Once were worriers, now warriors

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014

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OPINION: Labour MP Shane Jones wielded the barbecue tongs at Waitangi Day this year.

The guest of honour - though it's unlikely anybody would admit that his attendance was the purpose of the barbecue - was NZ First leader Winston Peters.

Orchestrated by Jones, the informal gathering was a chance for Peters and Labour leader David Cunliffe to mingle in a social setting and get to know one another better.

Joining them were about 60 guests, with Jones' old mates John Tamihere and Willie Jackson - long on the outer with the party elite - among them.

The need for Cunliffe and Peters to establish a rapport is self explanatory.

Prime Minister John Key has opened the door to Peters in the next government should National win, and should he need him.

That means Peters is no longer a member of the Centre-Left block by default. If Labour needs Mr Peters after the next election, it will have to work at it.

The likely conduit in that relationship will be Jones. Of course, friendship will have little bearing on which way Peters goes, should he hold the balance of power on election night.

History shows he is nothing if not hard-headed when it comes to coalition negotiations. But it would be less likely to happen if Labour did not have a line into Peters' camp. And having someone like Jones, who can also read Peters, will be crucial.

If the Labour leadership race cemented Jones' place on Cunliffe's front bench, his importance to the party in those post-election negotiations seals it.

However, regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, the relationship between Jones and Peters is informative.

Jones' ferocious assault on one of New Zealand's two big supermarket chains this week was vintage Peters; the liberal use of colourful words such as dingoes, the indignant roar of a scandal under way, the crusade launched under the protection of parliamentary privilege. It had shades of the Winebox scandal a generation or more ago.

Even some of Jones' colleagues were left looking like stunned mullets as he thundered his accusations. He had apparently briefed them that he was planning to run with a supermarket story he had unearthed last year, but they might have assumed it would be more nuanced.

They were probably equally gobsmacked when the Food and Grocery Council's respected chief executive, Katherine Rich, weighed in, suggesting the outburst was not quite as seat-of- the-pants as they might have thought.

But it was still high-risk. Key's immediate response, that the allegations were serious enough to warrant an inquiry, could just be a way to ensure Mr Jones has enough rope to hang himself.

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If the allegations prove unfounded, Jones' refusal to repeat his allegations outside the protection of parliamentary privilege will make it look like he knew all along they would not stack up.

But he is clearly following Peters' rulebook, titled "Who Dares Wins".

The pair were long-time combatants during the time Jones was chairman of the Waitangi Fisheries Commission. They have struck up a friendship in recent years.

They enjoy a glass of Black Label whisky and Peters proved to be a friend when Jones was at a low ebb after former Labour leader David Shearer dumped him from the front bench over allegations swirling around the Bill Liu immigration case. It was no coincidence that Jones was represented by Brian Henry, Peters' long-time lawyer.

Jones is a generation younger than Peters, but they share a similar upbringing, and straddle both the Maori and Pakeha world with ease, though Jones has the advantage over Peters of being a fluent te reo speaker.

They also share a love of oratory and delight in the gladiatorial nature of politics. The debating chamber is their theatre.

There is one other characteristic they share. They are Parliament's resurrection men. In a world that chews people up and spits them out, their reputations in tatters, they are masters at overcoming the odds. The mantra around Parliament for years has been "don't write Winston off".

Jones has been embroiled in enough scandals of his own to have been written off almost as often as the NZ First leader. But it is getting harder to do so.

Since his reinvention during the Labour leadership race, Jones has had a new lease of life as a standout star of the front bench. He has been running rings around some of his colleagues who branded him as lazy, and not just on the supermarket issue but on policy divides such as deep-sea oil drilling, where he has been deeply at odds with some of the caucus.

Labour may not be in the mood for a new leader again. But after relying for years on the increasingly tired faces of Trevor Mallard and Phil Goff - or even Mr Peters on its behalf - to make king hits against the Government, it will be glad of a change of face.

- The Dominion Post

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