New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters arrives at The Duke Of Marlborough Hotel on March 28, 2015 in Russell, New Zealand. Peters has won the Northland by-election to replace the seat vacated by National Party MP Mike Sabin on January 30 this year. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Shane Jones joins Winston Peters and NZ First: genius or jeopardy?

He was plucked in 2014 from the Labour caucus by National’s Murray McCully and made Pacific ambassador. Now, sporting a “Put New Zealand First Again” cap, the ego has landed in Camp Winston, becoming leader-in-waiting. Toby Manhire asks whether Shane Jones’ reinvention is a brilliant idea or a disaster in the making.

The interminable prelude to Phil Goff’s announcement that he would stand for the Auckland mayoralty last year was memorably described by RNZ’s Guyon Espiner as “the longest striptease in New Zealand political history”. No more. Shane Jones has, let’s say, outstripped that record, culminating in his announcement this afternoon at the Pure Bar & Grill, Whangarei.

“The song goes like this,” Winston Peters told the NZ First faithful. “The whole town’s talking about the Jones boy.”

Jones chose a different tune in his deeply Jonesian speech on “the worst kept secret” in NZ politics.

“I was coming here this morning and a mate of mine put on a song, ‘There’s Something in the Air’. And you know as well as I do, there’s something in the air. It’s been sensed by voters in America. It’s been sensed by voters in Australia. Voters in the EU. Voters all around the world. Our friends from National, they deny that there’s something in the air. They’re too deep in corporate clover. They’ve ended up being the upper crust of politics whilst they expect our regions, Whangarei and the broader North, to survive on a few economic crumbs. Those days are over.”

And a deferential nod: “Of course what it is that’s in the air has been sensed by the silver fox of New Zealand politics, Winston.”

Shane Jones congratulates Winston Peters on his Northland byelection win in 2015. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Jones first fluttered a veil in NZ First’s direction more than three years ago, in March 2014, in the form of an NBR column by Matthew Hooton. Jones, who had contested unsuccessfully the Labour leadership race won by David Cunliffe, was on the brink of leaping into Winston’s waka, Hooton wrote. “Mr Jones believes that what he calls ‘two Māori boys from the North’ – himself and Winston Peters – have the potential to barnstorm the nation over the next six months and secure 10% of the vote.”

That didn’t come to pass. Instead, Jones took up foreign minister Murray McCully’s generous offer of a new life as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development. Jones swapped the Labour caucus room, causing them a brief flush of embarrassment as he left, for the swim-up bars – and diplomatic grind, obviously – of the islands.

The rumours that he’d in time wind up by Winston’s side persisted, and over the last year became accepted beltway wisdom. All that was needed was for him to formally conclude his role as an independent New Zealand emissary, and then to get the official endorsement of the Whangarei branch of New Zealand First.

Glancing back at that Hooton line, however, most striking of all is the notion that barnstorming the nation could lead to 10% of the vote. That was 2014 and this is now. The latest RNZ poll of polls puts New Zealand First at 9.4%; in May 2014 it was 5.1%, which grew into an election result of 8.7%. In the three months to come, the barnstorming Peters-Jones double-act is designed to lift the party’s vote to unscaled heights, beyond even the 1996 record of 13.5% – leaving the Green Party in their wake. Closing in, even, on the Labour Party.

That’s their dream scenario. (The full-on hallucinogenic scenario sees the numbers climb to the point that Winston can make serious claim to the prime ministership, but let’s agree to put that to one side until NZ First hits 15% in the polls.)

But it comes with hazards, too.

NZ First has had heaven-sent political weather in 2017. Electoral tumult in Europe and America illustrate that something-in-the air that Jones was singing about today – and for anyone not keeping up, Jones layered it on by sporting a cap wearing “New Zealand First Again”.

The foregrounding of the immigration debate, and the ongoing foreign investor questions play to their hand. Who was there on RNZ this morning to denounce the granting of citizenship to 12-days-in-New-Zealand Peter Thiel? It was Winston. Something in the air singalong or not, throwing Shane Jones – a Harvard scholar, a known trade advocate, a globalist, and someone on a markedly different philosophical plane when it comes to Māori rights – into that mix risks muddying the message.

