He's known for his florid language and is dubbed in some circles as the Cryptic Crossword, but New Zealand First MP Shane Jones is proud of his mastery of the English language, and a linguistics expert says he should be.

Jones prides himself on his extensive vocabulary, telling the Weekend Herald that when he was readying to attend the University of Auckland in 1978, his Nana Myrtle gave him a Webster's Dictionary – with synonyms - and said "plough this".

But his love of language goes back further than that. He began public speaking at a young age.

It didn't come from talking around the family dining table. His father, he said, was a taciturn farmer.


"I was encouraged on our local marae to be a speaker, and also by a couple of my relatives who were clergymen," Jones said.

"When I was at St Stephen's I won the prize for not only Maori oratory but I got the first prize for several years for English. When I finished St Stephen's School in 1977 I won the Maori and Polynesian scholarship to help me at Auckland University in 1978. My pakeha nana bought me a massive dictionary and she said to me 'now you're at university, start ploughing that'. It was a dictionary with synonyms."

But Jones really got serious about language when he met former Labour prime minister David Lange, a politician famed for his oration skills and a master of wit.

"Lange told me a lot of his style of oratory was refined on the back of watching and learning from the Methodist preachers who preached on the side of the road in England amidst all sorts of distractions. But they knew how to hold a crowd," Jones said.

Now a Minister in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition Government, Jones doesn't have to work as hard to hold a crowd.

As Regional Economic Development Minister in charge of a multibillion-dollar fund and self-proclaimed First Citizen of the Provinces, Jones gets a crowd whenever he goes to a town to speak.

National's regional economic development Paul Goldsmith was on the receiving end of some of Jones' more flippant answers in the House this week. Goldsmith says Jones is sometimes funny but suspects he's hiding something.

"I do think the wisecracks are a bit of a smokescreen for not actually answering the questions. When you look at what he says, it's all gibberish," Goldsmith said.


"I don't like to be unkind, but I think it's all about his vanity and attention-seeking and it's the results that count.

"Ultimately, he's doing a serious job and you can be amusing if you are giving substantial answers and then are amusing. But just to crack jokes and not actually be responsible for what is a large amount of money and, I think pretty indefensible attacks on public servants, then it's not so good."

Jones said the Speaker of the House would have intervened if he thought he wasn't giving serious answers to parliamentary questions.

"I don't think he would tolerate me using artful language to undermine my obligations as a minister in the House.

"You could say some of my answers are a bit like an epigram, a bit like a crossword puzzle. As long as I address the question I don't need to fully answer the questions," Jones said.

And as if to illustrate the point, in answer to a question on how seriously he took his position, Jones softly replied: "I am a child of the provinces, made of both earth and fire."

Asked if he sometimes thought that his stringing together of a lot of multi-syllabic words resulted in a nonsensical sentence, Jones said "language was about everyday life . "Some of what we do in everyday life are bloopers".

University of Auckland linguistics expert Bronwen Innes studied some footage of Jones speaking. She said his use of language was deliberate and measured, good oration.

He's Maori, he's been on the marae a lot. The measured pace of it and so on, it ties in with Maori oratory," Innes told the Weekend Herald.

"I thought the style is about how he wants to present himself as a serious, thoughtful politician. He speaks in nouns a lot. We linguists call that nominalisation. Politicians and bureaucrats love using nouns. They don't like saying things directly.

"He's obviously a man who likes language and likes to express himself in more interesting terms and maybe that's part of his persona too – 'If I'm going to get attention I've got to make it more interesting'."

She said Jones was someone who took language seriously.

"I think in New Zealand we don't care about language particularly, it's given. I don't think Shane Jones sees it like that. I think he sees it very much as a craft and a tool. How lovely to have a politician who loves language."

Jones himself says he would like to be like Cicero, considered Rome's greatest orator.

"But then I realise he was executed".

NZ First MP Shane Jones and National MP Paul Goldsmith, Question Time, Thursday 3 May

Paul Goldsmith (National) to the Minister for Regional Economic Development:

Does he stand by all of his statements in regards to the Provincial Growth Fund; if so, will he guarantee that none of the projects funded will have outcomes considered "fanciful"?

Shane Jones (Minister for Regional Economic Development): To the first part of the question, yes; and in so far as the word "fanciful" is used, it's been misapplied in a form that's inversely related to my ministerial temperament.

Goldsmith: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Does it comply with the Standing Orders to answer in riddles?

Speaker Trevor Mallard: And it's part of the responsibility of the Opposition to solve them.

Goldsmith: When he said last week, "I realise that we have the Westminster system. After the next election, if I don't get what I want, we're going to have the Axminister system.", who specifically was he threatening?

Jones: In the life of the first citizen of the provinces, there is great hyperbole and theatrical language from time to time.

Goldsmith: Does he think threatening officials is a laughing matter?

Jones: Both officials and members of the House are aware of how seriously I take my role as New Zealand's first citizen of the provinces. So, from time to time, the member is reading far too much into the language of a colourful, hard-working, rhetorical advocate.

Goldsmith: Does the Minister think that the Cabinet Manual, specifically paragraph 3.22 (f), which says, "Ministers should exercise a professional approach and good judgment in their interactions with officials. Ministers must respect the political neutrality of the public service …", applies to him?

Jones: In deference to the Cabinet Manual, I can assure you, unlike other parts of my life, I express and practise great fidelity.

Goldsmith: When he said, in relation to the Wairoa mayor, "I felt pretty stink that I, as the provincial champion, couldn't even deliver for him.", how much did he think the responsibility for the lack of delivery lay with him?

Jones: When I met with the Mayor of Wairoa, he described me as the first Minister since the days of Helen Clark to have ever shown that quality of affection and attention to Wairoa.

Goldsmith: Is he aware that there is a fine line between being a bit of a character and being a joke, and which side of the line is he?

Jones: I could not describe it better than the New Zealand Herald, who have described me as part jester, part genius, and in 2020 they'll see the latter and not the former.