It's that time again, when Peter Dunne goes prowling for enough votes to survive another term. Except this time he's thinking bigger. Could it be 2002 all over again for the Centrist Saviour?

Peter Dunne is having flashbacks. Yes, Peter Dunne. None of us pay him much mind, but with the Budget just days away, this is a big moment for him. And he seized the bull this week with a remarkably frank assessment of the political landscape.

Yes, it was a self-serving analysis, but it wasn't that far off the truth. And while it was never mentioned, the speech was all about the 2002 election.

Dunne was speaking to the AGM of his local electorate. I'm curious as to how many people were actually there, because the political reality around Ohariu is that Dunne retains his seat because enough National voters choose to keep him on.

But just as surely as the tide goes out, so Dunne's margin of victory has been slipping away since the high watermark of 2002. That was the year of the worm and "commonsense"; the TV debate that launched a thousand Pol. Sci theses.

UnitedFuture won eight seats, bringing such high flyers as Gordon Copeland, Murray Smith and Marc Alexander to parliament. But the United Future vote has never recovered from that success.

In Ohariu, Dunne's winning margin has slid from over 12,000 in 2002, to 7702 in 2005 and just 1006 votes at the last election. Labour's Charles Chauvel has come second in 2005 and 2008, with National's Katrina Shanks close behind.

So, at a time when you'd think Dunne was due to lose, he's fighting for his poltical life. He ain't gonna go quietly.

Boldly, Dunne began his speech saying that, "without being rash, one might quite fairly say that the stars are aligning both within this electorate and no the wider stage for UnitedFuture".

I'd hate to hear him being rash then! But the man has a point, and it centres (literally) around the growing factionalism on the fringes of the political scene. In short, Dunne reckons that if enough fear can be generated about the machinations of ACT and the Maori Party, then New Zealanders will be looking for a responsible partner for National. And guess who could fit that bill?

The underlying premise of Dunne's logic is that Labour is screwed. 'Smile and Wave' Key is a shoo-in as Labour becomes a "cot case... bereft of new ideas".

First, he warned voters of the merciless way Don Brash disposed of Rodney Hide. He Hide was still leader of ACT and Osama bin Laden still alive when he started working on the speech. "One is now a bloodied corpse; the other at the bottom of the sea".

Ba-boom. You decide on the taste or otherwise of that gag.

ACT, he said, extending the metaphor to breaking point, are the kind of people who "believe in burning the village to save it" and treating New Zealand families as "collateral damage" in their ideological "mission".

Bugger being defined as a consumer or taxpayer, he argued. He's a New Zealander, not an "utterly soulless" soul like those in ACT. "It will be a sad day for New Zealand when the dog-eat-dog far right policies promoted by ACT take a hold on this country's soul".

With all his talk of souls, I'm guessing he still has a fairly religious base. But most importantly, he does want National dragged further to the right.

Or further to the Winston. So next he turned his sights on Peters, and his "destructiveness and duplicity". The House has been "more honourable in his absence", he opined.

"And then there is the Maori Party"... Dunne reckoned the Maori Party was so grateful to National for the lifeline given that they've been willing to accept being kicked in the nuts over Whanau Ora and the foreshore and seabed. (Actually, he says that John Key has been so respectful that the Maori Party has been prepared to accept compromises - but I prefer the way I put it.)

But "all bets will be off in a second term". The Maori Party, he said, will have to play the activist card to hold off the Mana Party.

Which gets him to the heart of his message - "with potential partners in ACT and the Maori Party" the risk to National is that their "core demands  are likely to tear it in diametrically opposed directions".

Which is hard to argue with. Dunne sees himself as the centrist saviour appealing to the masses, then describing himself with a list of the most underwhelming language you can imagine. He use words such as "diligently", says he "can be relied on" and promises "I do not drop the ball" and "I do not make silly decisions".

Now there's a vision for you.

Joking aside, it's a decent strategy, and given his polling numbers are worse than ACT's, down around the Progressives, anything's worth a crack. And it's entirely consistent. When tying himself to Labour, Dunne consistently went after the Greens. Now he's doing the same on the right.

Of course his love affair with John Key does undermine his claim to be a genuinely centre party. He's ruled out Labour, so he can now only really be described as a centre-right politician; there's no way he can go centre-left.

Clearly he's decided the country has moved to the right these past few years, and that's a reasonable gut feeling.

So which is more likely - Dunne slipping into political oblivion? Or a Lazarus-like comeback born upon the demonisation of ACT and the Maori Party? Well, anything's possible this election. Still, I can't help but suspect that his time has passed and the electorate has moved on. He's not a new party this time, voters have been once bitten, and lightning doesn't strike twice.

His saving grace may well be that his argument about the liabilities to left and right might gain traction with National Party strategists even if it fails with voters.

So it's possible, even likely, that National will 'do an Epsom' and encourage the Shanks brigade to vote for Dunne. With Charles Chauvel safely at 11 on Labour's list, Dunne can simply argue that the other two will be in parliament anyway, so why not get a third local guy at the table?

Just a few weeks ago I would have guessed that Dunne's time was up. But perhaps he has one more term left in him. Maybe he's right about all those stars aligning, after all


Comments (6)

by Ian MacKay on May 14, 2011
Ian MacKay

Not having the stats to hand but didn't the Green vote in Ohariu in 2008 make the difference between Charles Chauvel winning and Mr Dunne? Had the Greens voted strategically Charles would be in. If it is good enough in Epson for the Nats then it should be  OK for the Greens.

by Ben Curran on May 15, 2011
Ben Curran

I find the idea of a comeback of any sort for United to be a difficult concept. The problem as best I can tell is the same thing that Anderton has with the progressives. There doesn't appear to be a sufficient number of people who regard these as actual parties. Sure in 2002, but as things have dwindled away it has for quite some time looked like an empty vessel for an independant MP that will disappear at the same time as the MP.

It'll make parliament a little tidier once the parties that rely on a single personality to get into parliament are gone. Though sadly it looks like Act won't be on the roster of parties to disappear soon.

by Tim Watkin on May 15, 2011
Tim Watkin

It's an interesting question though Ben, perhaps one for another post, but what does happen when the 'single man' parties formed by pre-MMP politicians fade away?

Whatever else you say about Anderton, Dunne, Peters etc, they were experienced politicians and ministers. So they could hold a following, for a while at least because they earnt their popularity/notoriety in an earlier era. How does someone come through or a new party emerge under MMP? I guess we could ask Harawira, but I wonder if he's not a unique example.

Where will the next centre party come from? Can MMP live without one?

by Flat Eric on May 15, 2011
Flat Eric

Looks to me like yet another reason for MMP to get the boot...

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