Yesterday, the retiring National list MP, Tau Henare, was sitting in a vegan cafe in Mt Albert giving someone, or perhaps no one in particular, the finger. The vegan cafe part I can explain. He most obligingly met me here, early in the morning, just down the road from my place, so I could quickly get home to try to figure him out. I'd need another year. I'm fairly certain he wasn't giving me the finger, at least not me in particular. He was very sweet and unexpectedly touchy (he's a hand patter) and delighted, he said, to at last be "on the back page".
He was also, as you would expect, occasionally grumpy and growly, because he is combative to his core. If you say something he doesn't agree with, or he thinks is stupid, he gives you a verbal whack but the next second he's sweetness and light and giving you that twinkly grin again. He has a quick temper, he said, and "a big mouth and a quick mouth". He sometimes — and this is not the revelation of the century — opens his big, quick mouth and says silly things.
Now he is retiring from being a member of Parliament (which is probably the only context in which the word retiring will ever be used about him) he says he has no regrets. "I refuse to have regrets."
I said a stupid thing — not for the first or last time. This particular stupid thing was that, surely, it was only human to have regrets. He looked at me in utter disbelief and said: "No. It's not. In fact it's inhuman to sit there and ponder and make yourself sick and depressed about what you may or may not have done one year, two years, three years ago. Regrets! You think about it. What's the point? You'll make yourself sick. I'd rather turn on the TV. Not for me. Regret makes you bitter."
I thought he might be a bit bitter just now, but that would make him only human. He was, if not pushed, given a pretty pointed clue. He went to see the PM and "he told me straight: 'Your chances of coming home with a decent list place are not that good'." He was yesterday's man? "Yeah, pretty much."
You'd think he would mind about that. Of course he didn't cry. "Shit no! It's a job, you know. I would have cried if I was my old man, after 40 years on the railways, being told to go."
So, not bitter and not upset. But, was he all right then about quitting politics? "No. I love it." He was "pissed off" for only five minutes, or maybe ten. But he didn't give the traditional valedictory speech in the House because, for one thing, he thought: "Well, if I'm not good enough to be an MP, you're not good enough to hear my valedictory." His mother always said he was contrary, and she'd have known.
Anyway, here he is on the back page and that — and that I wasn't the target of the finger — are about the only things I'm certain about. He will, of course, be as delighted about that. He likes confounding expectation and, as he's been doing it for so long, it's a hard habit to give up. I think he sometimes confounds himself.
His mother also said he was bolshie and "it is my nature, and it does get results". I said, wimpily, that being combative all the time must be tiring and he looked at me as though I was from another planet and said: "Tiring? If that's the worst thing ... "
He isn't combative at home, he said, because "why do you have to win at home? You've already won by having a family".
He likes to think of himself as a maverick and an outsider who doesn't play by other people's rules. At least he used to enjoy this idea of himself. Now he says, with a touch of what might have sounded faintly like regret, from anyone else, that he has a touch of the Winstons.
He was first a NZ First MP, and when he went to Parliament, it was just him and Winston. This he says, was wonderful for him, because he could spend a lot of time observing and learning from the master. He said, about Winston: "He could have been PM. [But] he didn't play their game, because it's all about him. He knew better. Which is, unfortunately, a trait I have. For me, it's all about on the paddock. It's all about playing the game." He meant he was no good at the long game. "No. Not the political long game."
I did ask whether he judged himself to have been a good MP, and about his political legacy but such things are "a load of bullshit, quite frankly", and for other people to decide.
God forbid that he should be accused of any kind of looking back, of nostalgia, or sentimentality. He's too much the tough guy to wallow about in such ditches. I was amazed not that he has scrapbooks of clippings of his political career or that he sometimes looks at them, but that he told me. Why does he look at them? "Because it's cool. It's for my own personal uplifting." What does he think when he looks at his scrapbooks? "Shit! I did that." And, how the hell did that happen? "Yeah. Exactly." He said: "On another issue, you can see the departure of the hair follicles. I had hair, I was skinny. I looked good." That's more like it. That nostalgia stuff is as overrated as regret.
I'd asked why he felt the need to have a go at Jim Anderton (as he did this week, on Twitter) after all these years. It looked, I said, churlish.
