Sorry but Shane Jones is Chris Finch from The Office

The ‘Finchy’ of the UK original sitcom is full of himself, makes vulgar jokes and routinely crosses the line of acceptable decorum. Yet somehow, he never gets in real trouble. Sound familiar, asks Liam Hehir

Shane Jones, the Minister for Regional Economic Development, is embroiled in questions over funding for a Northland tourism venture in which he previously had some level of involvement. Not exactly known for his modesty, Jones explained to RNZ that the problem is that he’s just too darn awesome for his own good. If ever he comes into contact with a project, the organisers will see him as the obvious leader of it.

“Everyone wants Sonny Bill in their team,” he explained to Guyon Espiner. Taking the football player and the minister side by side, this doesn’t seem the most fitting comparison, of course. A more natural similitude can be found in the realm of television instead.

In The Office (the misanthropic British original, not its whimsical American counterpart) there is a salesman called Chris Finch. This man is full of himself, makes vulgar jokes and often blunders over the line of acceptable professional decorum. For all his awfulness, however, Finch never seems to get in trouble. That’s in part because David Brent, his ostensible boss, would rather die than confront his mate’s gross behaviour.

This is despite the fact that Finch’s behaviour is often detrimental to Brent, whose excuse-making serves to illustrate his lack of authority in the very office he is appointed to run.

Can there be any doubt that Jones has become the “Finchy” of the Ardern ministry?

His involvement in a questionable funding decision having been rumbled, the NZ First list MP brought his grandiloquence to bear against Hamish Rutherford, the very good journalist for Stuff who reported the story. Jones accused Rutherford of being a “bunny boiler” – an emotionally unstable woman who has been spurned by her lover. The phrase originates in 1987’s Fatal Attraction and, assuming he actually knew what he was saying, was a bizarre reference for Jones to make.

Jones then threatened to retaliate against Rutherford on the floor of the House. We do not know what he planned to say. Of course, he is free in that forum to allege whatever he wants without fear of legal repercussions. That’s parliamentary privilege for you.

Jacinda Ardern’s response to all this was rather weak. Questioned on the acceptability of the behaviour on Morning Report, the prime minister could only hide behind the convenience of not having heard the comments. “And I wouldn’t necessarily want to try and interpret exactly what Mr Jones meant,” she finished, lamely.

In the end, the best Ardern could manage was a kind of recommendation that her garrulous colleague not put ancient prerogatives in the service of personally attacking reporters who are, after all, only doing their jobs.

This is, on its face, quite curious. It’s not like Jacinda Ardern can’t be tough when she needs to be. Why go so easy on Jones?

Perhaps the prime minister has bought into the media conception of “Jonesy” as some kind of Boris Johnstonian figure whose rough edges endear him to the common folk. But if that view had ever extended beyond the press gallery, you’d think the man might once have come at least somewhat close to personally winning an election. We ought to give Ardern more credit than that.

The more likely answer is that the prime minister simply isn’t Shane Jones’s real boss. Winston Peters is. Which means that, when it comes down to it, the prime minister isn’t responsible for one of her own cabinet ministers.

Which brings us to something else about Chris Finch. Besides Brent, few people in The Office seemed to actually like him. During the series, however, it was revealed that he was close friends with Neil Godwin, who was Brent’s boss. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the latter’s obsequiousness.

Taking the comparison two steps further, then, that would put Winston Peters in the Godwin position and cast Ardern as Brent. Which I suppose means Phil Twyford is in the role of Gareth.  Hardly the most flattering way to put things. If the strained pop culture reference fits, however …


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