Peter Dunne: New Zealand’s Most Successful Politician?

Word around the campfire (several campfires in fact) is that Peter Dunne is a good minister.

I open with this little bit of information to be fair in the information I present (yeah right!) and to balance out my following assessment of him.

You see, unlike my other research into political parties and the individuals that compose them (a process which usually consists of me trolling the internet, checking my library, badgering my sources and “polling” those around me for a general opinion of the situation) I did not turn up the usual treasure trove of data, Wellington gossip, internet foot prints or scathing rants attached to the Peter or the United Future Party.

Oh to be sure there were some juicy slabs of salacious gossip abounding but none which could be verified beyond even the merest rumor and as such I decided to leave such things out and focus on what I actually could confirm by more than one source.

Which lead to a surprising amount of people, from many places in government, having nothing but praise for the man in his role as both current (DIA) and previous (IRD) ministerial positions (and various sub and acting ministerial roles).

It seems that Peter Dunne is the kind of minister that Chief Executives and Permanent Secretaries like (except for those truly aspiring to be Sir Humphrey Appleby) as he is intelligent enough to know the material, studious enough to know it in detail, pragmatic enough to take advice given and principled enough still make decisions in line with the party ideals and general values.

Dunne is not one of those ministers that require vast amounts of baby-sitting (Sam Lotu-Liga in the wake of the Serco debacle and his rapid removal from the corrections portfolio to something much much safer (and far less important); the Local Government portfolio); is a power hungry profiteer (Steven Joyce); dangerously ignorant (Murray McCully and Jerry Brownlee) or one of those empty political vessels which then become an avatar of greed, avarice and naked ambition (Judith Collins and most of the remaining vermin in cabinet).

All of which soon overwhelmed my own preconceived notions of him as a bow tie wearing political hack who simply went whatever which way the winds were blowing and who was now a dangerous relic helping to prop up an increasingly unpopular government.

It was my good friend Q who pointed out one night over drinks that while Dunne was all of those things that I believed he was (and Q should know having spent a good deal of time actually walking the halls of parliament playing nurse maid to its many skeezy denizens in both Labour and National governments) he also had many of the better points I have listed above and while still a political creature he could be considered “one of the better examples of the breed”.

On first hearing this I nearly choked on my drink as Q, while the perfect example of the legal/rational devil’s advocate type that can be found in Wellington if you look hard enough, was not known for laying out such glowing endorsements for MPs without an equal measure of dirty laundry culled from his time as first hand witness to their grubby behaviors.

But there was no skid marked Y-fronts to be found this time and I had to accept the fact if I was looking for examples of the usual slimy tendencies that politicians display I would be better suited to look elsewhere.

And so it went, time and again, over drinks, dinner and in the tea-break small talk between meetings which make up the bulk of the time any actual work in Wellington is achieved (for further details I direct the reader to Parkinson’s Law). Same story, again and again; competent minister, rational individual, good to work for and such and so forth.

Which meant that by the time I came to write this I felt compelled to open in the manner I just have which for me is a hard thing to do. I rate politicians just above pedophiles and just below lawyers.

But the subconscious nag which kept running in the back of my mind that accepting Minister Dunne as some sort of silver slipper bobbing among the turds in the parliamentary toilet bowl was wrong just would not go away.

So it was time to put some Jazz on the turntable, pop open a few beers, lie back on the couch in my usual meditative (or just plain lazy) position (fingers in the traditional Monty Burns “excellent!” manner) and think things through.

So after a few Montheiths and several sides of Donald Byrd I felt I had a handle on things and it went a little something like this.

Peter Dunne has been in politics, and parliament, for over 30 years. First as a member of the Labour Party (he entered in 1984) and later as an Independent MP and then as part of various assemblages of parties which eventually ended up under the banner of United Future.

And Dunne, like his significant doppelganger Winston Peters, has been in coalition with both Labour and National, supporting both governments and holding ministerial positions in both. Both have developed into one man band operations, despite the veneer of party structure each has assembled around them.

Both men have seen various bills through parliament and both have had their moments of controversy (although Winston could claim a lot more) and both have fallen afoul of the particular government of the day (Peters with both National and Labour and Dunne with National in 2013 over his leaking of documents to journo Andrea Vance).

But NZ First, as a party, appears a lot more coherent, if more sycophantic (I am always impressed when Winston storms or is thrown out of the house and his drones obediently follow) while United Future is a shell party assembled to give the illusion (for those who remember the de-registration saga in 2013) of coherent support outside of Dunne’s immediate staff so he can continue to receive government funding and allow Dunne to remain in parliament.

Where the symbiosis ends is that while Peters has championed the cause of the proverbial, and possibly theoretical, Kiwi, Dunne has not. Peters has retained a constituency outside of any particular electorate despite his win in Northland and his loss of his previous long held seat in Tauranga while Dunne has only ever held one seat (now by the slimmest of margins), Ohariu in Wellington.

