I remember once upon a time remarking that Peter Dunne’s occupancy of the Ohariu seat was one of the great certainties in life, almost equivalent to those other inevitabilities – “Death” and “Taxes”. Which, given his previous positions as Minister of Revenue and Associate Health Minister, was a perhaps apt comparison.
The other (slightly disappointed) quip I came up with was that the only thing likely to dislodge Peter Dunne from Fortress Ohariu would seemingly be a rather direct comet impact on the seat.
Well, as of mid-morning yesterday, it would indeed appear that a falling star has brought about the extinction of the Dunneosaurs [sorry, had to have at least one Dunne-pun, and I like to think it’s a considerable improvement on the “Done” ones everybody else has felt the overwhelming compulsion to go with in their titles this week].
What brought about Dunne’s rather dramatic exit, we cannot yet say with significant surety. The ‘official’ explanation is that polling-data had him clearly losing to Labour’s Greg O’Connor ; and it has also been suggested in concert with this that National may have decided that they preferred their chances putting forward Brett Hudson as an actual serious candidate against O’Connor, and therefore pressured Dunne to stand aside in the hopes that his vote would decamp to National. This is plausible, albeit peculiar – as it wasn’t a week ago that Hudson was putting out letters urging his putative not-supporters to cast their vote for Dunne instead of his good self. An embarrassing climb-down (even though for Hudson, technically it’s a climb-UP) no matter how one chooses to slice it.
Another potential explanation which instantly popped into my head upon hearing the news, was that the Australians might have demanded Dunne’s head on a pike in ‘utu’ for his outing Barnaby Joyce as a New Zealander. This might sound slightly far-fetched, but consider that Australian Foreign Minister already made plainly clear that she did not see how her Government could work with a New Zealand one containing an MP who sought to undermine Canberra’s duly elected masters. And further, that one of the few things keeping National relatively afloat is their positive relationship with the Australians – in both a ‘foreign policy’ sense, and in a “we’re preventing greater brain-drain flight to Oz thanks to the Australians keeping the screws on Kiwis living over there” one.
But in any case, having addressed the present (I’m not sure we’re in a position to be speaking of a ‘future’ – ‘United’ or otherwise); I’d like to take a brief moment to return to the past. A sort of ‘Walking With Bouffants’, if you will and a skin-deep career retrospective for Parliament’s apparently-unkillable (except by his own hand) political phenomenon.
Dunne entered Parliament in the 1984 watershed Election, as a young and trusting Labour MP; seeing off the incumbent National representative thanks in no small part to Bob Jones [of New Zealand Party and Mouthy Newspaper Curmudgeon fame] also standing in the seat and splitting the vote there. A pattern of Dunne benefitting disproportionately from asinine vote-splittery which appears to have persisted much of the way through his Parliamentary career.
Now, the date and the demarcation of party are signfiicant – as they colour Dunne as one of the ‘vanguard-who-are-now-old-guard’ of the Labour Party. Indeed, as pretty much the last of the ’84 intake to have still been serving in our nation’s politics in an active capacity. While some of those who came in at that Election found themselves basically appalled by what the Labour Party then decided to do in the form of Rogernomics, Dunne appeared to make his peace both early and often with the tawdry neoliberal agenda. And where one of his ‘classmates’, Jim Anderton, continually attempted to bitterly oppose Labour’s new direction until eventually leaving the party entirely in protest at it – Dunne did the opposite, gradually climbing the ‘greasy pole’ to Ministerial warrants and a prominent position on the ‘right’ of the Labour Party.
This created something of an interesting predicament for him in the early ’90s, however – as following the series of defeats of Labour in the twisted-metal blackened aftermath wreckage of Rogernomics, the party gradually began to reorientate itself away from such a strict and doctrinaire adherence to the rantings of the Mad Monetarists. Dunne’s days were perhaps numbered – and so in 1994, he chose to break away from the Labour Party to reconvene himself as an Independent. The impending introduction of MMP in the 1996 General Election presumably weighed somewhat upon this decision, as it gave him an actual serious shot at leading his much-desired “centrist” movement rather than finding his fate at the ‘mercy’ of theoretically more left-leaning colleagues.
