Some of the safest parliamentary seats in the country are about to be taken over by newbies. They’re sure things, anointed by their parties, waiting for the public’s stamp of approval.

In the sixth in an occasional series, Tim Murphy talks to an odd man out, Shane Jones, the 57-year-old former Labour cabinet minister who won’t be inheriting a seat in Whangarei, but, if he wins it or even does well, could inherit a party.

Shane Jones is unlike any of the Sure Things profiled in this series. The other five (Deborah Russell in New Lynn, Simeon Brown in Pakuranga, Chris Penk in Helensville, Erica Stanford in East Coast Bays and Paul Eagle in Rongotai) are all new, all standing in one of their parties’ safest seats, replacing a high profile MP who is standing down.

Jones, on the other hand is an old hand and a big personality standing against the holder of the solid blue seat of Whangarei. National’s Dr Shane Reti is an MP who had a 13,169 vote majority in 2014.

Reti should be the surest of things. Only, he’s not. A confluence of Jones’ timing, NZ First’s momentum and the prospect of fame, profile and influence for Whangarei now and in the future could see Jonesy emerge as the man.

Jones, so long as he crunches that 13,169 vote buffer down savagely, is on to a sure thing. He will become an MP either via an electorate upset of Northland-byelection-and-Winston-Peters-proportions, or via the New Zealand First list. If he performs creditably in the electorate contest, he will have won his party spurs and be perfectly placed to inherit the leadership when Peters departs this political coil. 

All those standing for electorates know not to count their chickens before they hatch. Jones is incubating two lots of eggs – the votes in Whangarei and the later votes in the New Zealand First caucus for the big role. Publicly, he’s not even recognising that chickens might emerge.

On Whangarei, he cites the example of the New Zealand First original Brian Donnelly, who came within 400 votes in 1996 of toppling the National lifer John Banks in Whangarei, as providing real hope. Jones says if he can attack the Labour vote and “poach National voters who are looking to maximise leverage” – “then potentially they will have the right Shane.”

On the leadership question, the answer is uniquely Jonesian. “I have learned that there are various forms of political melanoma and your question is one of those.

“My ambition at the moment – seriously – is to win Whangarei.”

(L-R) David Cunliffe, Shane Jones, and Grant Robertson in 2013 after the trio were announced as the candidates for the Labour Party leadership. Cunliffe eventually got the nod. Photo: Getty Images

Jones was born in Awanui, about 5 km north of Kaitaia. He, like Peters, is a man of the north. Whangarei, he says, was always the place he and his family had to go for medical treatments, where they came for big sports events like seeing All Black Sid Going play rugby.  “I’ve got heaps of relations here. I have a home in Kerikeri. I say to people: ‘Make me your member and I will become your neighbour’.”

He boarded at St Stephens School (Hato Tipene) at Bombay and remembers as a teenager once returning home to the north and meeting a “swish-looking dude” who’d arrived at a nearby vicarage in a flash Jaguar car.

“That’s the first time I met Winston Peters.”

Jones has been a public figure for years. His CV is well known: a bright student who went on later to win a Harkness Fellowship to study at the Kennedy School of Government, public servant for the Ministry for the Environment, iwi advocate, member then chair of the Māori Fisheries Commission, “tapped on the shoulder by Aunty Helen” to stand for Labour in 2005 and a minister with portfolios of building and construction, Treaty negotiations and assisting on immigration in the year before Labour’s loss in 2008.

The ascent looked stalled when he was sprung ordering pornographic movies at a hotel while staying there on political business and charging them to his ministerial credit card.

Despite the moral flap, he stood for the Labour leadership in 2013, boosting his national profile while losing to David Cunliffe, and left Parliament early the next year to a job created by the National-led government as Ambassador for Pacific Economic Development, from which he retired in May. Last month he confirmed what everyone already knew, that he was joining his mate Peters in New Zealand First and would stand in the Whangarei seat.

He attended his first NZ First conference 10 days ago and is conscious of having a different political background, of the outsider tag, of the suspicions some may have about his intentions within the party.

“For me, it was a bit of a test. There were people there who belong to the “Never Shane” movement. Some came to make themselves known, and some basically said: ‘let bygones be bygones’.”

Of Te Aupōuri and Ngāi Takoto heritage, with Welsh and Dalmatian blood, he is one of six children and his parents still live in the north. Jones is father of four girls and three boys from his first marriage.

“Winston said: ‘Get off your arse, get humble and go and ask for their votes’.”

He is a verbal phenomenon. He has fame and infamy independent of Peters. The combination of the twin candidates of the north battering National over its neglect of the regions is something to behold.

“In the national scramble for resources, we are not even getting a bronze medal,” Jones says. “We are left behind and ignored. Quite a few families of the north are seeing their kids not being able to afford to live in Auckland and they are moving back to Whangarei.

“So it is about industry, investment and infrastructure,” he says, mentioning New Zealand First’s promise to make the spur rail line to the port at Marsden Point, and a proposal to move the Northland polytech closer to the town. 

When Peters told him he had the candidacy, he said Jones couldn’t take anything for granted and needed to get off his chuff and win votes house by house. “I am not arrogant about it. It is a Herculean task and I am leaving no stone unturned. I have got to magnetically attract voters.”

Asked if his high-profile past distracted Whangarei voters from his local ambitions, he says: “Unfortunately, I cannot disconnect myself from the legacy I bring with me. Some people actually say ‘Weren’t you up there somewhere in the Solomon Islands?”

Should he win, he and Peters would hold adjoining seats in a kind-of autonomous republic of New Zealand First. “Having two seats in the north basically would root the party as the life force of the regions. 

“It is extremely important that I equip myself in a very credible way so that people who have supported Winston Peters and have kept the party aloft even through its 2008 election [when it was expelled from Parliament after Peters’ scandal over non-disclosure of a tycoon’s donation] – that they see me as somebody who did not inconspicuously jump on to someone else’s waka.”

Jones is coy about any ambitions post-election if NZ First is in coalition government. “If you want to deploy a person with my experience and skills it should be in the economic sphere.”

He’s intent on following Peters’ direction and doing the door-knocking. When this interview took place he was sheltering from rain, catching up on phone calls, but pledged to take his “large puku” back into the streets as soon as it cleared. “I didn’t do any door knocking for three years when I was a ambassador; people tended to door-knock me. Winston said: “Get off your arse, get humble and go and ask for their votes.”

“I don’t need to treat every remark that’s thrown in my direction as an opportunity for a duel.”

Jones is verbally grasping at any sign of hope, noting Reti’s billboards seem to emphasise appeals for the party vote for National; the implication being that Reti and National aren’t confident of retaining the seat.

“I’m running this campaign with the blessing of Winston Peters and my very large rosette which is extolling the virtues of the party as a regional bulwark,” but he adds “Also on personality, brand and the obvious range of experiences that I have.”

Legendary around Parliament as someone who was highly effective when motivated but who was prone to drift if bored, he claims to be a far more relaxed customer these days.  “I’m a bit more laxed out. I don’t need to treat every remark that’s thrown in my direction as an opportunity for a duel.”

He says he didn’t need to go back to Parliament. He wants to do it for Whangarei. “I deliberately chose to do this. It is not as if I didn’t have some extremely lucrative offers offshore.

“I am in this race most certainly to win.”

His fiancee, Dot Pumipi is one of three campaign chiefs for Jones. “Helen used to say ‘If you could only harness Shane and make him listen on a regular basis…’.

“Between Dot and Winston Peters and the others, they seem to have been able to make me listen.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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