Steve Braunias continues his ping-pong challenges with political leaders as he takes on new Green co-leader Marama Davidson.

Steve Braunias continues his ping-pong challenges with political leaders as he takes on newly appointed Green co-leader Marama Davidson.

The thing that impressed me most about Marama Davidson while destroying her at ping-pong at my stately manor this week was her resilience. The newly appointed Green Party co-leader couldn't play for toffee. She was erratic, haphazard, an accident that didn't even wait to happen. But her composure remained intact, and so did a crazy belief in her powers.

I mused upon these qualities after she left and suspected there would be a whakatauki, a proverb, that got to the heart of the matter. I think I found what I was looking for. Waiho i te toka tu moana: stand firm and compact as the surf-beaten rock in the ocean.


I was the surf. I crashed down upon her all throughout our three games on Tuesday morning. She made a very colourful rock; she turned up at my estate wearing a pink tracksuit. Also, there was a headband, a towel thing around her neck, and she grasped at a fancy bottle of water.

Manurewa chic had come to Te Atatu. I could see the neighbours giving her wary looks.
The last time I saw anyone wearing a tracksuit on the street in Te Atatu was about five years ago when Outrageous Fortune actress Siobhan Marshall lived here.

Davidson, too, is of a theatrical bent. Her father, Rawiri Paratene, is one of New Zealand's greatest actors and she remembers thinking that every kid went to the theatre on Friday nights. The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree; she's a flamboyant person, who laughs loudly like only actors and those kinds of luvvies do, and she kept up a running commentary during our game, not so much for our benefit but for an imaginary crowd who were watching and cheering her on the sidelines.

I doubt she's best in one-on-one situations. Too intimate, not enough action. I can see her more in her element in a crowd - at the marae, on a conference call, in her own house in Manurewa, which she rents and shares with her husband and six kids.

Some people carry a very singular sense of themselves. Davidson carried the sense of a community: she's very well-suited to politics, and the Green Party in particular, with its noble ideals of representation. Her rise has been fast. She joined the Greens in February 2013. She got into Parliament in 2015; within a year she had risen to fourth on the party list, then third, then second. She thrashed Julie-Ann Genter in the leadership race. Her co-leader James Shaw remains the face of the Greens but already it's possible to picture the day will come when Davidson is perceived as the prime mover, the boss.

Anyway, she came, she saw and admired the artwork, she got conquered at table tennis. The worst players I've come up against in my series of games with political leaders have been James Shaw and David Seymour. Davidson joins that shameful elite. Man she was bad. I despatched her 21-11 in the first game and could have won with both hands tied behind my back. She swiped at thin air, she lobbed the ball like a balloon, her footwork was as slow as a wet week.

And yet, and yet. She was unbowed. She cast aside her manifold weaknesses, and focused on her strengths – her backhand, and she fortitude. "Live in your backhand," I instructed her. "You have no forehand. It's as useless as the appendix. Think only of your backhand. Become your backhand."

She was a good student. She learned fast. In game two, she really upped her game; her backhand started to fairly snap, crackle, and pop, and it ate me for breakfast. The lead changed from one to another. She began to see the angles. She cheered herself on like Eden Park in a test match. It worked: she won the second game 22-20.


It served as a glimpse into the kind of drive and determination that won her the leadership race. "I'm attracted," she said, "to challenges." She made this remark after our third game and we'd walked around the corner to the Davin Bakery for morning tea. I got a mince savoury, she got a pancake. She talked about an amazing thing she did as a university student.

One day she saw a notice which advertised a long and gruelling journey by canoe. "I'd never so much as touched a paddle," she said. "But I rang the number and signed up." She trained for a year; part of it involved canoeing to Rangitoto, running to the top, running back down again, and canoeing back to Auckland.

The actual journey took four weeks. She was the one woman among five guys. They canoed up the Whanganui River against the current for two weeks, all the way to Taumaranui, where they portaged their craft to the Tongariro River. They canoed up there, then across Lake Taupo, then Waikato River all the way to Tuakau...The last portage was across the narrowest part of the Auckland isthmus, on Portage Rd, from the Manukau to the Waitemata harbour. The ancient trade routes of Maori, basically. She was about 23, "a tiny little thing".

It sounded fantastic, epic. But why? How come?
"I like things that are different," she said. "I like a dare. I like risk."

What a creature of purpose and ambition. She seems to operate on just one gear: endurance, achievement, success. I admit to feeling somewhat awed by her sheer force of nature in our third, deciding game, especially when she raced to a 6-2 lead.

I have a record player in the games room. I put on Helter Skelter by the Beatles. I was going down fast. Davidson was living in her backhand, and living large. It was like a grand theatrical production; the crowd in her head were giving her a standing ovation; but I hate the theatre, I adore the spectacle of the mundane, and I quietly set about destroying the props and furniture of her stage. I played to her forehand, and she has no forehand. I made her run for the ball, and she can't run. Reality had come calling. Theatre and artifice was no match for my matter of fact delivery, and I won 21-16.

But she was a good sport about it. I liked her a great deal. I will think of her in the corridors of power, resolute and competitive, a confident, showy presence, intent on getting her way.