Trevor Mallard knows what he isn't. He's not particularly patient. He's not, he says, a gentleman. "I don't ever want to characterise myself as a statesman: I'm not like that."
As the Labour leadership is heartily contested by three of his colleagues, he knows he isn't leadership material - has known, in fact, since about 1986. He was in a car with David Lange, who was being pressured by TV news about his eating. Mallard well remembers his revulsion at the idea of his dinner could be the news. "I've not been known for my patience, and if someone put a camera on my lunch, I would probably not be that patient with the camera."
Most see that in Mallard: the bruising, fiery frontrower who deals out the rough stuff and sometimes goes too far (think of his brawl with National MP Tau Henare or select committee stoush with policeman Mike Bush). In contrast, he sees the ultimate utility player, a team man who helps wherever he can. Whoever emerges victorious from the leadership battle (he's backing Grant Robertson), Mallard - despite the longevity of his parliamentary career - wants to continue in the engine room.
"It depends on whoever wins, whether they want to use my talents or not - that's up to them, I'm not pushy."
The first time we talk, days before David Shearer's resignation as Labour leader, he feels the party has emerged from the Cunliffe-Shearer division and had "not only a perception of unity, but unity".
He essayed a considered defence of Shearer's leadership, based on remembering how Helen Clark once sat at a 4 per cent approval rating and was attacked for her hair, dress and manner and yet became "our best modern prime minister".
When we talk again, Mallard says Shearer was "exceptionally dignified" in his departure, but a "couple of my colleagues were appalling: effectively they put the boot into him when he was down". He would have been happy for Shearer to continue.
It's clear he's itching for another crack in government. While select committee work and winning some constituency cases are important, "in the end, if you are not a minister, you are not making decisions. It's like the All Blacks," he says. "It's the guys who are not even stripped, the guys sitting in the stands waiting for something to happen, trying to prove themselves . . . it is still not a real job".
In opposition, he reckons, the workload roughly halves. The only silver lining, he decides, is the chance to watch more sport - everything from Wainuiomata schoolboy rugby to the Breakers basketball team (he and Jacinda Ardern hold season-tickets, but Ardern, he says, is terrible to watch sport with: too much American-style cheering).
It's when John Tamihere's aspirations to return to politics are raised that Mallard offers his utility player description, saying Tamihere is a "loose unit". "You've got to learn to be able to take one for the team. JT is good to spend a bit of time with, but in the end he is a hell of an individual and while in politics, individuals are important, it's a team sport."
Thus his role: mentoring and advising the 2008 and 2011 intakes, whose quality, he says, has given "a renewal of energy" to old lags like himself, Phil Goff and Annette King. He'd love another crack at sports minister (his first stint foreshortened by demotion after that 2007 brawl with Henare) and yes, he'd still like to become Speaker of the House; but while that job was traditionally reserved for those in a career twilight, Mallard says: "I'm not accepting I am towards the end of my career."
An MP since 1984 (he was a schoolteacher before that), Mallard's traditional line when asked how long he has left is to point to a predecessor in Hutt South, Walter Nash, who held that seat until his death at 86. "The short story is: I don't know." He will, he knows, stand in 2014.
These days, he agrees, he's less high-profile than he once was, but he tends to pop up on key issues: right now he's fighting over the SkyCity convention centre legislation and the use of psychoactive drugs to be tested on dogs (see sidebar). He's also still hot on proposed changes to recreational snapper limits, and pulls out his iPad to show the various memes he's posted on his page, including one of John Key dressed as Marie Antoinette saying "let them eat snapper". He's delighted one has 147 shares.
On all three issues, it seems, he's calculated he can bloody National's nose. But he also picks his fights based on what he feels is a "fairly attuned sense of what is right and wrong". "I've never been a populist - there's lots of things I've done in the past which made me pretty unpopular, including closing schools [during his spell as education minister]." That, he says, is something that he believed was right, but he "sold" it so badly it became "politically pretty unacceptable".
Some things he seems blase about. He's untroubled by the criticism he copped for his select committee attack on assistant commissioner Bush. The stink when he sold concert tickets on Trade Me, he says airily: "Frankly, I lost no sleep at all over it." The time, in his own words, he "went toe-to-toe with Tau? . . . of course I shouldn't have got in a scrap with Tau, it was bloody silly on both our parts and in a way, it has probably been worse for his career than mine [he often makes these rather pointed digs at Henare]." Is this, then, the only real regret? "No mate," he says, "you make lots of mistakes as an MP."
"Every now and again, my colleagues get pissed off with me when I make a mistake - and I do," he says, genially. "My line has been, I am learning, I am probably making proportionately fewer mistakes than I used to. But there's one way of making no mistakes and that's doing nothing."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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