OPINION: No-one too startled that the wheels are coming off the Winston Peters party juggernaut. What has been intriguing, though, is the order in which the wheel-nuts came loose.
When New Zealand's political Lazarus stormed back from the dead in November 2011 with seven NZ First MPs in tow, it was widely noted that only one of them had any parliamentary experience, and the remainder included a former mayor with a reputation for erratic late-night behaviour, and a reiki expert who had been expelling steaming gobbets of swivel-eyed lunacy in a column for Investigate magazine for years.
Add the fact that political alliances involving Peters are notoriously volatile, and this looked like a recipe for, if not tragedy, at least a bit of comedy. Just think of NZ First's past adventures with such curious fellows as Michael Laws, Tuku Morgan or Ross Meurant.
But the first major stumble this time - a good year after the election - came from an unexpected quarter. Former weatherman and occasional beachwear model Brendan Horan had never looked likely to contribute much to the national conversation (the highlight of his maiden speech was a stated desire to make public swimming pools slightly cheaper), yet it was kind of fun when he broke into song in Te Reo during the passage of Treaty legislation.
The music stopped when the Sunday Star-Times published allegations that Horan had been helping himself to cash from his dying mother's bank account. Last December, Peters booted Horan out of the party, though he's still lurking in the House as an unsackable independent.
Last week came NZ First's second big stumble, when a blogger alerted the wider world to Richard Prosser's little-read Investigate column - an astoundingly racist anti-Muslim diatribe.
Prosser is not toast quite yet - at time of press, Peters was still defending his colleague's right to suggest Muslims get out of airplanes and take a camel instead.
As Prosser's political future hangs in the balance, we run a ruler over Peters' team and ask - who's most likely to screw up next?
RISK PROFILE: High
CAUSES FOR ALARM: Historic adventures with late-night texts and emails, weeing on a tree and general oddness.
From the outset, Williams was seen as a frontrunner for the first NZ First meltdown. As final mayor of the North Shore before it was sucked into the Auckland super-city, Left-leaning Williams attracted numerous headlines for odd behaviour - something he blamed on a Right-wing fit-up. Certainly blogger Cameron Slater went out of his way to undermine the man he called the "Clown of Campbells Bay", but there's no denying Williams sent abrasive texts and emails to political rivals including PM John Key, often in the middle of the night, and couldn't always recall having done so. He was spotted peeing on a Takapuna tree after a long lunch, and there was an odd incident where he passed out at a navy function. He has repeatedly denied suggestions that the drink is to blame. In December, the political newsletter Trans Tasman gave him a mark of 2/10 for his first year in the House and said "his arrogance and hubris is a ticking time bomb". For now, he's still ticking.
RISK PROFILE: Middling
CAUSES FOR ALARM:A reputation for prickliness.
Seventh on his party's list of eight, Denis O'Rourke is 66, and has a long career in Canterbury local politics behind him. He's managed to hold it together in a public role this long, so it's safe to assume he can do so a bit longer. In Canterbury he did lots of stuff involving recycling and waste management, and earned a reputation for his obsessive focus - former mayor Garry Moore once said O'Rourke was "amazingly annoying", though skilled. Known for thundering speech as a city councillor, his performances in Parliament have been far meeker. He can be prickly, though - when his colleague Barbara Stewart emailed the news that David Farrar's Kiwiblog had rated O'Rourke, Prosser and Asenati Taylor among the Beehive's five most invisible MPs, O'Rourke snapped back that it was "hard to believe that anyone with any brains would actually take any notice" of the blog. He also wrote an exhausting article for the Press explaining why Farrar was wrong.
RISK PROFILE: Low
Barbara Stewart, a former teacher, is the only one of Peters' colleagues with any parliamentary experience, having served alongside Peters from 2002 to 2008. Trans Tasman describes her as the party's "mother hen", who's taken the newbies under her wing, but the backchat from O'Rourke suggests not all her chicks are appreciative. Williams too got snitty that she'd relayed the Kiwiblog rankings, writing: "Quite frankly I do not want to receive these ‘nanny' type sermons from you. Have better things to do than be preached at."
RISK PROFILE: Low
New Zealand's only serving female Pacific Island MP, Asenati Lole-Taylor has worked for a vast number of Pasifika-focused community organisations and as an adviser to government departments, but hasn't set Parliament on fire, despite her desire to rid New Zealand of the scourges of drugs, prostitution and crime. Trans Tasman gave her a 3 out of 10, and deemed her "solid, but unexciting".
RISK PROFILE: Really low
Number two on the party list despite her lack of parliamentary experience, Tracey Martin comes from NZ First royalty - her mum, Anne, has been party secretary for eons. A stay-at-home mum for 15 of the past 18 years, she's swiftly converted her experience on Playcentre committees and school trustee boards into solid parliamentary performances, and was congratulated by Trans Tasman for her "sneering speeches" against the government. In marked contrast to Prosser's racist blether, Martin's maiden speech contained graceful nods to her Maori, Chinese and Cook Island relatives. She appears strikingly sane.
RISK PROFILE: Off the charts
CAUSES FOR ALARM: What he thinks. What he says
Prosser gets an honorary appearance here on the off-chance that his Wogistan rant doesn't prove to be fatal for him. If so, he remains vulnerable if only for the things he's already said in past Investigate columns that nobody read at the time. We already know he advocates banning the burka, arming taxi drivers and doesn't believe in manmade climate change. There's bound to be something else really stupid lurking in his back catalogue. On the other hand, last week, Prosser appeared to be edging towards some kind of understanding of what he has done wrong. We may be about to witness a political epiphany that will wipe his slate of stupidity clean.
- Sunday Star Times