New Zealand First politician Shane Jones is the master of the orotund and gnomic utterance.
We were in a small private dining room, which was coincidentally but appropriately like a stage set, at a gastropub in Wellington. The New Zealand First minister or the Jones Boy, as he has been known to call himself, had arrived looking dignified and statesmanlike in his fine herringbone coat with a black velvet collar. Beneath this he was wearing a new suit. It is a Savile Row suit. He had not done the jacket buttons up. Can he do the buttons up? “Ah, the acuity of women,” he says. Actually, he never just says anything, but I can’t go on writing “declaimed”.
That he can’t do up his suit-jacket buttons is the point. His wife, Dot Pumipi, bought him the suit. “And she said: ‘Now, come on, Shane. You’re running around telling everyone how you used to play Golden Oldie rugby and you don’t look like anyone who’s in any state to do anything approaching fitness’.”
So his wife bought him a suit jacket two sizes too small in the hope that one day he’d be able to do it up? “You already know the truth, don’t you? Hey! You just asked me about dignity and you’re asking me: ‘Can you fit the buttons around your puku?’ The acuity of women gets us blokes every time.”
He ordered fish, no batter: “112kg have put paid to that. I’ll have some greens and other sort of tokenistic things.” I ordered fish, with lashings of batter, and chips. There was a battered prawn. Would he like it? He would. Would he like some chips? Why not? A bit of battered fish? I put it on his plate without waiting for the reply. I hope I never run into Dot.
I had asked him about dignity because he sometimes has it but, like many of his many faces, it is fleeting. “I find that dignity is not something that you can contrive and you shouldn’t force it. Some people just naturally bring with them a certain gait, a certain … what’s that term? Mien.” He helpfully spelt mien for me. “And they come across as being dignified. Other people try and ham it up and they aren’t that way inclined and so they get caught out.”
His faces are legion and legendary. I wonder if he had got a slap from the Deputy Prime Minister (and his party leader), Winston Peters, over the faces he pulled during the press conference in April when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an end to the issuing of offshore oil- and gas-exploration permits. He looked like a man being force-fed tokenistic greens.
Luckily for him, he says Peters was overseas at the time. He has a phone. “Ha, ha. Someone did communicate to me, ‘We don’t need any more kabuki political theatre, Mr Jones.’”
He says he is pro-industry. In February, he announced, to the displeasure of coalition partner the Greens, that former New Zealand Oil & Gas chairman Rodger Finlay would chair the Provincial Growth Fund. Finlay donated money to Jones’ failed bid for the Labour leadership in 2013. Hence the kabuki? “Nah. What was it? Four or five grand.” He should have given it back. “Oh, bugger off!”
He is capable of constructing beautiful, almost courtly sentences and equally capable of sounding like a bloke after a pint too many at the after-match at a provincial rugby club.
He called the waitress “dear”, he called me “mate” and, once, in a mildly ticking-off way, “missy”. He also called me “darling”, as in, “You opened the door, darling.” I suppose I did.
The movie buff
I didn’t want to because I really didn’t want to know but one had to ask: does he still watch porn? In 2007, when he was a Labour MP, he used his ministerial credit card to rent adult movies to watch in his hotel room. “I’ve moved on from that now, with the beautiful beauty queen, Dorothy, at my side,” he replied. Oh dear. That is probably not quite the appropriate answer. For an acclaimed orator, he does talk some nonsense. He had, I remind him, a beautiful wife at the time. “Yeah, Ngareta was a beautiful woman but then Dotty’s a beautiful woman as well.”
He and Ngareta had seven children. He and Dot were both married to other people when they met. Ngareta died in 2015 and Jones says he had made his peace with her. His children all speak to him, and that is the main thing, he says. He is lucky and he knows it. He gets away with things, often by the skin of his teeth. He has charm and it is hard not to be persuaded by it – as he well knows.
Now 58, Jones says he would not dare watch porn. “No. I’m not boxing out of the ring in any manner or form, I can bloody well assure you. In fact, I’m feeling nervous even talking about it.”
He is not nervous about punching hard. He’s taken swipes at bureaucrats (dealing with them is like “wading through treacle”), The Warehouse, Air New Zealand. But it is hard to take him entirely seriously and this is his own fault. He says: “We are made of earth and fire. Although, in my case, a fair bit of wind.”
Minutes after protesting at what he felt were my attempts to portray him as a vaudevillian, he says, about the offer of the battered prawn: “It’s fatally close to the word porn, but I’ll take it anyway.” You could not get more vaudevillian. “Oh, you’re being like Goldfinger. You’re reading too much into this language.”
Goldfinger is National MP Paul Goldsmith, with whom he scraps in the House. A sample exchange: 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, which has described me as part jester, part genius, and in 2020 they’ll see the latter and not the former.”
He insists he is an ordinary bloke. He is not much given to soul-searching – he has most certainly never seen any sort of therapist except “a physiotherapist” – but he is too smart and self-aware not to have given his public image some analysis.
He says that politics is “always a little bit of theatre, you know. I have to be careful that that theatre doesn’t have the effect of turning myself into a form of parody. But, hey, you’re in the business of generating visibility and attention, as a retail politician.
