Bryce Edwards: Peter Dunne blows with the wind, one last time

Bryce Edwards: Peter Dunne blows with the wind, one last time

It’s particularly fitting that Peter Dunne’s decision to resign from politics after 33 years in Parliament involved detecting a change in the wind, and acting on it. After all, his political career has been characterised by an ability to discern where the middle ground lies, and attempt to reorientate to it.

Dunne’s chameleon tendencies have served him well for most of his time in Parliament. But in 2017 Peter Dunne seems like a man out of time. We now seem to be entering a very different era of politics, in which his centrist and “common sense” politics are out of fashion, and volatility now rules.

A man out of time

Dunne can see this himself and, in announcing his resignation yesterday, he pointed to such phenomena as pushing him out of politics. In Sam Sachdeva’s Peter Dunne’s cautious crusade ends, Dunne talks candidly about the changing mood in New Zealand and in his own Ohariu electorate, likening it “to the Brexit and Trump shocks of 2016”.

Dunne elaborates: “It’s just the sense of people feeling that old boundaries have gone and they can go every which way and if they go this way, then it doesn’t really matter because if they get it wrong, they go that way… It’s very difficult to provide stable politics in that environment and be someone who likes to stand for a consistent line when suddenly all around you is swirling like a great maelstrom”.

Unlike our more ideological times, Dunne also explains how “his political career has been marked more by pragmatic incrementalism than bold ideology”. He explains his anti-ideological approach: “I have always railed against what I call bright ideas in politics. I think if you look around the world over history, societies have failed when politicians with bright ideas, good or bad, have got in control… I’m always wary of the politician with the big grand vision, the bold picture of the future, because it’s invariably founded on feet of clay, and I think the politicians who believe they can make a massive difference are deluding themselves and their country.”

In this interview, Dunne reveals how his decision to depart came about: “There was no lightbulb moment, no striking moment of revelation – but it was last Thursday when Peter Dunne decided he’d had enough. The idea had been floating around his mind for months, he says while sitting on the couch in his ministerial office, but every time he thought about pulling the pin, he decided to stay.”

Of course, Dunne’s heyday was in the earlier years of MMP, when he helped create his centre party, which was envisaged as a king-maker style party to exist between Labour and National on the left-right political system. And today, Gordon Campbell explains how Dunne’s moderate and flexible politics were meant to make him more powerful – see: On the life and times of Peter Dunne.

Campbell explains how being in the moderate middle worked out for Dunne: “Back when MMP was introduced, a bigger role had seemed likely for the little man in the middle. Centrism had seemed like the wave of the future, and Dunne was willing to bend in the political wind into whatever shape his own survival demanded. He got a lot of stick for doing so. Arguably though, being elastic – while not admirable – is hardly the worst trait for any politician to have. In a country that saw any number of passionate ideologues wreak absolute havoc during the 1980s and 1990s, Dunne’s pallid flexibility was a decidedly lesser form of evil. The fact that Dunne ended up playing second fiddle to Winston Peters as the MMP kingmaker came down finally to his personality, or relative lack thereof.”

Of course, Dunne did find plenty of personal success, but part of his legacy will be his moderate and pragmatic nature. This is also well conveyed by Campbell: “For a young lad who reportedly subscribed in his teens to Hansard – and read it avidly! – it seemed fitting that when asked yesterday on RNZ to list his main achievements, Dunne pointed to his recent efforts to unite the Fire Service. Yep, we’ll certainly all remember him for that.”

Why Dunne had to go

Peter Dunne’s majority in his Ohariu seat has been declining fast in recent elections, and this perhaps should have have led the MP to realise his time was up well before this year. And once Labour’s law and order candidate Greg O’Connor entered the race, he should have seen the writing on the wall. And when the Greens announced they would stay out of the contest to give O’Connor a greater chance of success that should have sealed his decision. But it was probably the Colmar Brunton poll that came out eight days earlier that finally led to his decision to go. This poll had Dunne 14 points behind O’Connor.