“Future New Zealand” was thus born … which then promptly folded itself into the United Party. Which Dunne subsequently wound up leading, largely by virtue of all its other seven MPs being turfed out at the 1996 Election.
This um … no undue disrespect to Mr Dunne … basically sets up the pattern for Peter Dunne in the MMP era. That of a man whose political career appears to be sustained by the steady assimiliation of other parties (with each of the Advance New Zealand, Ethnic Minorities, and Conservative Party [no, not that one] all joining the United front before the 1999 Election), and whose leadership of the resulting seriously Frankenstinian [‘Futurestinian’?] vehicle is guaranteed largely if not entirely by the fact that when the chips are down, he’ll likely remain the last man standing. Oh, and as for the OTHER dominant theme of Dunne’s political career – the former Labour Minister sought out a coalition agreement with the National Party, and was resultingly made a Minister at their table in consequence.
His 1999 electoral performance retains eerie echoes for more recent circumstances, in that United’s vote continued to trend downwards (probably due to voters wishing to punish anybody associated with the unpopular incumbent National government) – but with Dunne himself arguably being saved by the National Party’s perhaps somewhat curious decision not to stand a candidate in his electorate at that year’s contest.
Following on from this, Dunne appears to have realized that he was basically incapable of building a movement wholesale from his own cloth; and that the far quicker and more expeditious route to actually providing some shred of legitimacy for his tawdry claims to being a serious political “party” … would be to shift gear on his ‘assimilationist’ electoral vehicle-building from snapping up organizations that weren’t so much ‘minnows’ as outright ‘microbes’ – and instead take a ‘bigger fish’ [which was still, functionally, plankton].
The first cab off the rank for this 1999-2002 phase was, rather appropriately, the “Future Party”. Which for various reasons had gone from being a constituent component of the Christian Coalition (which polled an impressive 4.33% at the 1996 General Election – arguably higher than any other faith-inflected party since, Neoliberal-Cultists perhaps notwithstanding), through to falling out with Christian Heritage and then pursuing a more ‘secular’-looking branding using a riff on Dunne’s own old party name – “Future New Zealand”. Thus making for at least two occasions on which Peter Dunne has sublimated the Future. Perhaps rather amusingly, they managed to considerably out-poll Dunne’s “United” party by more than two to one at the 1999 General Election – 1.12% to 0.54%; which must surely have made for interesting circumstances in the ‘merger’ negotiations.
This sets the stage for the 2002 General Election – wherein, despite an array of jokes about things like “worms knowing their own”, Peter Dunne managed a rather impressive performance which garnered him for the first time an actual political party with multi-member Caucus under his leadership.
“United Future” was its name, and with deference to its having eight MPs drawn from a variety of backgrounds for the 2002-2005 Parliamentary Term, at that stage the name was something other than decidedly false advertising. And to be fair to Dunne, his team’s 6.69% showing was an inarguably surprisingly strong one for a figure whose previous outings tended to be down within not just the margin of error but actually below 1%. However, it’s probably worth noting that UF’s strong 2002 result occurred in the context of a phenomenally weak Bill English leading National to its worst-ever outcome [not that it was his fault – the overbearing personage of Jenny Shipley remaining Leader up until almost immediately before the 2002 Election having much more to do with it] – meaning that pretty much ALL the ‘minor parties’ [other than the Alliance] managed to do strikingly well at that year’s Election.
And, for that matter, much worse three years later in 2005 when the National Party’s rally under Don Brash squeezed everybody as a result.
