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Shane Jones and a beer (Image: Duncan Greive/Archi Banal)
Shane Jones and a beer (Image: Duncan Greive/Archi Banal)

PoliticsOctober 7, 2023

The rise and fall and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Shane Jones

Shane Jones and a beer (Image: Duncan Greive/Archi Banal)
Shane Jones and a beer (Image: Duncan Greive/Archi Banal)

His career has been a very choppy mix of peaks and deep troughs. But Shane Jones is far from finished politically, and stands poised for a key role in the next government. Duncan Greive travels to Te Tai Tokerau to meet him on his own turf and terms.

It’s a sunny day in the Bay of Islands, but windy too, and Shane Jones is dealing with that perennial of campaigning: toppled corflute signs. One at the end of Matauwhi Bay, another on the hill edge of Russell. Jones is door-knocking in town, and chatting with Karl, the proprietor of the town’s branch of Hammer Hardware, who asks if the breeze brought them down. Jones shakes his head dolefully, and there are clues that it’s not natural causes. “I want to know who’s drawn an oversized cock on my mouth,” he says. The accompanying text reads “party at Shane’s”. He smiles and laments the lack of permanent police presence in the town. 

As we’re leaving the store, a man in paint-spattered walk shorts clocks Jones on his way in. He swerves, barking “don’t talk to me – I’m not voting for you and your rubbish policies.” Jones approaches him anyway, and the man, who refuses to give his name, remonstrates with the NZ First deputy leader. “You just want to sell everything off to foreigners,” he says. Jones can be accurately accused of many things, but as deputy leader of the fiercely nationalist NZ First, not that. “I mistook you for someone else,” the man says, on being corrected. “I thought you were from the National party.”

Later Jones says that mistaken identity is rare – most people know exactly who he is and what he stands for. Over the course of an hour we walk perhaps 500 metres, stopping in for a long yarn in a tattoo parlour and a shorter one with some 20-somethings hitting the beers on a fishing charter. Progress is slow because every few metres Jones stops and chats with a vague or close acquaintance.

If his cut-through with Kororāreka in spring were a proxy for his broader support in Northland, he would romp home on October 14th. However, despite his leader Winston Peters’ byelection victory in 2015, Jones knows he’s got no shot. “For 55 years out of my 64-year kaumatuatanga, this has been a National seat.” Of this election, he says “they could stand a goat or a donkey” and win. In a recent poll, National’s candidate Grant McCallum (a farmer, not a goat or donkey) had more support than all other candidates combined.

Instead, Jones is largely here to campaign for the party vote, and spruik his record of hauling money out of Wellington and piping it north. This is something he mentions to almost everyone we meet, and something they seem to have absorbed. It’s part of a broader NZ First strategy which seems to innately understand how a minor party needs to operate under MMP. The only number which matters is the 5% party vote threshold, and the most effective way to breach that is to bundle issues which matter to voters but are difficult to reconcile for other parties. 

The party is frequently characterised as populist, but while some of its positions have an old-timey “just common sense”-type quality, those which generate the most cut-through are often quite unpopular – except for a certain subset of the electorate. At various times this has included baldly anti-Asian rhetoric and the specific interests of the fishing and racing industries. Currently it includes an anti-mandate stance and banning trans women from women’s bathrooms. 

The major parties studiously avoid those toxic arguments, but to attend an NZ First rally is to meet dozens of people for whom those issues have become a near-obsession, and thrill to hear a mainstream politician echo their views. This is natural territory for a fundamentally conservative party – Peters was a Muldoon-era National MP before most New Zealanders were even born – but even by those standards, it has an edge this year. Jones explains it this way: “They’re trying to find a political vessel they can pour their hopes and fears and anxieties into.”

A safe-for-work Shane Jones billboard, downed at Matauwhi Bay (Image: Duncan Greive)

That emotional intensity seems to contrast with what we understand of Jones, who is not just deputy leader, but also heir apparent to the most successful startup party since MMP arrived in 1996. From the self-effacing way he handled his getting caught buying “blue movies” on the taxpayer in 2008, to his ludicrous Tiktok song parodies, Jones can radiate a good humour which suggests he isn’t much bothered about anything. 

That’s true of Jones the MP and campaigner. In government, he moves to the foreground, and his career has been dotted with statesmanlike highs, but also lapses in judgement and moments of real cynicism. The pornography incident is connected to a persistent string of allegations of mismanagement of public funds. He was stood down – though later cleared – over allegations of interference around the immigration status of a Labour donor. There was also a highly contentious land purchase involving a former staffer.

