Nearly two weeks ago, TV3's Guyon Espiner surprised a few people by declaring on Twitter that Shane Jones, who, then and now, most observers saw as running a pretty distant third in Labour's leadership contest, is, in fact the Labour leader that National would most fear.
In any conversation I've had with senior Nats about the Labour leadership over the last few years the No 1 they fear is Shane Jones.— Guyon Espiner (@GuyonEspiner) August 22, 2013
I asked him, good-naturedly, whether he was sure he wasn't being trolled. He replied:
@publicaddress I think they fear the volatility and potential of Jones. Cunliffe next fear. Nats first choice would be Little then Robertson— Guyon Espiner (@GuyonEspiner) August 22, 2013
Well, fair enough. Jones is intelligent, funny and a tremendous speaker, and he clearly does appeal to some voters in a way that neither Grant Robertson or David Cunliffe can match. Bill Ralston has subsequently expressed the same view: that Jones is the one who'd keep National's strategists awake nights.
But you have to set against that the less-than-stellar work ethic he has shown on the job, his flashes of arrogance (which would be highlighted in a leadership role), his frosty relationship with Labour's key coalition partner -- and the extremely high likelihood that he'd blow his own party to smithereens. Not for nothing did Danyl muse (it was a joke, Guyon) about a smiling Murray McCully stroking his chin and murmuring " I hope no senior political journalists advise the Labour Party to pick SHANE JONES.’"
Since then, Espiner's 3rd Degree buddy Duncan Garner has also taken up the torch for Jones, as if they've swung in behind Jones because that would just make things a lot more fun. Again, fair enough: they're free to do that, and I don't think there's any doubt that entering the leadership contest has significantly restored Jones' political stock. It has provided a very positive platform for him to show his wares.
The bromance three-way stepped up a notch with last night's 3rd Degree story, in which Espiner accompanied Jones to his home turf, met his new partner (Jones separated from his wife in 2011, which was news to me) and generally hung out. It humanised Jones and was warm to the point of resembling a campaign video.
There were some weird notes, not least Espiner's implication that it was only Labour's "middle-class intellectuals" who had an issue with Jones' use of a ministerial credit card to pay for porn in 2010. (This is an absurd claim: apart from anything else, Espiner himself was scathing of Jones' use of his ministerial card at the time, noting that: "Disciplined ministers know what the rules are, and abide by them.")
And then, towards the end of the report, with what looks like half a cow burning on the barbecue, we're told that:
Burnt or not, it's time to eat. But first, Shane Jones has a phone call to make.
"Aw, shit, I'll ring Cunliffe back," says Jones.
David Cunliffe has been trying to talk to Jones all day about not letting the media in on the family lives of theleadership contenders.
It's an odd sequence. Jones walks back towards the camera talking into his phone in such a loud stage voice that I initially assumed that the call must have been re-staged so they could get the shot. I've been assured by both Guyon Espiner and the editor on the report, Toby Longbottom, that it was not and I unreservedly accept that assurance.
So Jones himself chose to call Cunliffe back on camera and conduct the call in his theatre voice, explaining that "it's a bit late Dave, I've had the TV group already do it up north and go to the whare and all that sort of jazz," so tough luck.
In the context of a leadership campaign in which all three have been under orders to conduct themselves in good faith, that seemed a remarkable thing to do. But it wasn't remarked on. Well, not in that sense.
You might think that Shane Jones has more to hide than his competitors, but he seems pretty comfortable in his own skin. So the Cunliffe plea falls on deaf ears.
We then go out on yet another porn joke on the concerns Cunliffe has apparently expressed about a "soft piece", with Jones giggling that "doing things in a soft fashion has never really been a failing of mine."
Then we're back in the studio, where Garner immediately offers: "Interesting there. What David Cunliffe was trying to do was stitch up a deal with Shane Jones so you couldn't get into their private lives."
"That's right," Espiner replies. "And look, that's their right. But it's interesting that David Cunliffe and Grant Robertson weren't happy for the cameras to come in and see how they lived their own lives. I think they figured that Shane Jones, with the broken marriage and the porn scandal in the past would have a bit more to hide. But he went in and said 'look, warts and all, this is how I live my life' -- and I think it probably worked for him."
"That's the real Shane Jones," Garner affirmed. "I just wonder if Shane Jones isn't reaching out to the 800,000 people who haven't voted Labour in a long time, whereas the others are simply reaching out to the Labour Party members."
Well, yes, they're reaching out to the people who vote in the internal contest in which they're presently engaged.
3rd Degree got a nice story with Jones; good luck to them. But using that story to flatter the idea (and they were hammering it on the socials last night) that the other two had an obligation to offer up their private lives at this point and imply, more than once, that there might be "something to hide"? Not so much.
All three candidates are doing wall-to-wall interviews at the moment, with mainstream media, blogs, student radio, everywhere. Making an issue of their reluctance to do this kind of story at this point smacked of media entitlement.
At some point, whichever candidate wins the leadership will be obliged to perform the pantomime of inviting the cameras in to watch them cook or do dishes or something (the idea that this is "warts and all" is just silly). That's a big step for their loved ones.
Robertson has already muffed this balance by doing a matey, what-they-do-in-their-spare-time interview with Seven Sharp and saying that his partner Alf hadn't joined them at the pub that evening (when he was actually there and was introduced to Heather du Pleissis-Allan after the cameras were off). I've met Alf -- he's a lovely man who worked at Treasury for years and now drives buses, and he plays no role in the leadership contest. Cunliffe has already seen his wife, an environmental lawyer, targeted by right-wingers on Twitter in the past week.
Jones did the 3rd Degree story because it suited his purposes, not out of some compelling sense of public interest. And that's fine. But I don't think the other two having a different view warrants any kind of media bitching about anyone having anything to hide.