The cracks that would come more completely asunder later in United Future’s political life were already starting to show during the 2002 term, though – with what had previously seemed like a relatively ‘united’ front on ‘values’ to do with the family and the like giving way to a split Caucus on the matter of Civil Unions (although not the actual Civil Union Act 2004 – which was unanimously opposed by UF MPs). This suggests that Dunne’s more ‘middle of the road’ personal beliefs and ethos were perhaps uneasy bedmates with the Christian conservatives whom he’d entered into a supposedly mutually beneficial accord with a few years earlier. These tensions would later basically spell the end of the party being a “party” in the next Parliamentary term, as we shall soon see.
The run-up to the 2005 General Election wasn’t all disunity and divisions, though. True to form, Peter Dunne managed to entice a small gaggle of smaller parties to come join his soiree – in this case, the Outdoor Recreation Party (which had scored a relatively impressive 1.28% of the vote in 2002 – just a shade less than the combined United Party shares of the vote for both 1996 and 1999 put together), and a still-smaller political organization called the “WIN Party” set up by a bunch of barmen to oppose the then-imminent-and-controversial smoking ban in the nation’s pubs. It is a mark of United Future’s relative health as a party at this stage that they were actually in a position to field an almost full list of fifty seven candidates. And it also presumably says something interesting about the nature of the appeal of Dunne’s ‘safe’ seat to various bush-league politicos that he managed to successfully bring in everything from Christian Conservatives (including some actual apparent Fundamentalists and a former rally-car champion) to ‘Liberals’ to Hunting-And-Smoking campaigners all in the space of a term and a half period.
As mentioned above, the strong National showing in 2005 meant that pretty much all the minor parties who’d profited off its 2002 doldrums were squeezed back towards (or even under) the 5% threshold. United Future was, entirely unsurprisingly, in the latter category – and dropped back by just over four percent to 2.67% (and 3 rather ornery MPs) at that year’s Election.
Still, as tempting as it is in just about any given situation to “Blame National” (also often accurate – and fun, too), this is not the entire story. The United Future Caucus and List saw a number of occasionally somewhat high-profile (by the standards of the party, anyway) defections and desertions (including two sitting MPs – Marc Alexander and Paul Adams) in the run-up to the Election which can hardly have helped its credibility with voters. It’s also quite possible that the various antics of United Future’s rather prominent Christian fundamentalist fringe over the 2002-2005 term turned many more secularly inclined voters off from the Party. It thus found itself caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place electorally – losing ‘social conservative’ voters to National, Christian-identity voters to an array of other microbial(-scale) parties [including the Destiny Church vehicle and its 0.62%], and people who’d found themselves attracted by the ‘Common Sense’ theme of United Future’s 2002 campaign but who had no great and abiding love for either prior-mentioned demographic heading off in all directions.
And whilst one might have been forgiven for presuming that a Caucus-size of three would limit any future opportunities for interior schisming … ensuing developments over the course of the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term would clearly demonstrate otherwise.
Dunne had accepted a Ministerial warrant as part of the price of his support for the 2005 Labour-led Government (a curious development given his participation in the ‘original’ Cup Of Tea stunt in a Mt Eden cafe with then-National Party leader Don Brash earlier that year), and now found himself again in an intractable position – having to balance both the ‘progressive-ish’ interests of his coalition partner with the decidedly ‘conservative’ inclinations of his two caucus-mates [who were both from the Christian end of politics]. The problems which had begun to show themselves from Dunne’s cobble-together political construction approach in the 2002 term therefore hadn’t just not been transcended – they’d actively intensified.
Matters came to a head in 2006, when the Outdoor Recreation Party decided to quit the United Future umbrella (or, perhaps, pup-tent) in response to the perceived dominance of the Christian strands within United Future’s makeup (that had lead to things like one of its MPs attempting to put forward legislation to pre-emptively outlaw gay marriage – a move that must surely have weighed uneasily upon Dunne, given his 1980s support for the decriminalization of homosexuality); which represented a worry not just because of the evident difficulty of keeping so many different political ethoi together under the one roof … but also because Outdoor Recreation had brought with it at least a percent of the vote, which now seemed set to disapparate.
