By AUDREY YOUNG, political editor

When Gerry Brownlee arrived in Parliament in 1996, he quickly made a name for himself as a witty bloke with a big voice.

Before long at National Party karaoke parties, the crawlers' calls for leader Jim Bolger to sing Danny Boy began to give way to calls for the popular tenor from Ilam to take the microphone.

Being a natural politician, Mr Brownlee obliged only when the leader was not present, no doubt sensitive to being seen as some kind of upstart or usurper.


Despite those efforts, he has always been seen as an upstart in Parliament and, this week, a usurper, having replaced Nick Smith as National's deputy after three weeks in the job.

In unparalleled events, Dr Smith lost the confidence of new leader Don Brash and a large number of caucus colleagues after aggressive and weird behaviour following the leadership coup (purporting to be Commander Brash's General and "firing" a few of the objectionable troops, including voting scrutineer John Carter).

In the end, Dr Smith was court-martialled and Mr Brownlee installed.

And there was an outbreak of delight among gag writers and cartoonists at the contrast in National's leadership duo between the slim, prim PhD and the booming, blaspheming former builder.

Bubble and Squeak, Laurel and Hardy, Albert and Costello, Gerry and the Pacemaker are just some of the labels tossed around in the past few days.

Then there was Finance Minister Michael Cullen's description, "Mogadon" (the sleeping pill) and "mastodon", an extinct type of elephant.

The lasting impression of Mr Brownlee are those repetitive television shots of him man-handling a protester down the stairs at National's campaign opening in 1999 - which cost him $8500 in a civil assault case. It was his worst political experience.

"The whole incident in many ways was quite uncharacteristic and is something I will be eternally embarrassed by."

He has certainly not made his reputation for painstaking policy work in local government or energy (his favourite portfolio).

His strong suit is in the chamber as shadow Leader of the House against Dr Cullen and where it takes a particular deftness in timing and tone to take on Speaker Jonathan Hunt. Mr Brownlee is not a master but he has been a very fast learner.

He enjoys the theatre of the House and thrives on giving cheek and getting it back.

He is certainly used to being teased about his weight and Dr Cullen's comments did not offend him.

"I think it's very clever," he said in an interview with the Herald. "How can you possibly take offence at a guy who says: 'Mr Brownlee talks about my surplus. Let me tell you, my surplus will never be beaten by his.' You know? It's incredibly funny.

"You can't overnight change the way you are. I have been big all my life. At various times I make an effort to get much fitter and much slimmer. I know at some stage I will have another one of those Parekura bouts [of weight loss]. It's not something I've ever let bother me too much."

He did not celebrate on Tuesday, given the circumstances. But he is one of the more sociable MPs and a regular at the late-night parliamentary haunt, the Green Parrot.

His favourite meal?

"I like a nice Greek salad ... ," he says with mock solemnity before exploding into laughter at the very thought of such a thing. "Bullshit! No. Pork chops is my usual."

Mr Brownlee, a native of Ilam, took over the seat after the retirement of former trade minister Philip Burdon.

He grew up in a close, extended Catholic family, the head of which remains the MP's grandfather, 97-year-old Alec Brownlee, who ran a family timber yard business with three of his 10 children.

Gerry Brownlee is the eldest of five children and 47 first cousins. The family gets together every Christmas at the family bach in Pelorous Sound, Marlborough.

He was a teacher - of Maori, woodwork and technical drawing - before entering Parliament.

He is often the butt of teasing about having been "just a woodwork teacher". In fact, before that he served the requisite 8000 hours as an apprentice carpenter, became a builder, then went teaching for 12 years, returning for three years to his old school of St Bede's in Christchurch where he twice failed UE.

"It doesn't worry me if [Education Minister] Trevor Mallard says I'm a bit of a dumb bugger. I don't think 'my God, I'd better bugger off the court'."

He is married to Michelle with three children, aged 11, 5 and 2. Mr Brownlee has packed a lot of fun into his brief seven years in politics.

Asked what is the most fun, he says: "I dunno. I'm tempted to say it's all ahead."