This was part of an era so news-rich that The Spinoff’s Alex Braae published a piece cataloguing a bewildering number of “mini-scandals” which had occurred in just 18 months as a minister. “We know how to get things done,” says Jones by way of explanation. “It’s not always pretty.” That also describes an unpleasant series of remarks targeting Indian migrants, typified by a claim that Indian students had “ruined” New Zealand’s tertiary sector. 

Still, he’s as often diffident as impassioned, which can describe his enthusiasm for his party’s current policy. Over coffee at Depot in Auckland, he’s not animated by NZ First’s planned royal commission of inquiry into media. Asked why it’s needed, he can only specifically offer that news outlets were “slow to cover Winston’s public meetings”. A week earlier, over a beer at a favourite haunt, The Duke of Marlborough Hotel, I raised Peters’ recent comments about keeping womens’ bathrooms safe from trans women. He has just spoken for five minutes unbroken on different conceptions of what it is to be Māori, but on this subject can muster only a few desultory sentences before switching tack.

“It was women themselves who brought the issue to the New Zealand First party after the Albert Park protests,” he says. Then: “I know you’re gonna think ‘aw Shane, you’re just conveniently bringing this up’. But it’s the bloody truth: The presence of the Headhunters, the Rebels and the gangs pose more threat to the vast majority of working class, beneficiary class whānau than any middle class problem about how John is coping with their transgender identity. It may not be a dalliance, but it is an issue of such tiny significance, that I’m not – and the party is not – wasting one iota of its time or energy on it.”

That’s just not accurate. Women’s bathrooms and gender ideology are an integral part of Peters’ current speech, and the policy on the party’s website reads “New Zealand First will ensure no men are in women’s spaces or sports”. 

It’s not his first rodeo (Image: Duncan Greive)

The origins of an orator

Of all issues raised, he seems most interested in the fate of Northland. It’s the place he has lived for most of his life. He was born on the marae in Awanui, near Kaitaia, and was taught te reo by his grandmother. His father was a farmer, and mum a school teacher. He says his “identity is rooted in a rural existence and a regional existence”.

Jones was sent to famed Māori boarding school St Stephen’s, where a school trip brought him to Bastion Point during the occupation which galvanised the Māori rights movement in the late 70s. It had a profound effect on him, he says – but not long after, his life and horizons changed when he had a daughter, aged just 19. In the coming years, as a young father to what would become seven children with his first wife Ngareta, he endured what he describes as “low periods”, as he struggled with life as a young father. 

The political rise and redemption of Jones began through time in the fourth Labour government. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, and on his return, set out on a lengthy stint in fisheries, during which he became marked as a political star. Jones saw off a bout of cancer, then entered parliament in 2005, touted not just as a future Labour leader, but a potential first Māori prime minister. 

Then it came crashing down. In 2010 it emerged he had ordered pornography – what he called “blue movies” – on the country’s credit card while travelling as a minister. It was a sensational story, and while he handled it with humour and even a kind of grace, it seemed to spell the end of any plausible leadership ambitions. The following year his marriage ended, and not long after he was in a relationship with Dot Pumipi, his campaign manager, whom he would later marry.

While licking his wounds, the Labour party of Helen Clark and David Cunliffe was out of power and began a migration, one common to many left-leaning parties the world over. It was essentially a move from emphasising class as the principal determinant of people’s situation in life, to a more complex analysis of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity. 

After David Shearer resigned as leader in 2013, there was a lively campaign to lead Labour. Less with any expectation of success than to signal he felt his banishment had ended, Jones threw his hat in the ring. He lost handily to David Cunliffe, who rode the support of the union movement to a victory over future leadership duo Robertson and Ardern. Jones resigned not long after, and watched a Labour party drifting away from what he believed were its roots, typified by Cunliffe’s famous “I’m sorry for being a man” speech. 

“There was an irresolvable tension,” Jones says now. “It was a bit before the arrival of the term identity politics and culture wars. So I deliberately took myself out of the field of play. There is no way I would ever have acquiesced or tolerated David making that statement. In fact, everything that I represent is the antithesis of what he said. But hey, I was a minority, it was time to move on.”

He was appointed to a newly created role of Pacific economic ambassador by National, but rumours of a move to NZ First swirled persistently afterwards, and he was confirmed as a candidate ahead of the 2017 election. The move surprised no one. He was always tagged as being toward the right wing of Labour, and he had a close relationship with Peters, a fellow rural son of the North, and their relationship would help cement Northland as an NZ First stronghold.

