THE REDEMPTION OF JONES
SUB: Is this Labour’s next Prime Minister?
He may have lost the leadership battle, but Labour’s Shane Jones may be the closest thing the party has to a future plan. Six years ago this magazine ruled Jones out as a future leader on the basis of his bad judgement in the Bill Liu citizenship scandal, when he signed off against official advice. Normally, such lapses would be politically terminal, but Jones has shown an ability to eat humble pie and learn from his mistakes. As IAN WISHART discovered, Jones has one thing that all Labour leaders since Mike Moore have lacked: the common touch
JONES: Please allow me to talk primarily about the north because I’m currently in the north. I think a lot of your readers would know that there’s too many spots around the north where there are not enough jobs, there’s not enough industry, and into idle hands fall all sorts of troubles and temptations.
A government that I am part of has to be willing to put dough into the regions, because I am sick and tired of seeing rugby teams that can’t field enough players, volunteer organisations struggling because we are losing too much talent – both to Australia but also out of the area. Call me old-fashioned, mate, but I think that’s worth fighting for in a political sense.
Obviously, education and health are always big issues for a Labour politician, but I think education is taking on a whole new character – as our country becomes more multicultural you can rest assured that the families coming from China, Malaysia and India place an inordinately high accent on education. Perhaps slightly more different than the average kiwi does. So I think those of us who want to have a long term impact through policy, on politics and society, are going to have to think very innovatively about education mate.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of this issue of multiculturalism, how do Maori in the far north for example find the influx of new immigrants to New Zealand?
JONES: Well my family’s a mixture of the early Croatian – otherwise known as Dalmatian – gum diggers, Welsh and Maori, and they’ve all blended in fairly well. There’s always a few dark sheep in any whanau – I suppose I should include myself in that category from time to time – but I do think that as multiculturalism in New Zealand, the multi-ethnic composition of our country grows, Maori are going to need to be more and more assertive in keeping their primary identity as tangata whenua to the fore, for fear of being swallowed up.
Now, you can call that reactive, but I predict that if anything the drive to maintain a Maori identity – which I think is the mortar of a great kiwi identity – I don’t think that’s going to diminish, I think that’s going to get stronger.
On a day to day basis I don’t have a great deal to do with the ethnic groups. I’m invited from time to time, and obviously I know about the Japanese through the fishing industry, and I’ve dealt with Chinese, hosting various delegations, but I can’t pretend to be parliament’s expert on multi-ethnic composition of New Zealand.
INVESTIGATE: UK Prime Minister David Cameron a couple of years ago gave a very famous speech about the problems that Britain was having with multiculturalism and immigration – that it wasn’t doing enough to get immigrants to recognise the British way of life. Is there a reflection of that in New Zealand, do you think?
JONES: Do you know that a lot of immigrant people that I have met, I’m straight up in relation to the importance of the Treaty. It may sound a wee bit corny but I do see the Treaty as a key feature of the country’s identity.
We were originally gifted a kind of bicultural or binary narrative, and whilst multiculturalism might bring change, and it takes people a while to grasp what it means to be a kiwi, I think the kind of Judeo-Christian, missionary ethic that formed much of the foundations of northern history – there’s no reason why that should be wiped out even though we’re a more secular society. Don’t ever overlook the Treaty, and I think there’s an expectation that Maori have that as waves of immigrants come they bear in mind that they’ve come to a country that has deep and rich foundations, irrespective of how young we might be in comparison to other nation states.
INVESTIGATE: How does that fit in with the United Nations narrative of reducing borders everywhere and essentially turning the whole planet into one great migration pool?
JONES: Well I don’t know if you’ve been to America recently, but trying to go through LAX makes a lie of reducing borders. I think that whilst it is important that we gain more wealth through the free flow of goods and services, New Zealand has its own proud traditions and as people come here to search for a better life, that life has to take place within the context of social mores, political Westminster traditions, and cultural traditions. I’m a full-blooded kiwi and I will always be an old time kiwi out of the north, Dalmatian Maori Pakeha, and I’m going to be a living embodiment and a promoter of that for as long as I live.
INVESTIGATE: You came from business, the fishing industry, into politics and the Labour Party, how did that immersion come about?
JONES: I originally worked in the time of Geoffrey Palmer, and indeed I was one of his advisors as a young 30 year old. I was fortunate enough to be promoted to get the Harkness Fellowship, and obviously that broadened my horizons – I grew up in Awanui, went to school at St Stephens Maori Boys School – so washing up on a Harkness Fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard University in Boston was a massive set of steps. I think it brought some pride to the people of Awanui and my own whanau around the far north.
But when you come into politics – I was 45 – you start at third form all over again. There are some exceptional individuals who manage to leap-frog a lot of that – in our time, Margaret Wilson had her own sort of trajectory, didn’t have to serve an apprenticeship. Steven Joyce, perhaps, is another one. But I went through a two year apprenticeship, and when you join a political party you might think that you are a big rangatira, or a big ‘swinging dick’ in another life, but when you come into parliament mate it has its own hierarchy and its own nuances and you ignore them at your peril.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of your own journey through politics you’ve had some highs and shocking lows. What have you learnt over the last four to five years, what have those lows taught you?