The media will be on alert for inconsistencies between the party’s new twin talismans. Jones will be tested on party policy. He has cut a controversial figure through his political career, and the ACT Party is already throwing shade on his ambassadorial expenses claims. He’s been accused of laziness. There is a group within the membership opposed to the Jones elevation, but with just over a couple of hundred likes, Never Shane hardly seems a huge grassroots rebellion – and Jones is renowned for his ability to charm people on a personal level.

Winston Peters and Shane Jones with a Russian boxer in parliament, because why not, in 2013. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty

Within caucus, meanwhile, the question will be around the leadership. While it may seem impudent to suggest that Winston Peters is subject to the usual laws of time and mortality, he is 72. For all that the campaign trail delivers a burst of adrenaline, it’s hard to see even Winston Peters going another round in 2020. The doctor is about to regenerate. And 57-year-old youngster Jones arrives, unavoidably, as the heir apparent.

How does that sit with Ron Mark, who only recently was installed as Peters’ deputy, with Tracey Martin squeezed out? Will there be resentment at the sight of a big-talking ego being parachuted in? In many ways, the succession was always going to be a major hazard for the direction of NZ First, simply because it has never had a succession before. Since its inception the party has been synonymous with Peters. Apart from anything else the arrival of Jones makes it a live subject.

The nightmare scenario? A falling out between charismatic fount of colourful grandiloquence Winston and charismatic fount of colourful grandiloquence Shane; tension between populism and principle; personalities frayed; internal party divisions made public; public confidence plummets. Unlikely, yes, but possible: just look at what happened to UKIP.

The potential windfall for New Zealand First, however, trumps any risk. Jones is not everyone’s cup of tea, but people genuinely enjoy his company, he knows how to work a crowd, and he has political experience. Some in Labour were happy to see the back of him; more were sorry to watch him go. Some in Labour have already been pointing out that he represents a potential bridgehead for a Labour-NZ-First coalition.

With Jones standing in Whangarei and Peters as incumbent in Northland, the party will establish itself as the champion of regional New Zealand. Peters has been as busy as ever getting the message to the regions – last week there was a call for a GST rebate, and Jones’s announcement slotted neatly into a “Campaign for the Regions Tour”.

In his speech announcing Jones today, Peters underscored the point (as well as serving up for collectors the Winstonism “cinderellarise”):

That every town matters. That every business matters. That every workforce wherever they might be matter. That every province matters. That every region matters. We are not going to let vested interests marginalise and cinderellarise the very heart of our country.

Focus on Northland will be presented as an example of what can be done for New Zealand’s other neglected corners. Specific improvement for Northland – the port and rail, for example – are likely to play high in any post-election negotiations.

A bus with a tractor on it. Photo: Winston’s twitter

Could Jones even win Whangarei? It’s would take a hell of a swing for Shane J to take it off National’s incumbent Shane, Mr Reti. In 2014 he won 55% of the vote, with National taking 50% of the party vote. NZ First candidate Pita Paraone won 8%, and his party 13.5%. That’s a safe seat. But, then – and yes I know there were all sorts of peculiar circumstances – Winston Peters won the Northland byelection in 2015 despite his party having recorded less than 13% of the party vote in 2014 (they didn’t then stand a candidate).

And while NZ First would delight in a Whangarei victory for Jones (who has never won an electorate, his three terms in parliament have all come via the Labour list) and the establishment of regional command, National wouldn’t exactly flip out – not as long as they stayed strong in the party vote, on the assumption that there’d be a likely strategic split of electorate and party ticks. Even running the other Shane close would be a kind of triumph for NZ First. They don’t need it for the coat-tails: the party is now far above the point of fretting, as they have had to in elections past, about proximity to the 5% threshold.

The NZ First bus will be tallying up many a mile across the north in the next three months. And to play amateur bookmaker for a moment, how about this: as of 1pm today, Shane Jones gets, after Winston Peters, the second shortest odds to be a cabinet minister at Christmas.

Oh, and pray can we have this campaign song?

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