With Shane Jones, NZ First is hoping to tap into the Trump zeitgeist

by Bevan Rapson / 20 July, 2017
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Winston Peters (left) and new political bedmate Shane Jones / Getty.

New Zealand First finally gets its long-awaited transfusion of red-bloodedness.

Is the nation about to wake up and smell the testosterone? New Zealand First must hope so, following the recent unveiling of former Labour minister and self-professed red-blooded male Shane Jones as party candidate for Whangarei.

Judging by Jones’ swaggering, baseball cap-wearing performance at the formal announcement of his candidacy at Whangarei’s Pure Bar & Grill, he isn’t going to be buttoning down his ultra-bloke persona any time soon. Both he and the party’s founding alpha male clearly rate it a vote winner.

Not among your pantywaisted, namby-pamby Grey Lynn bedwetters, tweeting into their kale and smashed-avocado smoothies, of course. (Sorry, the boisterous macho discourse can be awfully infectious.) But when were the kind of people leader Winston Peters once dubbed “sickly white liberals” ever going to vote New Zealand First, anyway?

No, Jones and Peters aim to appeal to the same kinds of disaffected voters who carried Donald Trump all the way to the White House. They’re picking that, as in America, an expanding chunk of the New Zealand electorate has grown weary of mainstream options and is ready to get behind some simple ideas, robustly expressed – preferably seasoned with plenty of verbal knuckle-rubs for the over-educated know-it-alls who seem to be running everything these days. (There it goes again.)

You might not have thought New Zealand First, having always occupied the hairy-chested end of our political spectrum, needed any extra blokification. Problem is, when your leader is over 70 and the current members of his caucus would barely get a mention in their own autobiographies, a party’s vital juices start to look in need of a top-up.

Along comes Jones, whose years of relative underachievement in Labour appear to have taken little toll on his estimation of his own capabilities. Returning from his stint in South Pacific diplomatic circles, he still gives every impression of saying what he likes and liking what he says. “I’m no shrinking violet. I’m a tough character,” he told TV3’s The Nation. “I have a lot of passion, I know how to resonate with people.”

Golly. If chest-beating counts as resonation, he might just be on to something.

Jones’ positioning as Peters’ heir apparent has prompted suggestions the pair might, in a theoretical dream result for New Zealand First, “barnstorm” their way through to September 23, propelling their party to new levels of support and multiple seats in the next cabinet.

“Barnstorming” is aptly anachronistic. As other parties fuss over their social-media messaging and tie themselves in knots trying to strike the right tone with television advertisements, Peters is once again investing his hopes in a big bus, quality tailoring and a portable PA system.

Will that – and the extra brio provided by his new recruit – lead to packed provincial halls and a gathering momentum? 

Well, Peters is taking the punt. In signing Jones up to the New Zealand First cause, the wily veteran is attempting a break from his years as a virtual one-man band, during which even an energetic figure such as Ron Mark has had to exist in the master’s shadow. 

No one will ever mistake Jones for a humble courtier. That means New Zealand First’s chances of getting a boost from his candidacy depend on his oratorical acrobatics and plus-size sense of self-worth somehow meshing with Peters’ gnomic posturing and trademark flights of indignation. It won’t be easy.

Politics has always produced more than its share of he-man shenanigans. The parliamentary bear pit combined with intense competition for status and jobs tends to draw out the inner Tarzan of some otherwise relatively rational MPs. The raucous braying during parliamentary question time is one of the most obvious and unappealing manifestations of the tendency. Would it happen in a chamber populated only by women MPs?

Earlier generations, hardened by war and poverty, could perhaps be excused for rating masculine staunchness so highly. Maybe Peters, who learned his politics at the feet of that ultimate World War II generation force of nature, Robert Muldoon, also gets a pass.

But there’s something ridiculous about modern-day male politicians who would seek to over-egg their masculine credentials.

It always seemed laughable, for example, that Labour’s Trevor Mallard was known as a “bovver boy”. His wet-mouthed carping over points of parliamentary procedure could be irritating, certainly, but that hardly qualifies him as a third Kray twin. Most pathetic was his actual dust-up with National’s Tau Henare in the lobby next to the debating chamber in 2007, after which he pleaded guilty to fighting in a public place. Apparently riled by a beastly “taunt”, the supposed hard man let his sensitivity get the better of him.

It should be no surprise that Mallard was a founder member of the parliamentary rugby team, the vehicle by which pasty-faced, pen-pushing MPs can act out their fantasies of physical proficiency. It’s an unfortunate initiative, responsible for exposing innocent members of the public to Murray McCully’s legs, among other atrocities. That’s the kind of thing you can’t un-see.

Our Prime Minister is another founder member of the team. You might remember that back in the desperate days of his first National Party leadership stint, he even went so far as to step into the boxing ring with a worryingly effective opponent for a charity bout, getting soundly pummelled for his trouble. Yet with his laconic southern-man persona so clearly rooted in an actual swede-country upbringing, it’s a little unkind to tar him with the try-hard brush.

Andrew Little, too, should escape too much opprobrium for occasional “Angry Andy” outbursts, which at least carry the ring of authenticity.   

The serious-minded and fastidious Peters would surely never lower himself to cod-masculine antics such as parliamentary rugby, would he? Um, meet the team’s “media manager” during its trip to the Parliamentary Rugby World Cup, ahead of the real World Cup in the UK in 2015. 

It might also be worth remembering here that Peters once led into Parliament an entire bristling squad of alpha males (or wannabes, at least), so macho their nickname reeked of mud and liniment. The “tight five” elected in 1996 comprised a former police superintendent (Rana Waitai), a former staffer at West Point Military Academy (Tuariki Delamere), a former All Black (Tu Wyllie), the future president of the Maori Party (Tukoroirangi Morgan) and the descendant and namesake of a famed Maori politician of yesteryear (Tau Henare). Woof.

And, yes, that all turned to doggy-do when Jenny Shipley rolled Jim Bolger, sacked Peters and stayed in office with the support of eight defecting New Zealand First MPs, including four of that very tight five.

Nearly two decades on, the New Zealand First leader has to hope a sole apprentice will prove easier to harness and less likely to leap from the waka when it suits him, although Jones clearly has form in that area. In his favour, Jones has a few more miles on his parliamentary clock than those thrusting New Zealand First men of yesteryear, who all too soon had their promising political futures behind them.

At 57, can Jones seize this rare second opportunity to make his mark in politics? It’ll take discipline and application, along with his red-blooded vim and entertaining way with language. He’s always been able to talk a good game; now he has to translate the bluster of his launch into actual political effectiveness. As rugby coaches used to say, it’s no use just training like Tarzan.

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.


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