Dunne’s electile dysfunction was not limited to Outdoor Recreation deciding it’d do better outside, either. His decision to not-vigorously-oppose various pieces of legislation put forward by the ‘social progressive’ end of Parliament [like Sue Bradford’s parental discipline bill, and presumably also the previous material on civil unions] lead to an interior standoff (and allegedly, a leadership challenge – because the smartest thing to do when your party is in Parliament purely via the grace of one MP holding a seat is to attempt to ouster him) in what remained of United Future’s Parliamentary Caucus. This resulted in United Future finishing the 2005-2008 Parliamentary Term with two MPs rather than three, after Gordon Copeland announced his resignation from United Future (but not, for some reason, Parliament) in order to go off and found his own party … somewhat imaginatively called “Future New Zealand”. (We’re now up to at least three such vehicles in connection with Dunne, for those of you playing at home – none of which, it turns out, have actually had any ‘Future’.). Alongside this, at least one other somewhat disgruntled former United Future MP wound up convening a Christian-based organization competing rather directly for UF’s share of the vote – in the form of Paul Adams and the Family Party [which garnered 0.35% of the vote that year – a figure which might conceivably have netted Dunne a List MP had it remained with UF].
The 2008 General Election was therefore quite a dire prospect for Dunne, as many of the elements he’d successfully tethered to his own electoral life-raft in the form of an outrigger canoe had made subsequent decisions to cleave off and go their own ways. It is perhaps a bitter irony for him that the Outdoor Recreation Party quit in reaction to the influence and shenanigans of a group whom Dunne would himself fall out rather vitriolically about a year later, leaving him a one-man band in Parliament where he might otherwise have used Outdoor Recreation and the like to further his attempted pivot back towards the ‘center’/’liberal democrat’ style politics.
Where just three years before, he’d had eight MPs and an appreciable above-five-percent share of the vote, his showing on Election Night 2008 was a literal fraction of that – 0.87% and a loss of 1.8% and all of his List MPs. He also faired particularly poorly in his own life-line seat of Ohariu – coming in at just 1,006 votes ahead of Labour’s Charles Chauvel [a situation which probably resulted in no small part from the Greens’ Gareth Hughes scoring nearly three thousand votes that presumably came at Labour’s expense in that seat in that year].
However, Dunne does not appear to have been especially perturbed, and quite quickly settled in to a simulacrum of his previous role propping up National, some twelve years earlier. He got yet another Ministerial Warrant out of it [thus making him a bearer of the perhaps dubious distinction of having served as a Minister in literally every Government, whether National or Labour, since 1984], as well as an undertaking from National not to seriously challenge him in Ohariu so that he’d be able to continue to double-prop-up their regime. And when I say “double prop up”, I mean not just guaranteeing them his vote in the House on Confidence & Supply matters (and who knows what else) – but also, due to the terminal unlikelihood of his ever bringing in any List MPs again, creating an ‘overhang’ seat that would make it still harder for the non-National parties to form Government. [A manipulation of the rules of MMP which an associate who’s considerably more of a political follower than even I – Mr Ralph Hall – has described as “the only real Dirty Deal” of recent elections]
The run-up to the 2011 General Election saw Dunne double down on his attempts to market himself as a ‘common sense’ politician of the middle-of-the-road center, in rather direct contravention of the extremism which had previously flourished under his roof. This was probably at least partially driven by the fact that so very much of United Future’s former Christian-conservative support-base had become actively alienated by Dunne’s swing back towards ‘liberal’ values – and were in any case already lining up behind the newly prominent Conservative Party under a then not nearly as ridiculous seeming Colin Craig (who, in retrospect, appears to have based his public persona in no small part upon what worked so strikingly – needless to say, surprisingly – well for Dunne in the yesteryear hayday of United Future’s popular height toward the start of the New Millennium).
