If Shane Jones has done nothing else this week, he has shown why he is still the most likely successor to Winston Peters should the New Zealand First leader ever step down.

In a single day he probably got the party back to 5 per cent and lifted his brand as a champion for the regions, and both at the expense of National.

It highlights the importance of Jones' role as Peters is forced to change his own as Deputy Prime Minister and soon-to-be Acting Prime Minister.

Jones' attack not just on Air New Zealand but it's chief executive and chairman was out of Peter's populist playbook of the 1990s when his targets were not just IRD, the Serious Fraud Office and Crown Law but their heads, David Henry, Chas Sturt and John McGrath.

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NZ First MP Shane Jones on Barack Obama's visit and Air New Zealand. / Video by Dean Purcell

Under this ethos, it is not enough to condemn institutions for their decisions but to imbue them with a malign intent or neglect, or venal individuals, or to paint them as elites who care not one jot for ordinary folk.

Peters, who learned at the feet of Muldoon, was at it again in the 2017 election with a vicious attack on the integrity of the head of the Ministry of Social Development.

Jones does not have the same streak that surfaces in Peters but he is learning.

But he questioned the competence of the chairman and CE and the future of their jobs, to highlight his unhappiness over reductions to regional routes.

Clearly it upset Air New Zealand which went bleating to the Government instead of taking it in its stride, but there were no downsides for the Government.

It left Jacinda Ardern having to publicly admonish a minister which, in her case, was a gift. She rarely gets the chance to look like a tough leader or one that won't give in to every demand of the New Zealand First coalition partner that put her in power.

She was able to mildly rebuke Jones, while pointing out his passion for the provinces.

Majority shareholding minister Grant Robertson reminded the airline in non-threatening tones that the Government had influence over the appointment of the board.

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The loquacious Jones can swing between the well prepared and rehearsed attacks and spontaneous ones. This one had a little of both.

Jones' attack on the airline began on Friday March 19, at Kerikeri airport terminal, although it was not picked up by media for another three days.

He was there with Winston Peters to dish out dosh from the Provincial Growth Fund.
After the formalities were over, he strode over to a senior Air New Zealand executive to tell him to warn his bosses against further regional cuts. He did it deliberately because the media were there.

When the story was finally run, he stepped up his criticism, keeping it going another day.

When Jones was mildly admonished by the PM, he instead went for their "champagne bowl" lifestyle of the corporates like Air New Zealand, the political persuasion of the CE, and a possible referral to the Commerce Commission - keeping it going for a third day.

The more Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones consolidates his position as a champion of the regions, as he did this week, the more careful National has to be in its attacks. Photo / John Stone
The more Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones consolidates his position as a champion of the regions, as he did this week, the more careful National has to be in its attacks. Photo / John Stone

Jones is like a political combine harvester. Let loose on a controversy, he wanders all over the paddock reaping and threshing but usually producing something that is valuable.

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He is fast becoming the primary branding agent for New Zealand First, as Regional Economic Development Minister.

Peters as Deputy Prime Minister is more constrained and will be even more so when he becomes Acting Prime Minister for six weeks.

So where did this leave National this week? It initially decided to defend the airline but soon dropped that when it realised it could be seen as defending cuts to regional routes.

Simon Bridges' took a leaf from the New Zealand First playbook of venality and seized upon the "troughing" angle. He highlighted Shane Jones willingness to bag Air New Zealand while in the same breath accepting its corporate hospitality at the Obama dinner.

It was variation on the "Ron Air" attack of last week in which there was a great deal of interest over the Defence Minister being picked up and returned for official travel with the Air Force at the airport near his home.

Both were small personal attacks, long remembered.

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After the election, English did not adopt any particular posture towards New Zealand First, other than ignoring it.

That has changed markedly under Bridges, although not deliberately. Its ministers have simply provided unavoidable targets: Peters over his positioning around the UK-Russia crisis, Ron Mark's flights, and Jones.

But the idea of Jones as champion of the regions will be a difficult concept for National to shift even if the statistics suggest it is not all gloom out there.

The Air New Zealand stoush somewhat obscured the news on Wednesday that under the last Government, every region was growing economically, not stagnating, and not least in Jones' patch, Northland, which grew by 8.2 per cent in GDP over a year, and 30.2 per cent over five years.

But there are major variations within the regions; Northland, Gisborne and Manawatu-Wanganui, sit well below all others in gdp per capita. Even in regions that are doing well, geographic isolation can foster a sense that they are neglected.

The Provincial Growth Fund presents a similar problem for National as the Air New Zealand issue posed. An outright attack on it would simply run the risk of alienating National's support in the regions.

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That is why National will be targeting anything that looks glaringly unworthy or any defect that can found in its primary advocate, Shane Jones.

But the more Jones consolidates his position as a champion of the regions, as he did this week, the more careful National has to be in its attacks.