This was crystallised by the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), which consisted of $3bn extracted from Labour as a prize during the tense aftermath of the 2017 election. It was often deeply contentious. Opposition parties viewed it as a prime example of pork barrelling, whereby politicians use their leverage to lavish spending on local projects out of proportion to need. The auditor-general issued a report critical of its approach, saying “we are not yet certain that… the investments made through the PGF reset will ultimately represent good value for money.”

The view from the first capital

The investments are undeniably popular on the ground in Russell, though. Bay of Islands Ink is a tattoo studio which has been around almost 20 years. Co-owner Pete Regeling is lean and tan from endless surfing, and greets Jones warmly. Regeling is from Aotea originally but has whakapapa to Northland too. He’s an NZ First voter, and says the PGF was a revelation. “It was the first time I felt Northland got a voice,” he says. 

NZ First has a bond with Russell which is most tangible at The Duke, the country’s oldest surviving pub. It was the scene of celebration after Peters’ 2015 byelection win, and the 2017 election, along with an iconic photograph by Stuff’s David White of a hungover Jones the day after the party’s ejection from parliament in 2020. It has benefitted from Jones’ regional advocacy, receiving significant staff training along with $500,000 in funding as part of a Covid-era tourism recovery fund which largely went to tourism activity operators (Jones says he had nothing to do with the grant).

Campaign manager Dot Pumipi photographs Jones with Bay of Islands Ink’s Brian Regeling (Image: Duncan Greive)

The Duke’s part-owner is Anton Haagh, who comes across to greet Jones when he arrives. Jones, who has a habit of commenting favourably on people’s physiques (and unfavourably on his own) asks him what he weighs. Haagh replies, and Jones whistles, impressed. “I’m at 108”, he says, the way others reel off a golf score. He eats a seafood salad for lunch, with his wife and campaign manager Pumipi shooing away an offer of fry bread. (A week later, with Pumipi upstairs packing, he orders fried bacon and egg inside a bun).

Haagh has swung between National and Labour historically, but is now firmly behind NZ First, despite finding their trans policies distasteful. “I look at what they’ve done for Northland, that’s probably what drives things,” he says, pointing to a rebuilt wharf as bringing many more people off the fuel pontoon and into town. All this helps keep his business bustling, and his staff employed.

The furies of Three Waters

Along with its courting of senior New Zealanders, perhaps the most consistent element of NZ First’s belief system is its opposition to what it describes as “separatism”. This takes different forms according to the political anxieties of the era, but typically centres on resistance to initiatives which target or are exclusively available to Māori, particularly those with reference to Te Tiriti. To opponents, NZ First’s approach is a rank pander to a racist streak in Pākehā, one made possible (and more repugnant) by the heat shield of Peters being our most-prominent Māori politician.

This election, the animating force is co-governance – specifically its application in Three Waters. That was the brand given to the government’s water reforms, and is still present on furious hand-drawn signs reading STOP THREE WATERS scattered around rural New Zealand. The list of grievances for Three Waters is long, and initially centred on the idea it would take control of local water assets. But the feature which caused most fury was the way Māori interests would be represented in an idea called “Te Mana o Te Wai”. 

For such an elegant phrase, its definition has proven knotty – the page explaining it on the Ministry for the Environment’s website is over 3,700 words, longer than this feature. But it was the co-governance provision – frequently read as giving mana whenua equal control over water – which became particularly contentious. One of Chris Hipkins’ first acts as prime minister was to change the whole project’s name, which has not proven sufficient to douse heat around the issue.

While Peters has a characteristically blunt critique, Jones’s is more nuanced. He says that co-governance of such assets represents a fundamental reconception of Crown-Māori relations. That it was different to the shared custody of natural assets like Te Urewera National Park or the Waikato river. Governance moving from Māori representation at a proportional level to a 50/50 basis is, to Jones, anti-democratic on its face – but that it could have been democratically adopted had the country’s most senior politicians fronted it.

“It really pissed me off that Nanaia [Mahuta] and Willie [Jackson] were left to hold the can. Chippy, Grant, Jacinda – no one went out and tried to use their not inconsiderable capital to try and convince Kiwis that this was a new iteration of governance in New Zealand. So it was left to Nanaia, who is the most maladroit politician God ever put breath into. And to Willie, who on a good day reminds me of Jerry Springer.”

Jones believes Ardern was skilled enough to have brought the public with her, if only she tried. “Jacinda’s communication talents were extraordinary. But she displayed that talent too long on a lost cause – the last lockdown. And never on the cause she seemed most committed to, for greater treaty-based governance.” He extemporises a speech Ardern might have made, in a suitably solemn setting, to make the case to the electorate.

