Steve Braunias concludes his ping-pong political challenges with a game against his sort of cousin, Labour's deputy leader Kelvin Davis.
The first words Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis ever said to me were in south Auckland at Te Puea marae, on the 2017 election campaign, when he shyly ambled over to me and announced: "Your father married my grandmother's half-sister. "I've thought of him as family ever since and taken pride in his political career.
It was great to see him again when he showed up at the door of my Te Atatu estate on Thursday morning. "Cuz," I said, and we shook hands as clansmen, as whanau. It was with real affection that I looked forward to beating him to a pulp over a game of table tennis.
Davis is the latest and last opponent in my 2020 series of ping-pong politics. I lost to Billy Te Kahika Jnr, leader of the New Zealand Public Party. I beat Simon Bridges of National and Chlöe Swarbrick of the Greens. Each game was actually a psychological experiment based on my conviction that the noble art of table tennis illuminates essential and sometimes revealing truths about everyone who plays it.
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Sport is never just sport; swatting at an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene ball measuring 40mm in diameter and weighing 2.7 grams is ping-pong reduced to statistics, but the laboratory of the table tennis table measures virtues such as quick thinking and the will to win at all costs, and failings such as emotional instability and lack of moral fibre.
It was hard to anticipate how Davis might come across as an opponent. His political career has been steady, quiet, dignified, somewhat invisible, kind of underwhelming, possibly even boring.
He hadn't planned on entering politics; but there was a vacancy in the Labour seat of Te Tai Tokerau when Dover Samuels quit. He hadn't wanted to stay in politics after losing to the Māori Party's Hone Harawira for the second time, in 2011; but there was a vacancy on the Labour list when Shane Jones quit. He was in line as deputy Prime Minister after the last election; but he vacated the post and deferred to Winston Peters when Labour and New Zealand First formed a coalition government. In short, the theme of his career was pretty vacant.
We sat on my couch in the games room and chatted for about half an hour before getting down to business. He's a handsome man with very good manners: he brought three packets of biscuits. We scoffed Tim Tams and talked about my father Johann and his aunt Eunice. They got together in Mt Maunganui when I was about 10. She was the postman's wife. They mailed themselves to live in Lake Tekapo.
"She was a character," Davis said, and that serves as a nice enough summary for dear old Eunice, who sang and played the piano, was both coarse and sentimental, and had a tongue that could tear strips off anyone she decided was her foe.
The first time Davis met them was at his grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary. "My grandmother said, 'How many husbands have you had now?' Eunice said, 'Four.' And my grandmother said, 'Look at me – 50 years, and I've been married to the same man.' And auntie Eunice said, 'Well, that's your fault.'"
The colourful Eunice, saying whatever the hell that came to mind, a troubled soul who brought good cheer and dire warnings with her wherever she went – I could picture her very clearly at this wedding anniversary but I couldn't picture Davis, even though he was sitting beside me. Some people fade into the background. He was fading into the foreground.
My father and Eunice would later visit Davis and his family at their home in Paihia. Davis also met my father's brother Friedl, who lost a leg in the war – and somehow managed to lose the prosthetic on his trip to New Zealand. Poor old Friedl! Lovely fellow. Couldn't speak a word of English.
"We played chess together," David said. He took Friedl to his marae. When he said that, I realised just how closely connected I was to Davis; there he was, squiring my one-legged Austrian uncle around Northland; and there we both were, a few years later, at Eunice's funeral, in Cambridge. Strange to think we would have seen each other on that sad day.
Anyway, it was time to see whether I could beat him like a cur. I ask opponents to choose a record from my collection of over 700 New Zealand LPs, and put it on the stereo for our game; Bridges went for the Christian funk of The Pink Family, Te Kahika went for a hard-rock LP his father made with Human Instinct, and Swarbrick was too busy talking to listen to anything. Davis went for a Prince Tui Teka live album recorded at the Westwood Ho Tavern in Glen Eden. God, it was awful. But Davis lapped up Tui Teka's jokes ("I'm on a sea food diet. I see food and eat it") and music (cover versions of "Zorba the Greek", "Danny Boy" etc) to take the first game 21-19.
He'd played as a kid, and got in a game a few weeks ago when he appeared in an official capacity at a youth centre: "I had this in the back of my mind," he said. And so he knew his way around the table and had a few skills; which is to say he really only had one skill: a devastating back-hand spin, which he used to serve. The guy was a one-trick pony but he got the most out if it. His style was narrow but excellent. Certainly I could see this as a metaphor for Davis the politician and Davis the person.
He stuck to his task and played in silence. He wasn't the most animated person I've met in my life. I ask opponents to name a song they'd want at their funeral; Bridges went for "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin, Te Kahika went for "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix, and Swarbrick went for an entire album, "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd.
Davis said, "When my wife and I were young, there was one particular song that we said was our song, so I'd play that. It was…um…ah…it was….oh…." He was less a hopeless romantic than just hopeless.
He raced to a 5-0 win in the second game. I was feeling the pressure. I was aware, too, that my failings would be seen before an audience of many hundreds of thousands of people; a film crew from Seven Sharp roamed the edges of the table. The footage will be used for an upcoming story about my political ping-pong series.
"Hang on a minute," I said to Davis, and took off the wretched Tui Teka LP and put on "So You Wanna Be a Rock'n'Roll Star" by Th' Dudes. Dave Dobbyn's incandescent guitar playing lit a fuse and I exploded into action, playing with verve and determination to win 22-20.
We had to go best out of three. Davis was feeling the pressure. He'd played weekend rugby until he was 40; when I asked him if he shared my essential philosophy of life that it was imperative to win at all costs; he told a story about his team racing towards the try-line when he noticed an opponent in agony, and he got the referee to stop the game so the guy could get treatment.
The story served as an advertisement for his decency and sense of fair play, but it concealed his competitive edge: he really wanted to win our clash of the cousins. He took a deep breath before the third game, and narrowed his eyes.
I raced to a 7-2 lead. Dobbyn was playing the second greatest guitar solo of his career ("Bull by the Horns" is his masterpiece) on "That Look In Your Eyes", inspiring me to victory; I moved like a gazelle, my shots skimmed the net like a dragonfly over water, I kept up a running commentary of each awesome shot while Davis stood there quietly, maybe a little bit morosely, and in Sylvia Plath's image, "vague as fog".
Davis is often seen as a weak performer in Parliament. Herald political editor Audrey Young was not alone in her views when she recently tore into his uninspiring response to Covid as the minister of tourism. He doesn't front up, he doesn't engage. As corrections minister, though, he's achieving his goal of prison reform.
I asked him about his pledge to cut prison numbers by 30 per cent in 15 years. He took out his phone to check on the latest numbers, and said, "It was 10,400 when we came in and they peaked in March 2018 at 10,800. Today it's…hang on…where is it…yeah. Here it is. Today it's 9003. Don't ask me what that percentage is but it would be around 12 per cent. Actually, I can do it now." He fished out a calculator. "What did I say…10,800…Times 100…Oh. 77 per cent? Wait. That doesn't sound right…Ah. I pushed the wrong button. Here we go. Times 100… Yeah. Here you go. 17 per cent."
He got there in the end. He did the same in our game. He got peak efficiency out of his back-hand spin and began to move quite fast around the table to return shots against all the odds. His play was actually spectacular and kind of beautiful. He raced to a 19-9 lead. It was all over. All I could do was play for pride. I duly played for pride, and pulled it back to 19-14, but he took the last two points.
Great game. Good guy. It was fun having my cousin Kelvin over. He wore a T-shirt with the insignia of Ngati Manu. "That's my hapu," he said. "It's yours, too."