Peter Dunne's cautious crusade ends

Peter Dunne says he has always been wary of politicians with bright ideas. Photo: Meriana Johnsen.

After 33 years in politics, Peter Dunne has decided to call it a day. He spoke to Sam Sachdeva about his proudest moments in politics and the dangers of “bright ideas”.

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.

“All of the polling and other data that I was seeing from my electorate was extremely positive and showed me certainly well in front, so I saw no reason to go.”

Then, Jacinda Ardern - the beneficiary of the first leadership change in this tumultuous election campaign - started a swing in momentum that claimed a second leader (Metiria Turei), and now a third in the form of Dunne, leader and sole MP of United Future.

“The change in the leadership of the Labour Party, while I don't think it’s had a material boost for Labour per se, what it’s done in Ohariu is unleash the possibility of change in people’s minds," Dunne says.

“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.”

The tide was moving, as demonstrated by a damaging TVNZ poll and the words of those he sounded out in his electorate.

“They were all giving me a similar message that 'no hard feelings, you’ve done a great job, but maybe it’s time', and it just seemed to me that it was time I started listening.”

Dunne has not minced his words about Labour in recent years, writing about former leader Andrew Little’s “grim, dark disposition”, and doesn’t appear hopeful about any marked change to the state of his former party under Ardern.

“It’ll be a more positive Labour Party - whether it’s a more effective one I think remains to be seen.”

Yet he has succumbed to the mood for change, which he likens to the Brexit and Trump shocks of 2016.

“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," he says.

'I grew up in this place'

Dunne has sought to provide that consistency in Parliament over more than half of his life: he arrived as a childless 30-year-old, and leaves a 63-year-old grandparent with two adult children.

“I grew up in this place...I learned most of what I know today in this place. The contacts I’ve had over the years, the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, I never could have imagined when I came here, and they have been phenomenal.”

Pressed for a highlight, he says there are too many to single out.

“I stood about as far away as you are from me as Nelson Mandela walked into this building. That was a phenomenal experience, to be that close to a great man…

“To have been in Los Angeles when David Lange was on his way to Oxford to do the famed Oxford Union debate…

“To watch John Key have to grapple with the tragedy of the Christchurch earthquakes and then see the Government put together in the most shellshocked of circumstances a massive recovery package, and be part of that: these are all things you could never have imagined but I’m just so grateful for that opportunity.”

There have been joys closer to home as well, dealing with the issues of voters in his Ohariu electorate, across generations, for more than three decades.

“To realise just what circumstances people endure, not occasionally, but day in day out and how much you can have an impact on them both positively and in some cases negatively, it’s been phenomenal.”

Along with those highlights there have been low points, notably when he resigned as a minister during an inquiry into the leak of a GCSB report (he was later vindicated), but Dunne says the sun always came up.

"Politics is a tough game, it’s unforgiving, it doesn't show much sentiment, it is demanding, and you’ve got to have the stamina and the mental rigour I guess to cope with that...

"The interesting thing was for me through that whole [GCSB] process I learned a lot about my own resilience and determination."

Most leaders lauded Dunne for his contribution to Parliament, but ACT’s David Seymour took a swipe, saying he had been “swept out by the tidal change against do-nothing politics”.

Dunne’s response? “I don’t think it deserves a response frankly. I think it’s more a case of someone who doesn't actually understand what politics is about.”

He concedes his political career has been marked more by pragmatic incrementalism than bold ideology, but says that has been by design.

“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.”

That mindset is evident in what he labels as his proudest accomplishments: reforming the tax system, unifying the Fire Service after 70 years - “what everyone said was impossible” - and improving the housing of constitutional documents like the Treaty of Waitangi and the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

Republic regrets

Yet beneath that grey, bow-tied exterior, there are some dangerous ideas lurking.

Dunne wishes Parliament had made more progress towards becoming a republic, describing our current set-up as “so much of an anachronism”.

“I remember having the discussion with John Key at one stage: he said, ‘Look, it's inevitable but it’s not for me to make the call’, and I said, ‘It’s inevitable - why not?’ That’s the difference.”

He attributes that reluctance to a certain timidity, as well as New Zealand’s difficulty in getting to grips with a sense of national identity.

“I think we’ve got the capacity, and I've always said this, to be the world's best multi-ethnic, multicultural nation where our kids and our grandkids have the opportunity to be at home in all worlds - we just have to grasp that.”

A country that can take on the might of American space technology, win the America’s Cup not once but three times, and produce Oscar-winning filmmakers should have confidence in itself, he says.

“Our big mistake sometimes is to put these achievers on a pedestal. They achieve not because of anything other than the fact that they’re New Zealanders, and we need to recognise that our country has that potential.”

Another major regret is that he will be unable to carry on the drug reforms he has overseen as Associate Health Minister, trying to move New Zealand towards the Portuguese model where drugs are decriminalised in favour of a health-based approach.

Dunne is aware of frustration with the pace of change, but argues he made more progress than at any point in the last 40 years.

He himself wishes things had happened faster, but had to reckon with the winds of prevailing political opinion.

“As I keep saying, there’s two main reasons why it [reform] won’t happen - one’s called National and the other's called Labour.”

UnitedFuture, currently languishing at tenths of a percentage point in the polls, will need some drastic reform of its own to remain alive without its figurehead.

Electoral oblivion seems all but certain, but Dunne is hopeful there is still a space for what he calls “the liberal moderate centrist voice of politics that we’ve always sought in New Zealand”.

“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.”

The party’s parlous state may have seemed unlikely back in 2002, when Dunne rode the worm of common sense to eight MPs, and he says more could have been done to ensure the party outlived him.

“We were probably not sufficiently clearly focussed on what it was we were seeking to do...I’ll always have questions in my mind about that, but I’ve got no regrets about what happened.”

He says New Zealand is “a vastly better country” than when he first entered Parliament: more mature, more diverse, with broader horizons and more opportunities seized.

“I hope that we're able to continue to do that, that we don’t get captured by backward thinking, people who want to try and reinvent yesterday.

“Yesterday’s important in terms of what you did and what you achieved, but it’s not necessarily a guide to the future: tomorrow is where it all opens and you’ve got to be nimble and be prepared to adjust the circumstances that tomorrow provides.”

So what will tomorrow bring for Peter Dunne?

“Who knows? But there will be a tomorrow - I’m certainly not going to put my feet up and sit back and relax.”