From the Numbers side United Future has sunk in public polling from 6% in 2002 to 0.27% in 2014 while Dunnes margin in his home electorate has shrunk to a few percentage points ahead of Labour (36% to 34% in the 2014 election) and with National and the Greens holding healthy shares as well (National at 16% and the Greens at 7%).

NZ First on the other hand stole 54% of the votes in an electorate in had not really polled in before (Northland) and NZ first holds at around 7% to 10% on any given day in the party popularity stakes.

This means that as a political party United Future is a non-existent entity with no mandate of any kind and with a single MP who holds his electorate by the barest of margins due to a fractured makeup (the previously grumbles by Charles Chauvel of Labour in 2011 that Dunne had won the seat due to a deal with National to feed voters to United Future was probably sour grapes on Chauvels part but to me it would be less a case of National doing a deal with Dunne and more National simply encouraging its voters to “vote strategically” by supporting Dunne without any conspiracy needed to keep Dunne in power knowing that they could not win it themselves and to keep Labour out).

And the party website reflects all of this with sparse (if any) policy prescriptions, a list of members which appear to be entirely composed of all the individuals who care about the party (when you read their bios) and tag line “Economically responsible, socially conservative” all of which screams “dead man walking” in our current political climate. Granted it’s not as bad as ACTs website but that is a matter of degree not difference.

And Dunne is a dead man walking, he is a statistical anomaly who exists because he has carefully created a niche in the MMP ecosystem where he can remain and exploit his position in governments which require minor party support to make a majority.

He has played key roles in getting many pieces of legislation through the house and none worse than his deciding vote in making government asset sales a reality (which for me was the turning point where I went from seeing Dunne as a true inhabitant of the middle ground to a servant of the power).

His competence as a minister is commendable but not a saving grace in such a situation. And while I do believe that he is a genuinely principled individual (as his willingness to criticize the government of the day can sometimes show) his position in the system (and the actions he takes) comes at a far greater costs to the country than any service he has given to his electorate or imaginary party supporters.

Where Winston Peters is an out and out political showman demagogue grandstanding on issues to cynically get votes and keep punching his meal ticket Dunne has quietly enabled the slow motion train wreck (although he is not alone in this) that New Zealand politics has become by being one of the “silent majority” that has helped keep the neo-liberal reforms in place and the machine oiled and running.

It’s all there on the United Future Website where it tells the visitor that they are part of a “global movement” under which the flag of neo liberalism is proudly flown and in his own history when his move out of Labour in the 1980s came after Rodger Douglas and the other right wingers had already exited and Dunne was left alone in a party with blood on its hands and trying to rid itself of the remaining guilty candidates (of which Dunne was one).

But let’s compare further with his significant other. Winston’s great(est) moment in the political spot light was the Wine box inquiry which saw him expose the seedy underbelly of New Zealand for all to see through his uncanny ability to grab an issue and extract maximum fury from it while Dunne’s was his refusal to handover all his emails to a government inquiry which saw him vilified for a short while by National (and many in public) and then let back into the beehive clubhouse. Winston remains a potent threat to any government in that he will scramble their entire agenda if it warrants or he does not get what he wants.

Dunne can occasionally express mild upset or disapproval at various tweaks of government policy (as his rather entertaining twitter feed shows) but his protestations usually amount silent farts of apathy and reek of a schizophrenia of morals rather than any real outrage or protest.

And it is there that the difference shows, as a true centrist Peters remains a threat to either side and retains his King maker mystique while Dunne is an accomplice to whatever government will pay his price but without any real threat value. I admit that it’s a small difference but in MMP politics it’s a crucial one; that of unpredictability and exposure vrs predictability and acquiescence.

Some had said that Peter Dunne died in the 90s along with Jim Anderton and the Alliance (yes I know he was an MP till 2011 but he was another example of a MP leeching off his electorate) and was resurrected in 2002 by the “Worm” used to monitor the statements made by MPs during the televised debates (and lets not start on the Worm right now, a more blatant example of election engineering I cannot think of).

If that is the case and Dunne owes his current existence to a cheap TV gimmick then he has done well from this quirk of fate but in the final analysis he, like Peters, Anderton and ACT, is a child of MMP and the system allows for such creatures but unlike Winston, Dunne is on borrowed time as the only thing holding him in place is the fact that any push by Labour to unseat him might drive voters in his electorate in the arms of National as much as themselves. But a desperate Labour might just be tempted to risk it to get one more “easy” seat come a tight 2017 race.

But I leave the final words to my good friend Q who in his measured tones noted that despite all of the vitriol I could muster Peter Dunne may actually be the “most successful politician in NZ politics today” having served both as a MP continuously for over 30 years (Winston has 40 but it has gaps out of office and his limited time helming actual portfolios weakens his legacy) and for long stretches as a minister in many governments which is not a feat that many politicians can boast of.