“’It is the belief of the Labour Party that the treaty is a living organism. That the treaty has an eternal spirit, and each generation will define the relevance and the application of the treaty to the circumstances or the vicissitudes that they’re confronted with’,” he says, pausing as he switches back to his own perspective. “If she had opened up with that line, then you’d have had a genuine debate. But no, it came in an almost biblical way, like a thief in the night.” 

This, Jones says, is what has driven people to NZ First rallies, and propelled its rise in the polls.

Jones would only hold the tail as he did not catch the fish (Image: Duncan Greive)

Are Māori indigenous?

Even by his own cantankerous standards, Peters has been on a tear lately. If Three Waters had a genuine complexity, a more recent flashpoint felt grimly cynical. Peters caused a furore by telling a Nelson crowd that Māori were not indigenous to New Zealand, instead pointing to their prior origins in the Pacific. When it’s put to him, Jones sounds like a debater asked to pick up the other side of a moot – but also unavoidably reminds you why he was marked for greatness all those years ago.

“The first thing is that we were reared to be equally proud of all of our whakapapa,” he says. “I think for a lot of people in Kaitaia and Awanui, their Māori ancestry is not of political character. It is not political fodder. It is just who they are. They go pig hunting, contribute to the marae, they sell raffles for them.” Jones says the language around indigeneity feels imported, and much less interesting to him than their identity as Māori. He says the political figures who shaped him are the likes of Dame Mira Szászy, Sir Graham Lattimer and particularly legendary Labour minister Matiu Rata. That group has become less influential lately as thinkers like Moana Jackson and Margaret Mutu have become more favoured.

“I feel that the purveyors and advocates of indigenous rights are trying to unpick the treaty. There is no native sovereignty, there is no indigenous sovereignty, there is an indivisible citizenship and indivisible sovereignty and indivisible nation. Within that nation, sure, there are a host of Māori property rights, there’s some cultural rights, there’s some customary rights. But none of them eclipse what the true contribution of the treaty was, which was indivisibility. Matiu Rata said that. It’s good to test those boundaries. I’ve tested those boundaries… But I never heard of the word indigenous when I grew up. And I can bet you any other bugger at Awanui had never heard of it.”

Part of the Shane Jones campaign team – Frank Owen and Carol Jurisich – taking a break at The Duke (Image: Duncan Greive)

This contrasts sharply with modern conceptions of the way Māori rights should be understood within a global indigenous movement. Jones resents the idea that his views are a betrayal of his identity.

“There may be in some political quarters an exclusively legitimate way to profess your Māoriness. I just really believe that’s a contrivance. I genuinely feel there is scope for multiple ways of celebrating your ancestry, your whakapapa, your identity… I’m over this notion that Pākehā people, farmers, investors, pioneers are not indigenous. They don’t belong anywhere else – they’re Kiwis. And that’s the problem I have with this, this newfound zest for indigeneity. It suggests that other Kiwis – who have been here five, six, seven, eight generations – don’t have the same level of reverence, same level of love, same level of blood for the land.”

The once and future leader?

There he is. The orator they saw as a future prime minister, making a speech which, while antithetical to many younger and more progressive voters, would resonate with many older Pākehā – and not only Pākehā. NZ First has pockets of support within immigrant communities, and a consistent well of support from Māori. In each of the last two elections it has outperformed its overall vote share in every one of the Māori electorates. 

Still, it’s an unfashionable approach. This campaign has been notable for a disquieting level of racially charged animus, one which makes any attempt at a unity plea feel like an Obama-era relic. More to the point, it’s at stark odds with the horrors sketched each day by his leader. 

Not so often by Jones, though. In conversation, there’s a reflective quality – he readily acknowledges fault and pays tribute to opponents. His public face is often different. “I admit there is a thespian dimension to how I’ve projected myself,” he says. 

Those edges appear to be softening as he ages, and it’s interesting to imagine what a New Zealand First party led by Jones might look like – how it might differ in style and tone from its current approach. I ask him whether he would take on the leadership if the indefatigable Peters were to ever retire. “You know what you’re doing when you ask that this close to an election,” he laughs, before professing the full support of his friend and leader.

But Peters is 78. He cannot lead NZ First forever. That seems to be what Shane Jones is doing up in Northland. Biding his time, waiting his turn. Holding on to see if there’s one more unlikely comeback in him.

Keep going!