Shane Jones is a flawed man - he's the first to admit it. A booze-drinking, porn-viewing, wife-cheating, frustrated Kiwi bloke. But he also has a devil-may-care candour that will be missed from politics. And when this Kiwi bloke walked away from Labour this week, he may have taken thousands more voters just like him.

Real men piss on trees. They may be Harvard-educated. They may prefer red wine to beer. They may use language like "matrix of policies" and "fractionalisation". But when the talk is over, they don't dither, they do what has to be done.

I first wrote about Shane Jones in 1998. He was a young, populist Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commissioner telling a Waikato hui that political parties needed to give Maori the matrix of policies they wanted, or face the consequences.

Over the ensuing 16 years, I've eaten fish and chips with him, drunk wine with him and listened to him expound on what is wrong with New Zealand and the world.

I even crashed on his couch in the Far North once, while investigating a story that he was a slum landlord. (He wasn't, but try to tell that to the neighbour who burned down one of his rental houses).


This week, after the shock announcement of his resignation from Parliament to become Pacific Economic Ambassador, we meet again. For more than an hour, I interview him and partner Dot Pumipi, a one-time swim champion and beauty queen, outside Cafe Miko in Auckland's Botanic Gardens.

As we talk, the last customers leave - a couple of middle-aged Pakeha women. They wave and give Jones a thumbs up. The cafe closes. Our coffees get cold in their cardboard cups.

Jones, 54, needs to use the toilet, but staff have locked up.

So we wander off down a path. He's with a journalist and photographer - he ponders the public implications of peeing behind a tree. Then he ducks off into the Gardens' native plant collection (edibles, medicinal and threatened) and does it anyway.

He returns to the path.

"I watered a kawakawa shrub," he announces. "I hope the Maori medicine people don't come here."

Shane Jones has never been shy to mark his political territory.

At 16, he and a friend snuck out of St Stephen's boarding school for a night on the town in Auckland. He got the cane for it.


The headmaster, Frank "Scotty" McPherson, told him straight: "You've got five brothers and sisters. Your parents are spending money that they can't afford to have you come to this school. Get off your arse, apply yourself and don't be an embarrassment."

Activist Shane Jones in 1990. Photo / APN
Activist Shane Jones in 1990. Photo / APN

This was a defining moment. In the 1980s, he graduated from protesting at Waitangi to working for Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer. Then, with wife Ngareta and four children in tow, Jones went to Harvard University to do a degree in public administration. After his return, he was appointed to the Treaty of Waitangi Fisheries Commission, charged with allocating nearly a billion dollars worth of assets to iwi.

Things got ugly. As a renegade commissioner, he was constantly at odds with chairman Sir Tipene O'Regan. Eventually, worried that important documents were being leaked, the commission called police to raid Jones' house in 1998. They found nothing.

Frustrated at the slow progress, Prime Minister Helen Clark sacked half the commissioners. I learned the vote for a new chairman was taking place in August 2000, and was waiting outside when the bearded, 40-year-old walked out of the door, after being newly elected to the $230,000-a-year role. He looked at me, sighed - and gave his first interview as chairman.

There was no humility. This, he said, was "a historic day". He added: "We will not shirk from the task."

He was true to his word. Four years later, he earned Clark's gratitude by pushing through the stalled fisheries allocation - and the race began to sign him up as an MP.

Maori leader Sir Graham Latimer publicly hailed him as a potential prime minister. Privately, Latimer sounded Jones out to run for National. But, inspired two decades earlier by Prime Minister David Lange and his oratory, Jones stayed loyal to the Labour Party.

Just weeks after the fisheries settlement was passed by Parliament, he confirmed he was seeking nomination for Labour, with hopes of a fast-track into Cabinet.

It was a difficult time for a Maori man to enter politics. After Jones' northern neighbour Dover Samuels lost his ministerial job over allegations never proven, some felt Maori politicians came under greater scrutiny than Pakeha.

Samuels' successor, Parekura Horomia, had felt the need to clear the decks with a tell-all interview about how he was arrested, aged 17, for brawling on the street.

And after seeing the private lives of other MPs dragged into the public arena, Ngareta Jones warned her husband: "Shane, before you finally arrive in Parliament, I'm going to go through your affairs as if I'm looking for nits with a kutu comb in the children's hair."

So Jones invited me up north to meet his friends - and his enemies. Unlike Horomia, Jones had done his brawling in the boardrooms and council consent hearings.

Doubtless Bay residents accused him of trucking in rundown houses and renting them out to gang members. Colin Spriggs, from the ratepayers' association, said he and other residents welcomed the torching of one rental house: "It was an opportunist set-up for him to dump these houses for personal gain."

It may seem less than generous, as Jones retires, to again scrutinise his failings. But the scrutiny is not meant to be unkind. It's just that Jones can be brutally candid, startlingly honest for a politician.

Case in point: the revelation he charged porn movies in hotel rooms to his ministerial credit card. In the days after, he gave interview after excruciating interview, phoned almost every number in his cellphone to apologise. "If I recall, they were not that good," he mused. "God knows what Mum thinks."

To report on the career of Shane Jones is to report the triumphs and tribulations of a life well lived. Once we expected our politicians to be real people; now, the backroom strategists often go looking for plastic Kens and Barbies with no dirt, no history, no character.

For 17 years, Dot Pumipi has marched on Anzac Day. First she marched with her parents, Ken and Linda. Her dad, a Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam veteran, died of renal failure in 2009. "His comrades believe he got ill with Agent Orange, but no one will ever be able to confirm this," says Pumipi, 41.