While there might have been some arguable merit towards his intentional references to United Future as being the local equivalent to the UK’s “Liberal Democrats” in a different electoral terrain, the plain fact was that at the height of the John Key Era most folk who’d have been won over by this kind of positioning were already well and truly absorbed by National. It should therefore come as no especial surprise that United Future’s polling continued to drop – although this time by a mere 0.27% [to 0.60%], its lowest drop over the span of its history.
However, if United Future’s branding on the campaign trail attempted to portray an image of staid moderation (minus his attention-grabbing attempt at ‘Planking’ on BackBenchers that year, or his ‘dead possum’ video talking about his admittedly rather impressive hair), the anctics of United Future over the course of the 2011-2014 Parliamentary Term were anything but.
Most prominent among Dunne’s legislative ‘achievements’ must surely be the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 – which sought to reconcile the competing realities of synthetic cannabinoids and other drugs flooding our country with the plain fact that prohibition does not work. Dunne has copped quite a bit of flakk over the years for the PSA, on grounds that it allowed potentially harmful drugs which were already being sold before its passage to remain in the market-place for a number of months after safety-concerns about them were raised. However, it’s worth noting that the PSA and its various amendment acts DID (eventually) take synthetic cannabinoids out of the (legal) drug marketplace – even if they did so in a manner which was rather hap-hazard, and which arguably continued to contribute to the wretched trade in human misery right the way through.
More to the point, the chief failings of the PSA remain the ‘ring-fencing’ around cannabis and other drugs which were scheduled in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975, as a concession to National et co. It is my belief that had the provisions prohibiting cannabis from being regulated or even assessed under the PSA not been in existence, then the PSA could very well have provided a viable pathway towards meaningful cannabis law reform in this country. And, along the way, rendered the market for synthetic cannabinoids [whether legitimate or otherwise] pretty much obsolete. Interestingly, some of the noises Dunne had begun making over the last year or so suggests that he, too, had become keenly aware of this possibility – and was occasionally known to speak up actively in its favour. But too little, too late. So for a generation of concerned parents and liberal drug users, he shall live on in infamy as the man who helped to keep real weed illegal, whilst bringing us the scourge of legally available synthetic cannabinoids – even though these were already on-sale before his PSA, and remain illicitly available (and evidently much less safer than even the ones which WERE sold in daries were) after he moved to ban those too.
In any case, it is interesting to look back upon the timing of the Psychoactive Substances Act Amendment Bill which eventually torpedo’d the whole ‘legal’ part of the “legal highs” trade for good, in relation to the rather illuminating interview-cum-psychoactive-safari which Dunne did with the ever-crusading John Campbell about the same time. There are cynical suggestions that synthetic cannabinoids were finally outlawed [pending further safety testing not involving animals – an arguably impossible requirement introduced by others due to animal welfare concerns] because the problems associated with them had finally really ‘come home to roost’ in the homes of the well-to-do and white who make up National’s prime pandered-to support-base. But I’m not so sure. Dunne certainly appeared genuinely disquieted by what he was witnessing in the proximity of those Porirua ‘legal high’ shops – and whether or not one thinks it was the right decision to undertake, I see no reason to doubt that his emotional response to viewing just what the legal highs industry was doing (intentionally, negligently, or otherwise) to a depressingly high (in multiple senses of the term) quotient of New Zealand played a role in bringing this law-change about.
At about the same time that the PSA was heading towards its final assent in Parliament in mid-2013, Dunne found himself simultaneously embroiled in two other political scandals. The first – that of his party suddenly ceasing to be (in legal terms at least) a “party”, was merely amusing and relatively quickly recovered from. The second, concerning his ‘alleged’ role in leaking materials relating to the Government’s whitewash Inquiry into their own previous mis-use of the state’s security intelligence services, is altogether more interesting. And dare I say, may actually paint Dunne in a relatively sympathetic light.