JONES: Well, there’s a line out of the Bible – not that I’m a great biblical scholar but after five years at St Stephens you pick up one or three things and they never leave you – ‘Have the patience of Job’. If you are too impatient you’ve got to make sure your own sharp elbows don’t upset other colleagues – that’s part of the nuances I was telling you about.
Yeah, I haven’t distinguished myself. I’m not in the practice of obfuscation either, I haven’t distinguished myself. I’ve become embroiled in the credit card episode, and that still haunts me in terms of public commentary. That goes back to 2007 so just that little episode tells you a story.
I had to go through an investigation at the hands of the Auditor General because of the Bill Liu affair, where I made a decision about citizenship that you actually covered in your magazine in 2008, and it went through the wringer in 2013. Funnily enough while I was being investigated for my role in that decision the guy was let off all charges by the New Zealand High Court. He went through his process, and I got a smacking of an administrative nature and that’s just part of politics unfortunately.
INVESTIGATE: I remember giving you a particularly hard time in regards to the judgement call you made. Having said that, time is a great healer and I wonder in fact if you would do anything differently given the same circumstances?
JONES: You know, I’ve been asked that Ian. No one would want to go through the potential shame and embarrassment to your party. Some of my friends felt, ‘well, you’ve put us in a bad spot’, but mate it’s come and gone and it would be idle of me to speculate, would I have done things differently etc.
I genuinely was told, and I think the investigator believed me, that if the guy was sent back to China he would be executed. I wrote down the colourful phrases. But I accept that that decision caused a lot of angst for my colleagues in the Labour Party several years later and I would like to avoid that in future.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of this year’s election campaign, National are sitting very high in the polls, what do you put that down to?
JONES: Oh, I don’t think that we should overlook the fact that there is a John Key phenomenon. He probably is the greatest asset that the National Party has. He’s been highly successful in terms of managing the public’s view of him, so I think it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that.
I think there is a narrative happening, which is that ‘the economy is coming right, continue to trust us’ – this is the party that writes out cheques to Hollywood and has no compunction about picking winners, not least of which is the dairy industry, and which has watched the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots with apparent indifference.
But you can’t just win an election by focusing on what the current regime is doing bad. I’ve been very active, and recently our leader presented the forestry policy. It might not be sexy but I do think industry policy out in the regions gives people jobs and will have a lot of meaningful impact on their day to day lives.
We will continue to roll out policies, but we know there is a narrative being used against us, ie the economy is on the rise, don’t change. We saying, well, the economy other than dairy farming and perhaps Christchurch, is not all that flash. It’s time to substantially change the mix of policies to fulfil the potential of the whole country. You are going to have those two streams of debate.
There’ll be a presidential style to this election campaign, and David Cunliffe will shine, I have no doubt, once you get into those televised debates, but one should never underestimate the guile of the Prime Minister.
INVESTIGATE: What would you bring to this election if it was in your power?
JONES: Well, number one, let’s dispel any ambiguity. We’ve got one leader, and that’s the man we call ‘Rawiri’, David Cunliffe. But in respect of what I’ll do when I’m campaigning and bringing a mix of ideas in: number one I think it’s really important to sound and promote messages and focus on policies that have meaning in the daily lives of kiwis, and convey it to them in a way they can relate to.
I’m often criticised, and you might have wondered once or twice yourself, sometimes it sounds like I’ve swallowed a dictionary. I’ve been told that. I think it was Brian Edwards who said ‘Shane Jones is constipated with words that are bigger than his intellect’. So yeah, keep it real.
INVESTIGATE: You bring a common touch to politics. Is that something that Labour is yet to find in terms of its appeal to the public?
JONES: One thing that I think David Shearer, Annette King, myself, the guy who we call ‘Chainsaw’ – Damien O’Connor – we just have that type of style. David Cunliffe has got a different style, and David is a fantastic presenter. David just presented our forestry policy to a pretty tough – I wouldn’t say unruly but a ‘rustic’ crowd, and I believe he went fantastically well in that delivery. It’s just that probably we’ve had slightly different upbringings. But we’re a broad church, he’s got his style, I’ve got mine. As I said, there’s a host of other MPs who can relate to a wide range of people as well.
I feel that once Dave manages to get right into the campaign, and it’s a contrast between him and the Prime Minister, people will see that he is a fantastic presenter but also a very effective campaigner. And that’s important because people do look at the top line.
INVESTIGATE: There’s no doubt you’re a loyal trouper, but with the polls coming in at 29.5% it’s a hard ask isn’t it to expect Labour to get back in?
JONES: Yeah, but that poll probably reflects that we’ve had some mishaps over the last few weeks. Our rangatira Dave Cunliffe dealt with that, I believe, in a way that didn’t cause us any drama. I got in a bit of the proverbial by turning some fire on what was supposed to be a friendly force, the Greens, but I’ve moved on from that now. So I think the poll just reflected a blip in our own performance. But we realise that the best way to change the government is to have a ‘4’ in front of your rating or have a cigarette-paper closeness.