But there was possibly more to the decision than just his chances in Ohariu. Even if he retained the seat, he was now destined to lose his ministerial role. He had already ruled out working with Labour, and it now looked like a future National-led coalition would have no room for him. Looking at recent polls, Patrick Gower explains: “Winston Peters’ New Zealand First had 11 seats – National would need Peters to govern. He hates Peter Dunne and would rule him out of any role, putting him into Opposition. So even on a best-case scenario of getting back into Parliament, Dunne would have been powerless. No matter what happened, he was going to lose” – see: How Winston and Jacinda forced Dunne out.

A Symbol of Labour’s rising fortunes

In making his announcement, Dunne made a lot of Labour’s rise under new leader Jacinda Ardern. He seems ambivalent about whether this led to his decline in Ohariu. Speaking to Sam Sachdeva, he said Ardern’s rise helped “unleash the possibility of change in people’s minds”, and “A lot of people who might have felt they were inclined that way but couldn’t see an alternative suddenly saw it as a possibility.”

Gower describes Dunne as a “political cockroach – it seemed nothing could kill him off. But the ‘Ardern effect’ has finally done it” – see: ‘Jacinda Ardern effect’ made Dunne dead in the water. Gower’s important point is that “Dunne quitting serves only as a symbol of Ardern’s rise.”

A Symbol of volatile times

Stuff political editor, Tracy Watkins, points to Dunne’s departure as yet more evidence of just how volatile this election campaign has become: “Here we go again. The bombshells just keep coming during this campaign – Peter Dunne’s shock announcement that he’s standing down after 33 years makes him the third leader to go in a month, the fourth this term. Can things get any more volatile?” – see: Another day, another bombshell as 2017 election gets even more volatile.

Watkins continues: “After nearly nine years of certainty it feels like New Zealand politics is in the middle of a big shake down. Is the next logical step from there a change election?”

See also, her column, The blitzkrieg campaign continues. In this, Watkins argues “Dunne’s resignation will be seen as symbolic of a mood for change.” She says that it’s all adding up to a whole new political landscape: “Dunne’s departure leaves just Winston Peters and the Maori Party’s Te Ururoa Flavell standing from the 2014 election. In this term of Parliament National, ACT, Labour, the Greens and Act have all had a change of leader. Dunne says he has not seen a more turbulent period in New Zealand politics since the Muldoon years. It all adds up to a volatile election and a sense that change is in the air.”

The Herald’s Nicholas Jones reports on Dunne’s analysis of the current political mood, in which the departing politician suggests the euphoria around Jacinda Ardern – especially the weekend’s campaign launch – might be more hype than real: “I think it’s a bit like air out of a balloon… I don’t think there is a deep-seated mood for change in the country. But there is a mood for excitement and all that sort of stuff… The fact you can have a campaign opening attended by singers and actors, and that’s seen as credible, just suggests how superficial this has all become” – see: Peter Dunne on mood for change and Labour’s ‘superficial’ appeal.

Tim Watkin asks whether Dunne’s departure indicates New Zealand politics is experiencing a “generational change” and whether “we about to enter the post-boomer era sooner than expected?” – see: Ardern v English: Is this the time of transformation?

Here’s his main point: “it’s Dunne’s decision today to walk away from politics that sends one of the strongest signals yet that the curtain is falling on his generation. Trevor Mallard is the only other remaining MP from that ’84 intake, and he’s destined either for departure or the Speaker’s chair. So Dunne’s decision is bigger than him. In his statement announcing he would be standing down at the election, he described this period of politics as “volatile” and noted a mood for change. He seems to have sense that mood is for a new generation of politics that is not for him.”

A symbol of National Government’s demise?