At the time that Dunne’s involvement in the long-running imbroglio hit the headlines, much of the commentary on his actions was basically gossip-founded ridicule. The dominant ‘theme’ generally ran “there’s no fool like an old fool” as part of an effort to make it appear that Dunne had had romantic designs on well-known NZ political reporter Andrea Vance (who played a prominent role in the breaking of certain details associated with the GCSB etc. Inquiry in the media). Perhaps this was, indeed, the case – although given the main ‘evidence’ put forward in support of this contention appears to have been a rather frequent and positive interaction between Dunne and Vance over Twitter, I don’t think it’s possible nor particularly wise to state this as uncontentious fact.
The other possibility, and one which in my more charitable moments, I’m inclined to place a certain level of weighting upon, is that Dunne actually does have principles after all (despite what his detractors might claim) – and upon seeing what appeared to be a reasonably reckless abuse of the state’s security apparatus, undertook to play what role he could in bringing these matters to light so that they might not recur so easily in the future. This entailed him leaking information to a journalist he evidently got on reasonably well with, who then proceeded to publish the resultant material in a way that embarrassed the Government and helped show that National’s own attempt to bring ‘accountability’ to the spying scandal was in actual fact nothing of the sort.
Which explanation is actually true – or, indeed, whether the truth (as is often the case in politics) instead lies somewhere in the middle – will likely remain unknown until Dunne chooses to write his own memoirs. But the latter possibility I’ve advanced certainly represents a much less bizarre potential explanation than an attempt to trade state-secrets for the promise of continued friendly-banter on Twitter with a (female) journalist. And if it does, indeed, subsequently turn out that Dunne acted with principle rather than penile-tissue as his prime motivator in this incident, then it will be arguably quite sad that a genuine Good Deed done for the Right Reasons wound up having such a deleterious effect upon him both personally and politically. Even though the Parliamentary Privileges Committee eventually ruled that the Henry Inquiry into the Kitteridge Inquiry’s leakage had well overstepped the bounds of propriety and even law in its hounding of Dunne, thus allowing him to resume his Ministerial Portfolios some months after being forced out of them, a cloud then settled over Dunne. Which, to be fair, might feasibly have been confused for his trademark ‘enthusiastic’ hairstyle but for the ‘silver lining’ being rather harder to find than his own marked signs of age. It also cannot have been nice to have the Opposition and seemingly every politico in the land attempt to reduce the whole thing down to a case of frustrated libido – particularly if it was untrue.
But such is politics.
The 2014 General Election proceeded in much the same fashion as the previous … ten … before it. Peter Dunne won Ohariu, although this time with a somewhat reduced share of the vote and a majority over Labour’s Ginny Andersen of a mere 710. He was undoubtedly helped considerably in securing this result by National newcomer Brett Hudson – who rather deliberately tanked, scoring less than half Dunne’s 13,569 votes in a bid to ensure that National would once again be able to call upon both Dunne’s vote in the House as well as his particular competencies in the Revenue and other portfolios.
The most interesting thing about this is probably not how close Labour once again came to securing victory in the seat (and again, we are left to wonder what might have been had The Greens’ Tane Woodley not stood and garnered 2764 votes there); but rather the fact that Brett Hudson was brought in to replace the Nat candidate (and sitting List MP) who’d stood there for National for the previous few Elections. It is my understanding from sources well-placed in National, that the reason for this ‘changing of the guard’ had much to do with Shanks’ apparent intent to actually attempt to be a decent ‘shadow’ constituency MP in the electorate – opening offices, reaching out to constituents, and attempting to help them with their issues. This, of course, placed National’s coalition partner at risk of being obviated at the next Election when his wafer-thin majority came under pressure from the National candidate AS WELL AS the Labour one – so Shanks was let go in favour of somebody who definitely wouldn’t be interested in winning the seat.