"Yeah? So? Who cares? I got it off my chest," he said, perhaps a tad churlishly. He got it off his chest quite a lot more and called him a rude name. But it was hard to take any of this sort of play acting seriously. He's like an old boxer, throwing a few wild jabs about, more for the memory of what it feels like than in the hope of landing a punch.
Tau Henare likes to think of himself as a maverick who doesn't play by other people's rules. Photo / Sarah Ivey
It has been the combative side of politics, what he calls the game that he has loved and "it's not a game of bloody tiddlywinks". There are some lovely people in Parliament, he said, "who should just not be there".
We had better do the punch-up with Trevor Mallard because, I said, it will lead his obituary. "Oh, well. Who cares? I should have hit him first." I didn't think he'd hit him at all. "Oh, I sort of shoved him." There are two sides to the story and he tells them both. His side is that "it was a pussy punch". Mallard, he said, "would tell it like this: 'We met in the lobby. I clocked him one. I knocked him down!'" He wrote in his contrarian Twitter valedictory this week that it was "2 old testosterone filled eggs, eh?" Well, yeah, eh? So he can't really think he should have hit him first, or at all. "Nah. Not really. Because it doesn't get you anywhere. And now? Too old. Too slow. And too late. Ha, ha."
There is one small regret, although he wouldn't put it in those terms. He once said that if the cleaners at Parliament, who wanted better pay, didn't want their jobs, somebody else would. It was one of his sillier comments — made worse because he used to be a cleaner. He long ago apologised, but he mentioned it again this week so I thought it might have been niggling at him.
"I should have just come out and said: 'she deserves 50 bucks an hour [That] it's probably the cleaners who deserve the most because they clean up everybody else's shit.'"
I said, mildly, that it was a shame he hadn't said just that at the time and he said: "But hang on. Am I supposed to be on my game every five minutes?" Yes, I said, just to wind him up. "Bollocks," he said, looking furious. Then he grinned and said I most certainly wasn't on my game every five minutes. I wasn't about to ask for the evidence which would no doubt have been a longish list of all the daft questions I'd asked.
He's a bit of a mystery, for all his blokey, straight-talking, no bullshit persona. He's gregarious and outgoing, yet he hated the schmoozing side of politics and doesn't have many friends. He prefers spending time with his family — Ngaire, his partner of 30 years (they married in 2012, during the dinner break at Parliament), their five kids (the oldest is her son from a "first encounter, ha, ha") and two grandkids.
They live in Te Atatu Peninsula with the kids and a nephew and one of the girls' boyfriends. The grandkids live around the corner. Most nights there are eight for tea. "That's a big lasagne." He is a very good cook, by his own assessment. He has recently taken up making Maori bread. He plays chess, but not as well as the nephew. If he won Lotto, he'd stay at home and "muck around with my garden and my lawn and my garage". What sort of garden has he got? "Nothing. But I would have a garden."
He said: "I've never got used to the recognition factor." But he recognises that it's addictive.
He doesn't seem to much like the media and illustrated this by telling me stories about how awful they are and how so and so asked this stupid question and so and so that one. He complained that journalists ask speculative questions.
I said, well, hadn't he been speculating when he goaded Mallard, leading to the fight? That was completely different, he said. How was it different? "Well, because he did it to [Don] Brash."
He'd forgotten that I am part of the horrid gang that is the media, or, more likely, it no longer matters. Also, I imagine it appeals to him to have an entire page of a newspaper on the occasion of his retirement from politics. What else is that but another way of giving the finger?
That he gave his version of a valedictory speech via Twitter, of which he is a keen aficionado, is more of the same. I said, on the phone before we met: Didn't he want to give a speech and have everyone come up afterwards and make a big fuss and kiss him?
"Yuck," he said. When I reminded him of this he said it again, with glee: "Yuck! Yuck! What would I want to do that for?" He ought by now to be a senior statesman of a politician but he has always had about him an air of being a schoolboy who woke up one morning and found himself, mysteriously, an MP.
And now here he is, about to no longer be an MP, in a vegan cafe, giving the finger to ... Who? "The world, I suppose. The world. I'll do it my way. Who said I can't do it my way?"
What do you think he did before he went off, on his contrarian way? He gave me a kiss. Of course he did.