Thursday, September 5, 2019

NZ First ministers and their hats

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, September 4.)

What is it about NZ First ministers and their hats?

There’s Ron Mark, the Minister of Defence, who’s rarely seen without his trademark cowboy hat.

This might be explained by the fact that he’s a country music fan. But not being a tall man, it’s also possible he deduced a long time ago that wearing a distinctive hat ensured people noticed him.

He certainly likes to be seen. Years ago, when he was mayor of Carterton, I observed him working the crowd at a local country music festival that he helped organise.

It was almost embarrassing to watch. Mark was the MC for the day, and when he wasn’t on stage he paraded around the venue in a cringeworthy display of grandstanding. 

He got up and sang too – and to be fair, he has an okay voice, although no more than that.

I admit I’m in two minds about Mark. I used to appear with him occasionally on my brother’s radio show in Wellington, in a segment in which we discussed the events of the week.

I liked him and respected his clear thinking. It probably helped that we agreed on a lot of things. I would never doubt that he’s sincerely motivated by a desire to do the right thing for his country.

I also admired him because he came from a disadvantaged background but rose above it.  He would be the first to give his foster-parents credit for that, but it must have been due to his own efforts too.

Perhaps that background explains his determination to prove himself. He has something of the character of the bantam rooster about him – a quality that sometimes comes to the surface in parliamentary debates, where he has occasionally lost control of both his tongue and his judgment.

He makes much of his military background, of which he’s very proud, although I’ve heard mixed reports about how he was regarded by his army colleagues.(Of course that could be the tall-poppy syndrome at work.)

To give him his due again, he appears to have been an unusually effective Minister of Defence. On Mark’s watch, real progress has been made in replacing scandalously outdated Defence Force equipment.

That presumably reflects NZ First’s sway within the coalition government. The party has a degree of influence that’s unearned and undeserved, but which occasionally delivers good outcomes nonetheless.

But there’s still that troubling self-promotion shtick. At the Featherston Booktown festival earlier this year, I went to a well-attended session about Paddy Costello, the brilliant post-war New Zealand diplomat who was suspected of being a Soviet spy.

Mark was there and apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity presented by a captive full room. At question time he took the floor and talked for a good 10 minutes about the things he was doing as Minister of Defence. There was no connection whatsoever with Costello but the audience listened politely because that’s the sort of people New Zealanders are.

But back to those hats. The other NZ First minister with a penchant for headgear is, of course, Shane Jones, whose preferred styles are the fedora and the pork pie hat.

When these are worn in combination with a heavy overcoat, as they often are in Jones’ case, the visual effect is worryingly gangsterish. I’m waiting for him to complete the image by carrying a violin case, as was the habit of the notorious 1920s Chicago Mafia hitman Samuzzo Amatuna.

According to legend, Amatuna, who was an accomplished violinist, used his instrument case to conceal a tommy gun with which he would assassinate rivals. I’m not suggesting Jones is a mobster, but he does seem to take pleasure in cultivating a certain gangsterish swagger which sits uncomfortably with his propensity to play fast and loose when it comes to matters such as perceived conflicts of interest.

Jones’ other political trademark is his verbosity, with which he mesmerises journalists. He’s adept at using his loquacity to avoid giving straight answers to awkward questions and seems unable to decide whether his role model is Winston Churchill or Al Capone.

Yes, he’s a colourful, outspoken and charismatic character in a political arena where colour, charisma and risk-taking are in short supply. But are these the qualities we want from a minister charged with spraying $3 billion of public money around in the most undisciplined spending spree in New Zealand history?

The Provincial Growth Fund that Jones controls lacks contestability, transparency and accountability. It’s a recipe for political patronage, pork-barrelling and vote-buying on an unprecedented scale.

Colour and charisma are all very well, but I think most New Zealanders rate integrity as a more desirable attribute.

1 comment:

Hilary Taylor said...

Tangentially, that book on Paddy Costello by James McNeish is a great read, along with his Dance of the Peacocks, about the Rhodes Scholars. Fascinating people & times.