It's the 25th birthday of NZFirst. Happy 25th NZFirst. I may not agree with you on much and your party members passed a hideously racist dog-whistle remit at your conference, but a few weeks ago I did sit down with Shane Jones to canvass how he felt the Government was doing.
Shane's a man of many, many words. Some of them hard to parse. There's a pompous verbosity to him, except it's forgiven because it's genuine. It's just the way he speaks. The polysyllabic words that get used where simpler ones exist is not done to try and confuse or impress the listener. It's just Shane being Shane.
When I spoke with him it was right in the middle of all the strife over whether NZFirst was pulling the rug out from under Labour. We had Winston's comments around refugees (since resolved), the new industrial laws (apparently resolved and being announced soon), and all the hoopla over who was leading who.
Shane is not a man famous for holding back. With his tendency towards candour I thought it would be a good time to explore some potential cracks in the coalition. But then Shane surprised me with how effusive with praise he was for the Prime Minister – she's a "tremendous, popular representative of a whole new generation" and "a remarkable woman, she's got a blend of her own style, it's not a style that I think you can emulate because I think she's born with it" and finally a "wondrous phenomenon."
He's also been impressed with Grant Robertson – though he also says he can have more "robust" exchanges with him. Their relationship is "very effective and professional, but I'll always say he is the senior man. I'll give him my view, but he always makes up his own mind and I'm cool with that."
Shane was cleverly poached by the last National Government to be the Pacific Economic Ambassador, a role he took to with great gusto. Since re-joining parliament through the NZFirst party, he's become the Regional Economic Development Minister. Charged with distributing the Provincial Growth Fund Shane says that "the entirety of my narrative is about championing the interests of the provinces."
It's a role that others have said he is performing very well, showing the sort of hard work and determination that he wasn't famous for in his stint as a Labour MP. But then as he puts it "there's a great deal of truth to the saying that even a challenging day holding power is nowhere as bad as the desert otherwise called opposition."
The day we spoke is also the day that Fonterra announced a $196 million loss – its first ever loss. Jones had been outspoken earlier in the year about the mismanagement of Fonterra. I asked him if that day's results had vindicated him. He tried on humility with me.
"There's no room for mana munching on my part, because this result is a bad result for ordinary Kiwi families who earn their living from farming. I'm personally gutted by the result because I came from a farm, I've got relatives who are farmers."
But then the humblebrag crept in "It's for other people to say whether or not I called it as it was, and it's proven to be."
The idiomatic Jonesian language got a thrashing with a wonderful mixed metaphor to describe the performance of embattled National Leader, Simon Bridges.
"Simon is not unlike a second-year university student. He has current occupancy rights in a flat but he's not sure who is pinching the food that he buys and contributes to the flat. By the time he's in the third and fourth year of his flat-staying journey, he'll be in a completely different seat. And it'll be further to the back."
This was a message echoed by NZFirst leader Winston Peters at their 25th birthday celebrations over the weekend when he said that Simon was doing a terrible job and wouldn't be leader of National at the next election, thus opening the door for NZFirst to possibly coalesce with them.
I asked Shane if he was pleased that NZFirst had gone with Labour. He told me that the votes of the NZFirst MPs, like all kōrero in caucus, were "tapu" but that he "wasn't dissatisfied with how the vote had gone" – nor was he dissatisfied with how the Government had performed to date. But then he would say that.
He says what the media get wrong about him is that he's a parody of himself. I don't think he is a parody. He's just a colossal personality, something we don't see a lot of in New Zealand. Or in Shane's words:
"To be an effective politician you need a quiver full of different arrows. One of the arrows I bring is a bit of theatre, and from time to time that may look like I'm hamming it up unnecessarily, but I'm a politician. My currency is visibility. I want you thinking "now what'd that fulla Jones talk about? I'm not quite sure. But let's get him back again."
I can assure him that several times throughout our chat I did wonder "what was fulla Jones talking about?" And New Zealand politics would lose a huge character if he didn't come back again.
- David Cormack has worked for the Labour and Green Parties and interned for Bill English while studying