That man was Brett Hudson, and it makes for an amusing spectacle that he’s been forced inside a week to go from literally writing to the residents of Ohariu to urge them to vote for Dunne rather than himself … through to having to attempt to present himself as a serious challenger for the seat against Labour’s insurgent Greg O’Connor. Will the electorate buy this sudden influx of steel into the National designated fall-guy’s spine? Anyone’s guess. Although it’s probably worth pointing out that for the last several elections running (since the seat was re-established in 2008 – and going back further, in literally all elections in the MMP era other than 2002), National has convincingly won the Party Vote race in the seat. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win Ohariu for their candidate, however – as the disparity between Labour’s share of the candidate vote and their share of the party vote would appear to indicate that quite a number of otherwise Blue voters have little to no compunction when it comes to voting for the Red guy to attempt to get rid of the Purple man between them.
However, in light of the aforementioned polling showing Greg O’Connor with a fourteen point lead over Dunne in his long-held seat, it’s eminently possible that National felt it was worth the gamble to ditch Dunne and run their own man unfettered in a desperate attempt to keep O’Connor out of Parliament. Or maybe Dunne decided to do as his former paymaster the Prime Minister did, and ‘go out a winner’ rather than facing the very real prospect of an ignominious defeat in approximately a month’s time.
Again, we shall likely never know the truth as to what motivated him. Which leads me to note that for a figure often depicted as our most ‘beige-iest’ of politicians … Dunne presents a surprisingly enigmatic figure upon closer inspection or implicit interrogation.
About all we can do is ask whether his snap-decision to resign this week (and it must have been a rather swiftly cogitated upon one – as I noted United Future billboards appeared in my electorate, freshly printed and minted, at some point between Friday and Tuesday, which suggests the ‘party apparatus’ was under the impression that a full campaign effort was still required basically up until Monday’s shock announcement) renders him untouched by that most excellent of political observations – that “all political careers inevitably end in failure”.
In which case, I suppose we must ask what exactly it was that Dunne sought to do with his life in politics. If it’s winning elections, then he has certainly garnered an impressive – indeed, arguably inimitable – record of success. I cannot think of another MP in recent times (and particularly subject to the vicissitudes of the MMP era) who has managed a longer unbroken string of victories. Even that other ‘Great Survivor’ of New Zealand Politics, Winston Peters [aka ‘Taurangasaurus Rex”, once upon a time] managed to lose several seats and eventually find himself outside of Parliament (albeit temporarily).
And if it’s having an influence upon the course of a Government’s actions, then he once again has a singularly impressive resume. I’m not sure there’s ever been – since the days of Independents being the norm for our politics at least – another figure who’s managed to serve as a Minister in four successive governments. Particularly given the fact that the lead-parties in each nominally thought of themselves as being from ‘opposite sides of the aisle/ideology’ from each other [however untrue that might have actually been in practice].
But to what grand use or vision did he put this influence? What lasting and enduring achievements an we chalk up to this master of misdirecting MP-mortality. Winston has his Gold Card and KiwiRail. Jim Anderton (arguably) has his Kiwibank. Muldoon has any number of hydroelectric dams and other relics of a bygone age (one of which, I fully believe, ought be turned into a monolithic Muldoon monument in the mould of the Ramesseum of Egypt).
What does Dunne have to show for his time, here on Earth? Other than, perhaps, a succession of jokes about an overabundance of hairspray and politi-hack debates about whether his ‘bow-tie’ look provided the inspiration for a recent regeneration of Doctor Who.
Well, I guess there’s the aforementioned Psychoactive Substances Act. And in his own indirect way, possibly an unintentional role in the formation of the much-more-amusing-now-they’re-further-away-from-five-percent Conservative Party (who hoovered up a reasonable number of activists, former MPs, and attempted-successor-political-parties from United Future once it ditched its ‘Christian-conservative’ angles).
