The political year has not even begun. But already Shane Jones is making headlines for a possible conflict of interest over his meeting with people associated with NZ First over a forestry investment and his forthright comments on vegans.
In his return to Parliament, now as an NZ First MP and Minister and formerly as a Labour Minister, Jones has carved out a constituency which must drive the more sensitive souls within Labour up the wall.
He is everything that the so-called “wokes” loathe.
That is ironic given that he is a Maori-Croatian with a post-grad Harvard degree who is proudly fluent in both English and Te Reo.
But what he understands, possibly more acutely than even the NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, is how the party might survive. There is no one in New Zealand politics that gets anywhere near as close to the alienated working-class voter as Jones. He is on the front line in the political contest against populism.
While his close friend, David Parker, might set out the macro-economic conditions to combat populism; Jones on an almost daily basis deals to the microeconomic climate that he will argue has seen large chunks of particularly provincial New Zealand, particularly Maori, miss out as the economy has been restructured and boomed over the past 25 years.
It has not been an easy progress.
There are constant questions about the Progressive Growth Fund and its grants’ and how they’ve been allocated, who is getting them, and so on.
But for Jones, that is not the point.
He draws his inspiration from an earlier generation of Labour politicians. Ministers like Paddy Webb or Bob Semple in the Savage/Fraser Government who simply got on with building things.
He once suggested to POLITIK that when he joined the Labour party; it was their party he thought had joined.
It wasn’t of course. Now Labour is a party of the urban middle class.
And that’s fine with Jones because it leaves the provincial working-class vote up for grabs.
He defines the potential NZ First voters as “a whole variety of people who are casualties of the last 25 years.”
He singles out Maori working-class voters.
“I’ve always been particularly popular with working-class Maori women,” he says in his typical chest-thumping fashion.
But behind the gruff exterior is someone who often appears to be much more emotional and sensitive.
At his 60th birthday party last year, his younger brother told of how when his father was looking for help on the farm he grew up on, Jones could be found reading the Maori bible with his grandmother.
Aty the same party his 92-year-old Croatian mother was sitting alongside him at the top table.
He posts endless pictures of his wife, Dorothy, on Facebook and Twitter and is fearsomely proud of his children.
All of this might surprise some of the officials who work with him. They clearly find him frustrating; particularly his unwillingness to submit to normal bureaucratic processes.
He cheerfully admits to that.
“I’m on the Government Administration cabinet Committee because I am sick and tired of the notion that somehow there is a higher level of superiority associated with bureaucratic processes because they are supposedly not riddled with conflicts of interest,” he told POLITIK.
“I hate that idea, I really do.
“I think the incentives associated with the bureaucracy are inversely related in many cases to me achieving the mission that Winston wants me to achieve.
“ If I had my way, in terms of getting things done I’d go back to the old fashioned way, stick to your own champion, employ your own champions and get out there and get the job done. “
It is that sense of urgency which comes both from his own experience as a provincial New Zealander but also from a more calculated realisation that New Zealand First needs something to show the provinces by election time which seems to drive him.
But what he is acutely conscious of is how easily the kind of people he calls the victims of the last 25 years of restructuring could be ostracised from the political process.
“I fell that what I’m doing is integrating,” he says.
“It is involving people in worthwhile economic activity that gives meaning to their daily lives that gives them dignity and mana so that the mokopuna have a pride in their mum and dad.”
What Jones contends with are statistics which show that unemployment in Wellington in September was 2.8 per cent against 5 per cent in Northland or 5.2 per cent on the North Island east coast.
But it’s not just unemployment. Incomes are lower in the provinces too.
Statistics NZ figures show that last year while average income ranged between e $700 – $800 a week in regions like Northland and the Hawkes bay; in Auckland and Wellington it ranged between $900 and $1000.
That’s always been the case, and people who live in the provinces tend to be compensated by lower housing and other living costs. Furthermore, the differential has not changed much over the past 20 years. The provinces have long had a second lass status in New Zealand.
And the electorate statistics tell another part of the story.
NZ First’s top ten party vote electorates (on a percentage basis) at the last election were: Whangarei, Northland, Coromandel, Tauranga, Te Tai Tokerau, Bay of Plenty, Rangitīkei, Wairarapa, Waikato and Whanganui.
Jones, of course, stood in Whagraei while Winston Peters stood in Northland. But the list of seats would be familiar to anyone who followed politics through the 1970s; these were the provincial seats that Sir Robert Muldoon targeted and relied on to stay in power.
Jones will not talk about political strategy. All he will say is that the election defined the strategy and the person who gives voice to that is “my leader, Winston Peters.”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that NZ First has successfully taken over the marginal votes in the provinces. Because of that, they should be able to quite comfortably either sit on Labour’s right, or on National’s left in government.
But any deal with National is highly unlikely given both Peters’ ongoing vendetta against the current National leadership and the high likelihood that Simon Bridges will shortly rule NZ First out of any prospect of forming a government with National.
Privately many National MPs believe that Jones could lead a New Zealand First party into government with them.
He is unphased by this sort of speculation.
Instead, he is keeping his focus on bringing the provinces into the mainstream.
“The challenges of the north are the epitome of the challenges of the provinces,” he says.
“I absolutely want them all to have a future.”
And that is what he calls his mission, and when he defines it, he sounds very much like one of those First labour Government Ministers.
“They are never going to have a future with endless consultancies or working groups.
“They can have a future by investing a significant amount of money in projects that lead to jobs.
“That’s my mission in life.”
Paddy Webb and Bob Semple would applaud that.