Of course that was a pure measurement on the scale of politics devoid of morality of anything else (Q is a trained lawyer after all) but grudgingly I would have to agree with him.

10 thoughts on “Peter Dunne: New Zealand’s Most Successful Politician?

  1. Good appraisal. I agree with almost all of it, and good to see someone else in the blogosphere deploying the term symbiosis (albeit in a rather unconventional context).

    Dunne’s about a year out from his use-by date: the 2% swing to the left that showed up in the recent Roy Morgan poll is below the margin of error but strikes me as a tentative endorsement of the Labour/Green MoU. I expect this to be confirmed as a trend in subsequent polls. Dunne will be safe only if leftist cluelessness persists and rightist cluelessness ebbs.

    Okay, as a self-identified political centrist since 1971, I’ll allow that Dunne has been a genuine centrist since he jumped from Labour’s sinking ship, but the conservative current he’s been floating in has drifted into a marginal eddy. Peters “a true centrist”? Never seen him admit to this in any media report, but I’m not saying you’re wrong.

    The fact is, NZ First has drifted towards the political center to the extent that it now exerts de facto control of that political terrain. My critique of the Greens results from their cluelessness in retaining the leftist parliamentary alignment long past the year Helen Clark proved in a failure (2003). Since the global green movement derived from the political rejection of both wings of the establishment long ago, the Greens lack authenticity in their failure to non-align. Peters is the beneficiary of this crass stupidity and lack of ethical nous.

    Imagine if Dunne were a lateral thinker. He could do a deal whereby he announces his retirement from parliament at the next election, and the change of government produces an announcement that he will become the next High Commisioner in London – or ambassador to the USA…

  2. I agree Dennis, its unlikely that Winston has ever thought of himself as a true centrist given that his policy based is basically what his whims are on any given day.

    I also agree that Dunne has become tainted by right-wing flavor but given his background that not so surprising.

    I’m not sure Peter Dunne is a lateral thinker but I will be watching the 2017 election carefully to see how his seat fares. My feeling is that Labour will be desperate enough this time round to make a real run on it and if so its game on.

  3. Dunne is a Wellington MP and no city has been more poorly served, with Dunne making a huge contribution to the wrecking of the social infrastructure through the continued development of destructive motorways and the diversion of transport funding to ridiculous political projects such as the retention and rebuilding of the Johnsonville rail commutter line, and the retention of the near zero patronised Whitby bus services and Aro St Trolley buses. Wellington should be a world class boutique city, instead its been ruined to support a hard core socialist agenda with artificial creation of jobs for low grade essentially unemployable males and females, with the usually ridiculous appointments of fat female hairdressers and even uglier working class male equivalents and male cafe and bar staff who are always entirely unsuitable for the international and public service market.
    Wellington should be open 24 hrs but the bars are closed and ridiculous obsession exists with controlling alcohol consumption on the basis of sociological drivel and no scientific research. Alcohol is an immensely beneficial to socialisation and health while all drugs legal and illegal are immensely destructive. Tourism the main bread winner is absurdly restricted due to the views of Doctors or Police both extraordinarily narrowly educated people.
    The correct appointment to London and Washington are the high level diplomats purged in the Allen/Grosser purge.Appointing Dunne would be about equivalent to the maintenance of John Kerr as Australian GG after Whitlams dismisal. We can do without that sort of retainer. Brownlie is honest and not stupid, rare qualities in the National Cabinet. McCully would also be ideal, as a near world class operator who should receive a gong for long service. RFM

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  5. I’ve always thought that Dunne was the ultimate wally, always looking after himself. His part in the legal highs was extremely odd. I think he’s a church going man, maybe he is ethical, hard to tell. Like Key he does not seem to be a conviction politician, wants to stay on the gravy train!

  6. Barbra: I would agree with you about the wally aspect but what MP does not want to stay on the gravy train?

  7. Yes E.A. The train is pretty full. Isn’t ironic how the country ticks along nicely when Parliament is in recess and the gravy is paying for their nice little hide-aways in Hawaii?

  8. I like that attitude Barbra.

    But you may be, like me, one of those people who expect the highest standards from our MPs and are continually let down by their bad behavior and f=greedy antics.

    I often find those who really feel ticked about our MPs have a strong want to see them actually live up to some sort of ideal or standard.

  9. Yes E.A. Politics has changed so much as to be unrecognisable. I come from a social justice position. I guess I’d like things to be more honest and fair. Pigs might fly! Target the money to where it’s needed, not to the Cosby Textors, consultants, inquiries, papers and polls, but evasion and greed are in control now. I don’t expect high standards from MPs they’re as flawed as the rest of us but it would be great to see a few with some integrity and commitment to those they’re supposed to be serving.

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