Dunne would probably say that other than several pieces of arguably minor legislation that are no doubt significant and helpful to a certain number of New Zealanders, his main impact upon our politics has been the pushing of a particular set of ‘values’. Words and principles like a soft-spoken quasi-liberalism, “common sense”, and opposition to the ‘extremists’ from parties like New Zealand First or The Greens.
That’s great rhetoric – and certainly goes hand-in-hand with his previous attempts to cast himself as the lead ‘moderating voice’ upon our politics (no matter whether it was ‘left’ or ‘right’ he felt he was ‘moderating’).
But the plain reality is that he got into politics to represent a theoretically left-wing party, only to wind up siding with the right-wingers who’d taken over the show – and eventually backing Labour’s trenchant opposition in the National Party.
He spent a decent portion of the 1980s, 90s and late 2000s/early 2010s advocating for broadly ‘liberal’ social values – yet one of his most significant effects upon our politics for at least two Parliamentary Terms was to allow his ‘safe’ electorate seat to be used as a springboard for occasionally quite noxious Christian conservatives and outright fundamentalists to enter our Parliament as MPs.
He claimed to support the ascendency of the ‘political center’ in opposition to ‘extremes’ of right or left; and yet found himself a keystone support-partner for what’s arguably the most right-wing government of the MMP era.
A man who vigorously opposed cannabis law reform (up until he didn’t), yet gave us first synthetic cannabis and then broader approval for cannabis-derived medical products. Who enthusiastically supported the decriminalization of homosexuality in the 80s, and voted for gay marriage in the 2010s – but also backed a 2005 bill to pre-emptively outlaw gay marriage put forward by one of his own MPs. Who pressed for a ‘Code of Conduct’ for MPs in the wake of a succession of controversial incidents featuring his Parliamentary ‘colleagues’ – yet who flagrantly played fast and loose with the bounds of propriety when it came to the outcome of a top-shelf Inquiry into our state security services (although to be fair, in this matter he was at least somewhat subsequently vindicated in this matter by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee).
All things considered, a cursory examination of Dunne’s political history and character reminds me of a metaphor deployed by John Ralston Saul to describe the neoliberal technocrats he’d observed operating across the West (and further afield) in the later years of the last decade. And while he probably didn’t have Dunne in mind when crafting this metaphor, given Dunne’s unquestionable status as an (elected) technocrat par-excellence within our politics it is entirely unsurprising as to how well it fits.
The image which Saul projects is one of rarified elites/experts attempting to surf a wave of events – and doing so with ever increasing skill as the leading edge of the wave becomes more and more vertical; but with ever less actual acknowledgement, appreciation, or engagement from the ordinary public for their efforts in doing so. Because ultimately, what they are doing is – if not meaningless, then functionally difficult to distinguish from same. And in any case, long out of step with the prevailing winds of public opinion.
Dunne, to my mind, is exactly one of those surfers. Nobody can deny the level of political skill it’s taken to remain undefeated these past thirty three years (whether in terms of reaching out to his constituents and understanding what they want of him, or pulling off tacit agreements with other parties to both allow him to ‘live’ through their aiding his re-election and to serve in an unbroken chain of their Governments), and somehow – bizarrely – at the ‘center’ of our politics for much of that time.
But ultimately, only a very vanishing few wound up watching his ever-more-precarious performance with anything other than bemusement.
And earlier this week in August, he finally lost his footing.
There are probably some heights up in Khandallah where on a particular kind of night and with the right sort of eyes you’d be able to look north and see the high-water mark – the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. [Apologies to Hunter S. Thompson for my appropriation of THAT metaphor]
Earlier this week, The Rev. Rolinson asked me just what it was that United Future stood for.
“Election in Ohariu, I believe”, was my reply.
Try as I might, I can’t seem to articulate a meaningful response about Dunne that’s more accurate than that.
Maybe that’s what ultimately did it for him. Finding himself without identifiable ‘principles’ in a game which more often seems to actively punish those who instead HAVE same.
Peter Dunne – This Was Your (Political) Life.