Parker and David Cunliffe asking them to call back without any indication of what it was for. Cunliffe heard the news on Tuesday and asked Parker to also call Jones.

Cunliffe then got in the car to drive up to Waipu to meet Jones. Chief of staff Matt McCarten was also told and started coming up with a plan to make the announcement, aiming for Thursday. The hope was to keep it as tidy as National's announcement about Health Minister Tony Ryall's retirement. At that stage, Jones had not mentioned McCully's offer of an ambassadorial role in the Pacific. As Cunliffe was driving up to Waipu the news of Jones' deal with McCully broke on 3 News and Jones told the Herald he was quitting. It resulted in what one MP described as "a shambles," although Jones' sudden resignation was always going to create more furore than that of many other politicians.

It somehow seemed appropriate that Jones' departure came out as a result of a leak. Jones was a maestro at working the media. He worked outside the party's formal media management strategy, hitting the blower on a daily basis to get stories up across his vast network of media contacts. Over summer, while most MPs were holidaying, there was Jones in his local rag moaning about someone dumping fish carcasses in his local creek.

He was anointed by the media to begin with, crucified by the media when he stuffed up, and then built up again. Most politicians look forward to getting away from that level of scrutiny but it is no real surprise that Jones says the sudden absence of it is the thing he is most worried about adjusting to. "Anyone who has been out there in public and seeks affirmation of their political ideas and personal attributes, once the curtain comes down; I have to tell the truth. One of the issues I had to ask myself was can I make that transition and not be miserable?" He still doesn't seem certain he can. But he shrugs and says attention has already turned to his successor and good friend, Kelvin Davis.

"I'm not even gone yet and Kelvin's bought a new suit, is polishing his shoes and saying 'I am now the dog and Shane is the tree'."

- NZ Herald

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