While the mood for change narrative around Dunne’s departure is hardly helpful for the National Party’s re-election campaign, in reality, the loss of Dunne probably makes no difference to National’s chances, as Winston Peters is likely to determine that. But as Audrey Young points out, “the optics are terrible for National and Bill English, who have put a lot more effort into endorsing Dunne at this year’s election than John Key did previously. Dunne may not be a rat but it looks like he is abandoning the centre-right ship” – see: Peter Dunne abandoning the centre-right ship.

What happens to United Future now?

Dunne has suggested to Sam Sachdeva that his party might survive without him: “We’ve got good people, I think we’ve got good policy…there’s no reason why the party can’t survive, I accept that without my presence it’s going to be a challenge.”

But surely the party is now finished. And the party didn’t seem to have much idea Dunne was about to depart. RNZ reported that “deputy leader Judy Turner said she had no prior warning Mr Dunne was stepping down” – see: Ohariu now a ‘two-way drag race’.

That article reports Turner saying “I think he was probably focusing on his own future, to be quite honest with you … and he has every right to.” Furthermore, RNZ reports her saying that “United Future candidates would continue stand in the election and members would wait until after the election to decide whether to continue as a political party”.

Peter Dunne’s legacy

Some of the most interesting items about Peter Dunne have given an overview of his parliamentary career, and singled-out his key achievements and low points.

The most fair and authoritative account is that of RNZ’s Brent Edwards – see: Dunne: A great survivor finally runs out of support. He points out Dunne’s key achievement being in ministerial roles “just on 15 years, serving seven different Prime Ministers. Few politicians have done better, yet few have been ridiculed more, whether for his coiffured hair or bow ties. Despite the ridicule, Mr Dunne has been an extremely effective politician who has worked well with both sides of politics.”

Colourful accounts are provided by Toby Manhire – see: So farewell then, Peter Dunne. Here are your greatest hits, and Newshub – see: What did Peter Dunne do?

The Southland Times editorial gives this evaluation: “The outgoing MP deserves to be remembered as an adept politician. And since that in itself is a fairly wan claim to integrity we can go further and acknowledge the areas in which the man himself suggests he’s drawn the most satisfaction: modernising drug policy, making fluoridation in drinking water more widespread, establishing Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and, bringing back 10-year passports, and overseen New Zealand help form the D5 group of digitally-advanced nations. How many people, you have to wonder, would have immediately have brought him to mind if asked to identify the politician behind that little lot?” – see: Dunne dusted as Nats lose ally.

The Dominion Post also has a positive account, saying that “As far as political fence-sitters go, Peter Dunne pioneered and mastered the art. Perched in the middle of Labour to the left of him, and National to the right the veteran Ohariu MP worked the system to his advantage” – see: Peter’s Dunne his dash after 33 years in politics.

Some of the most interesting accounts have come from those who might not be expected to be fans of the moderate politician. For example, blogger No Right Turn expresses some dissatisfaction with Dunne, but also points out that Dunne has “become a consistent advocate for better drug laws. He’s also been a quiet protector of the environment, impeding National’s efforts to gut the RMA for years… And he’s been a useful voice for civil liberties and against the expansion of spy powers” – see: #include (“Bad Dunne pun”).

Finally, Russell Brown has a must-read account of Peter Dunne’s time as Associate Health Minister, and Dunne’s attempts to reform drug laws. Brown, who has followed Dunne’s long adventure with drug policy, gives a very fair account of what Dunne has achieved, as well as the mistakes he has made. But overall, it’s very positive: “he leaves politics having made his party-of-one’s policy the most radical reform of drug law any Parliamentarian has ever proposed: a Portugal-style decriminalisation of all drugs and a pathway to the legalised, regulated sale of cannabis. Had he remained in Parliament after next month’s election, he would have been a key player in the long-overdue review of the Misuse of Drugs Act… But his big achievement, and one of which he can be justly proud, is the National Drug Policy. It’s a modern, progressive document which strongly prioritises drug use and abuse as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter” – see: Peter Dunne, the flawed reformer.