It was April three years ago that Pumipi met Jones at a Labour meeting. She saw him again at an Anzac Day function at Manurewa RSA, then the following month at a tangi.

Jones and his property developer mate David Henderson had spare seats at Miss Universe New Zealand that night - so he invited Pumipi and her friends along.

Jones didn't realise Pumipi had represented New Zealand at Miss Hawaiian Tropic 1994 in Daytona Beach, Florida. "Really? I thought you sell crockery," he told her.

Pumipi had also been a swimming champ, had gone on to publish home technology magazines and books, and then to be national sales manager for Maxwell & Williams designer homewares. She was not well-pleased to be dismissed as a crockery saleswoman.

"It brassed me off, that response," she says now.

She told him, in no uncertain terms, that she knew a bit about business, as well as the charade of beauty pageants. "They are like you MPs," she told him. "Not always transparent."

Indeed. For a start, the father of seven was married.

Jones leans back in his seat, and rests his hand lightly on Pumipi's shoulder. "Ah, just tell him the truth, Dot," Jones says. "I was still married to Ngareta, a very strong woman and a great mother to our seven children. But the relationship had frayed, more to do with me than her, I suspect.

"I don't think it's honest to blame politics for some of the personal decisions that the men of politics make. I made one, and I've had to wear it. I won't name the other senior male Maori MPs that have been through what I've been through, but one of my weaknesses is that I'm perhaps more prone to guilt."

Jones and Pumipi's relationship progressed. Both had family affected by cancer; Jones had beaten bowel cancer before entering politics. So the two joined the Sunrise Walks in the Botanic Gardens, to support a nearby cancer hospice.

Jones admits he fought the 2011 election campaign under a shadow, screening journalists' calls, worried the affair might become public. "We pretty much became an item during the election campaign. I was always slightly hobbled in that election - I feared there was a double-life happening. I was a bit like a gay fulla who hadn't come out of the closet.

"I was not a good husband. When you go through a relationship breakdown, people are bruised, and I've caused some of that. So that's one of the regrets I have."

Meanwhile, Ngareta, the mother of his children, lost two brothers to cancer - and was diagnosed with the terminal disease. She is now seriously ill, on chemotherapy.

Jones won't talk about this, lest he cause any more pain to his wife and children - it's one of the few things he won't talk about.

The seeds of Jones' decision to quit were sown two years ago. In mid-2012, then-Labour leader David Shearer stood him down while the Auditor-General investigated why Jones, as associate immigration minister five years before, had granted citizenship to Labour Party donor Bill Liu.

"I was highly pissed off about that," Jones says. "That had a bloody visceral effect on me, actually, more than the credit card episode. I've never really fully admitted how much that jolted me."

Jones was isolated from his Labour colleagues and felt he had few friends. "And Winston [Peters] came and found me and said, 'you come with me'. If there was ever a point at a deeply personal level that I really respected Winston's toughness, it was then.

"He was basically taking me under his wing to go through that ordeal. That counted for a lot. I'm quite a deep person in my own way, although I've got a big mouth. So I never forgot that."

Jones returned to Labour's front bench in March last year, and a month later got the call that Parekura Horomia, the kaumatua of the Labour caucus, was on his deathbed.

He headed down to the East Coast, where Horomia was waiting in the front room of his small farmhouse in Mangatuna, Tolaga Bay. It was an intimate moment, as Horomia handed over leadership of Labour's Maori caucus to Jones.

They spoke in Maori. Horomia said it was time for him to okioki - to rest. Jones replied: "Kia kaha chief, mo te iwi."

It was, in part, out of a sense of duty to Horomia that Jones put his hand up for leader three months later. There were those who believed he could pull it off.

Indeed, still buried on the Labour Party website is a page prepared for the eventuality of a Jones victory. "Shane Jones is the 15th leader of the Labour Party, and the next Prime Minister of New Zealand," it proclaims, boldly and prematurely.

But when Jones discovered he did not even have the support of two senior members of his own Maori caucus - Nanaia Mahuta and Louisa Wall - he knew his leadership bid was doomed.

As an opposition MP, he says, it is difficult for him to deliver on Horomia's hopes for him - and so he began talking about quitting. To Murray McCully; to David Cunliffe; to Peters over whitebait fritters at the Green Parrot restaurant.

With hindsight, Jones now admits, he didn't fit into the modern Labour Party. "I've never said this on the record, but I was deeply influenced in a positive way by the figures of the Lange Government. I didn't do my due diligence to discover how much the Labour Party had changed. And Opposition is a waste of my talent and skill."

Pumipi says he should have gone with National. Jones is more oblique: "I will never admit to having joined the wrong party. But I admit to the fact that I have sounded consistently like a guy who doesn't belong to the modern Labour Party."

Jones' political career is not over. Certainly, he is done with Labour. "I'm not naturally left-leaning," he admits. He does not believe it can win this year's election if Cunliffe continues with the current strategy, cosying up to the Greens.

The difficulty is knowing who he would work with. Ever since school, Jones has not been a team player. He could yet be a leader, though.

It's the afternoon of Anzac Day. Earlier, he and Pumipi had greeted servicemen and women at the Civic Parade at the Manurewa Cenotaph. Pumipi proudly wore her father's medals for the first time.

Now, Jones is enjoying a whisky at the RSA with Winston Peters.

Might he make another tilt at the Beehive? "Possibly," he says. "Never rule anything in or out."