Steve Braunias resumes his series of table tennis games against politicians on the campaign trail.
And so to another round of encounters with New Zealand political figures over a game of table tennis as a means of analysing their essential character and true worth as a human being. Such was the revelatory power of my previous round of encounters in the 2017 election that I was nominated for an award as best political writer. Really, though, they were sports reports. I played to win, to crush, to kill. I expected nothing less of each opponent and look back with pleasure at the drubbings I gave Seymour, Shaw, and wassername, the Prime Minister-in-waiting.
Sport never lies. It brings out the best and worst in all of us – our courage, our guile, our resilience, our cowardice, our violence, our lack of wit. Games are a controlled experiment. They exist as a kind of laboratory, designed to test the speed and efficiency of turning thought into action. The smaller the lab, the closer the access to the minds of the players; and ping-pong, with its exactness, its hand-to-hand combat, its cute bat and dainty ball, operates as an intimate little X-ray of everyone who plays it.
Anyway, so New Zealand Public Party leader Billy Te Kahika Jr stepped into my laboratory the other day as the first opponent in my series of table tennis games to mark the 2020 election campaign. I duly looked inside his mind. I hereby declare he will make it into Parliament.
Yes, yes, a rash and possibly even fairly insane claim to make of a 48-year-old man who was a complete nobody until he launched his party six or seven weeks ago, who goes on about 5G and deep state and all that windy conspiratorial trash, and who has joined forces with the transparently appalling Jami-Lee Ross. But everything about his play and his behaviour around the table suggested to me that he has the right stuff to pick up enough support to become the strangest and potentially most appalling Member of Parliament since Jami-Lee Ross.
It could just be that I'm being a little bit too noble in defeat. We played two games. I got whipped twice. The dude was good. He took it seriously and he put everything he had into it – he didn't leave anything on the table except quite a few beads of perspiration. At least I made him sweat for it.
He played to win, to crush, to kill. I have no doubt he will campaign for office in the same way: he has the desire and the belief, although I put a question mark on his stamina. He's the kind of guy who is terrifically happy when things are going his way, but I wonder what he's like when he's up against it. Adversity is the ultimate test of athletes and politicians; Kahika was puffed and exhausted after our second game, and I really should have played him a third time. I think I might have seen a different side to his temperament. There were hints of uncertainty and instability during our two games. Plus he talked non-stop, and I suspect he's the kind of rooster who will talk himself into trouble.
He knew his way around the table. He gripped the bat in the penhold position, always an indication of experience and know-how. I go for the handshake position, the go-to hold for any old idiot. He said he played "binge table tennis" with his wife Corrin at their home in Whangārei - huge contests held over two-three days on their dining room table, husband and wife locked in fierce matrimony.
"We go hard," he said. I can believe it. In both games I raced to an early lead but he held his nerve and never gave an inch. He identified a certain weakness in my game, and exploited it. He cackled, hooted, made other various assorted noises of wild celebration. It made me want to hate him but the fact is I liked him at once, and liked him even more by the time he left. Certainly I was bored to tears by his political beliefs - "I am focused on saving New Zealand from overseas interests like the Chinese Communist Party which has now been exposed as being funded by both Labour and National", etc. Also, there was a vanity about him; he talked himself up, took great pleasure in the sound of his own voice, and wore a scarf indoors.
And yet he had charisma to burn, and he burned it at a steady, constant heat. It makes him a vastly appealing sort of rooster. His charm, and his ability to speak at length and with real enthusiasm about a wide range of crazy ideas, are also attractive qualities in the electorate. When we met, it was the morning after the 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll showing he had registered 1 per cent as preferred Prime Minister – the same as Winston Peters, David Seymour and Christopher Luxton. "Pretty excited about that," he said. I didn't raise the subject, though; it was more or less the first thing he said when he arrived.
The match was held at my estate in Te Atatu. The games room is also fitted with a stereo, and my collection of approximately 700 New Zealand LPs. I put a copy of Stoned Guitar out on display, knowing that he'd be stoked to see the classic 1970 album his father made with rock band Human Instinct. He was duly stoked. His dad Billy Te Kahika Snr was a guitar genius, a Māori Hendrix. I played the title track from Stoned Guitar during our match. It's an incredible piece of music, quite audacious, and the son listened to it with awe and respect. He's also a guitarist of considerable ability. I asked if there were parallels with playing gigs and giving political speeches, and he said, "People who come to gigs are looking to be taken on a trip. But this, the campaign, is different. This is about people wanting hope."
But the New Zealand Public Party is very much about being taken on a trip – to a land of X-Files conspiracies and various assorted peculiar beliefs. "They are not peculiar beliefs," he said. "This is critical thinking, Steve. It's not conjecture. There are many, many documents…" That's the thing about conspiracy theories: there are always many, many documents.
As a conspiracy theorist and an evangelical Christian, Te Kahika is familiar with fantasy and metaphor, amazing connections and powerful omens, all as far-fetched and exciting as his father's guitar solos. He said, "I'm a Bible-believing Christian. You either believe all of it or you don't. It's one or the other. You can't just take 90 per cent of it and leave the 10 per cent; it's 100 per cent or nothing."
Of course that includes the magical thinking that God created a planet in six days: "I look at the evidence and the facts, in the same way I do with most things in my life, and I believe there is enough evidence in the Bible." A man who finds evidence in the Bible will find evidence in any number of rabbit holes.
Just about every time Te Kahika played a very good winning shot, he shrieked: "Thank you!" I asked him afterwards, "What was that about? Were you thanking God?"
He wasn't aware that he had been saying it. "Gee I don't know," he said. "I think maybe I was thanking you for the opportunity to get that point. You are one heck of a player, Steve! I love the look in your eyes. The eye of a tiger. You do not like losing. You are as obstinate and focused as I am."
I was grateful for his praise, and agreed with his assessment of our shared approach to the game. In fact I felt a bond with Te Kahika. When I asked him what songs he'd want for his funeral, he chose one of my all-time favourites, the limpid Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. I recognised something else we had in common when I asked him about his past experience as a "brand ambassador" for Lion Breweries.
He said, "A brand ambassador means you understand the core of a product or a campaign, and you espouse its core values." I said, "What are the core values of Lion Breweries?" He said, "Drinking loads of beer. And it's true. They want to sell beer. My pitch to them was, 'Hey, I'm New Zealand's hottest youngest blues guitar player, and every time I play, people are buying loads of Lion Red and Steinlager. '
"They thought that was a pretty compelling argument to start sponsoring me, and from there I went into working with other brands. I thought, 'What goes with beer?' Chips and peanuts! So I hustled Eta and Bluebird to come on board… I did very very well out of that."
I liked that story, and the pride he took in saying he'd "hustled". I fancy myself as a hustler, too, and saw Te Kahika's run for Parliament as an ultimate hustle. I asked him if he genuinely thought his party had a snowball's chance in Hell in getting over the 5 per cent MMP threshold. "I do. I do. I really, really do. I'm a pragmatic realist. You saw that," he said, "in my table tennis."
I did see that. I saw a winner. When he left, I went to shake hands. "Nah bro," he said. "Come here." I really valued that hongi. Interesting guy. Billy Te Kahika Jr will go far.