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Left, Regional Economic Development Minister and New Zealand First MP Shane Jones with leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. Photo/Getty

Could Shane Jones be the next NZ First leader?

A New Zealand First leadership transition is going to happen sooner or later – is Shane Jones the frontrunner? 

Shane Jones’ short apprenticeship to Winston Peters’ quarter-century leadership of New Zealand First must be heading for its final certification and sign-off. With the apparent blessing of his boss, the former Labour MP and one-time Labour leadership contender got hold of his leader's favourite dog whistle, with his recent attack comments about Indian immigrants.

The wider question for NZ First though, is whether Jones will be as deft as Peters has been as a 'handbrake' on its larger governing partners in the coalition. Peters uses this analogy on the basis that it has prevented certain policies that would have been unpopular with its core constituency, like the three-strikes law, capital gains taxes and the complete repeal of 90-day employment trials. By doing so, the party will no doubt claim in next year’s election campaign that these were policy wins, ensuring the coalition did not drift too far to the left.

This only has limited appeal to National-leaning voters who might vote for NZ First over these “wins” however, due to longstanding bad blood between Winston and his former party, and those who would have been expecting Peters to make a deal with National at the last election. But Jones, with somewhat cleaner hands when it comes to National voters, could make NZ First more appealing.

The flipside to knowing when to pull the handbrake on the government is knowing when it should not be applied, especially on your own policies. On that front, Jones can lay claim to the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF). A fund in the style of Sir Robert Muldoon is allowing him to fund whatever businesses or projects he sees fit; the political success of the PGF will depend on Jones' ability to deliver on more than a large pile of business cases and studies. Without much to point to, other than the funds’ own claims of job creation, Jones is riding on retail politics and Peters' well-worn call to cut "mass migration".

Read more: Caution ahead: Retail politics supercharged by power of social media | Is Minister Shane Jones a bit of a joke or just an ordinary bloke? | The disturbing takeaway from Shane Jones' comments on the Indian community

Criticism of the government of the day on immigration, regardless of whether it is of a blue or red variety, has been the standard operating procedure for Peters since the creation of NZ First in the early 1990s. Essentially an attack on the post-war consensus of more open immigration, anti-immigration policy attracts voters who feel disenchanted with the country’s direction, especially since the mid-1980s when rules were first relaxed.

By invoking the Trump-esque “don’t bring over your whole village” line and making use of Trump’s other misnomer, the “chain migration”, Jones was directly playing to the voter base, that has consistently delivered for Peters. Jones has demonstrated the party will not be giving up on their cynical targeting of the disaffected.

NZ First fundraising emails last week soliciting donations for next year’s election – perhaps the best indicator of who a political party sees as its core supporters – indicate Jones has positioned himself as both the champion of the provinces and opposing immigration.

It remains to be seen though if Jones picked the mood of his voter base or was working off cues from his leader. What is clear though is that, to paraphrase Peters himself, the leadership of NZ First is not immortal. A leadership transition is going to happen sooner or later and Shane Jones is now the clear frontrunner. There’s yet to emerge another member of the party’s caucus with a clear grip on the handbrake.

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