“A lot of blokes, they need to, yeah, move out from that classic kind of Kiwi sullen non-communicative phase. I’ve been there myself. You wouldn’t think so from my public persona.”
But who’s the real Jones?
He says, of my earlier interview with Simon Bridges – “no doubt a soft touch” – that I asked the wrong questions. “The question you should have been asking is, ‘who are you, really?’”
What a very good question. Who, really, is Jones? I didn’t have to ask the question because he tells me – even if the answer changes with the wind. I did ask what his politics are, because I don’t have a clue. He says he was never “a leftie”.
He was a Labour MP. The Labour Party he joined was a “form of mutation. The Labour Party I got to know was Koro Wētere, Prebble, Palmer, Douglas …”
He stood for leader in 2013, got 15% of the vote, and lost to David Cunliffe. He left the party in 2014 and took up the newly created role of Pacific economic ambassador, a post offered by the National-led Government. That ought to have been the end of his political career, but in 2017, he joined New Zealand First.
So what does he believe in? What are his politics? “Who? Me personally?” Well, yes. Is he a right-winger? “Aah, no. I swing a little to the left; I swing a little to the right.” This sounds like a song in a political version of the Rocky Horror Show, but I’m not about to say so. I don’t want to risk hearing any jokes about fishnet stockings.
What is he doing in New Zealand First? He has unfinished business, he says. Suspicion about his allegiances is legitimate given that he has said, “I will never admit to having joined the wrong party. But I admit to the fact that I have sounded consistently like a guy who doesn’t belong to the modern Labour Party.”
He had the best question of the interview: “Are you a sort of unfettered opportunist?” Had he been reading my questions? “Hey, it’s not only wahines who have acuity! …”
He says any idea that he is an unfettered opportunist is “a convenient attempt to stigmatise me.” It might also be understandable mistrust. “Trust is something that you have to try and convey but more importantly it comes with people feeling they know more about you. So the more I increase the visibility …”
We may already know quite enough about him. “It would appear not, because you’re believing in the strands that are excessively negative.”
Here’s a negative strand: He “forgot” that officials had warned him that the proposed West Coast waste-to-energy scheme he promoted was a lemon. Forgot! He admits that detail is not his strength. “I like dealing with the public. I really do that part of the mahi. I find a lot of briefing papers tedious, so that possibly means I could do better paying attention to the detailed nature of the briefings.”
His stock answer to the often-asked question about whether he will be the next leader of New Zealand First is that “there is an old English term. That is called regicide and when you talk about such matters, it means you get your head lopped off. So, no, no, we want him to continue riding with us in the waka.”
What if Peters fell out of the waka? “Yes, well, that would be like a biblical event.” Even Peters has to die sometime. “You see, you are tempting me to put my head in the noose. I just told you, this is not a noose that this weka is going into.”
He is politically and personally “Janus-like … it depends”. Janus was a Roman god with two faces: he looks to the future and the past. He is the god of duality and transitions; beginnings and endings. Which is all nicely metaphorical for a politician with Jones’ CV, but it is also, I say, problematic. He says he is the proxy for any number of average blokes; that the women who vote for him are the readers of women’s magazines (which he likes reading, too) and probably not the readers of the Guardian.
He will no doubt accuse me of being an intellectual snob, but the thing most people will know about Janus is the two-faced aspect. What he means (I think) is that he knows his audience.
“Boy, in this game you bloody well need to … I can face my own people, Māori people, then I face other groups. I’m the same person but I’ve got the skills to have different faces.” That is honest beyond the point most politicians would care to go, but I say: “People don’t want you to be Janus. They want to know what you stand for.”
Turning the tables
Early on, he decided to critique my interviewing technique. “You’re so shrewd. Yeah, the way you are composing your thoughts in some of these questions. It’s not the average sort of interview. It’s designed to cause people to make fools of themselves. But you’ve met your match in me. Mmm. Hmm. I’m going to give you answers that you will no doubt have the chance to skilfully manipulate. But I need to leave this interview knowing this [meaning his interviewer, presumably] is a very articulate and shrewd person. As long as I feel, when I leave … [that] the answers that I gave were the truth of what I felt at the time … then don’t worry about it.”
My not-very-shrewd head was spinning. Did he mean that he might change his mind about his answers half-way down the stairs? “Nothing’s static!” To pinch a Jonesism, I already know the truth.
Jones believes in “by the sweat of thy brow”, he says. I say he makes up the script as he goes along. He replies, “Oh, the wind has picked up. The sail is stretched. We’re sailing totally in the right direction. I got that analogy by looking at those sailing boats.”
There was a photograph of old sailing boats on the wall. I had asked him, earlier, what felt like 100 hours ago, whether he rehearsed his lines. That was a remarkably stupid question. I also wish I hadn’t asked whether he read the thesaurus in bed at night, now that he’s not watching porn. That was opening the door all right. “No, no. I’m too exhausted after I’ve spent several hours in bed to do much of anything. Ha, ha, ha.”
He claims he is not going to laugh at his own jokes any more. I say I’m not going to laugh at his jokes any more. We were both lying. Oops. One cannot go about accusing ministers of lying. What I really mean is that we were telling the truth as we felt it at the time and reserved the right to change our minds halfway down the stairs. Or something like that.
This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.