Peter Dunne: centring the Labour party

Peter Dunne hasn’t shifted his generally dry-ish economic stance to accommodate his big centre-left partner in government. So United Future will likely oppose new workplace regulation. But neither will the party relitigate past changes.

And, Dunne said in an interview, so far the arrangement with Labour-Progressive Coalition ministers is working “punctiliously”. “Ministers are going out of their way to build relationships.”

United Future went into the July 27 election with a one-page economic policy, much of it centred around family-friendly tax and other initiatives. Its finance spokesman, Gordon Copeland, is new to Parliament.

But Dunne, as a minister in a Labour government in 1990 and a National-led one in 1996, has a well-honed position on economic policy and that is guiding the emergent positioning of his unexpectedly large cohort in this Parliament.

Generally he favours light regulation and relatively low taxes. As the then United party’s sole MP, he voted against most of the Labour-Alliance coalition’s re-regulations in the 1999-02 parliamentary term, particularly those of the workplace. He opposed the rises in income tax and petrol tax. He backed National’s proposals to cut Resource Management Act compliance costs, including using independent commissioners to decide applications.

Dunne opposed far more bills than he supported. One he opposed was Social Services Minister Steve Maharey’s bill removing the beneficiaries’ work test. So National MPs heaped derision on his new social welfare spokeswoman, Judy Turner, when she backed it.

“Doormats,” the National MPs shrieked.

Not so, Dunne insists. As a sole MP he could not be in the House all the time nor could he examine all bills in detail. As an opposition MP, he parked his proxy vote with National which meant the “default”, if he did not take a considered position on a bill, was National’s position. The work-test bill was in that category, he says.

Briefings by ministers and officials convinced his MPs that the bill was in line with United Future policy, notably in its emphasis on individual case management. Turner in fact carried much of the supporting debate in Parliament, since Labour MPs seldom speak in order to save time.

That was United Future’s biggest test in the first post-election month of sittings. The new MPs, whose maiden speeches Dunne did not vet, weathered with dignity the opposition parties’ attacks — which have resulted in a wariness of National that might reduce that party’s chances of forming an alliance in the future.

“If the National party wants to unilaterally close this door,” Dunne says, “so be it. I have a long memory. I don’t forgive or forget easily.”

Within the governing envelope of the government coalition, United Future and the Greens there is a hierarchy of consultation and input. Obviously Anderton is the first stop. Then bills and other proposals are discussed with United Future. Only then does the government turn to the Greens.

The discussions come with extensive access to officials for briefing, to cope with which United Future MPs have pooled secretaries and turned over their allocations to build a half-dozen-strong research team. Dunne meets Clark formally once a month and is in informal contact another two or three times a week.

This relationship is cordial. Dunne recalls that when he was mulling over leaving Labour in 1994 to set up the then Future New Zealand party, Clark as leader “deeply disapproved” but was never recriminatory and they maintained contact thereafter.

Now they can work together, he says, because Labour turned out not as extreme as he expected in 1999. Clark’s prudent fiscal management “has given me some degree of confidence” (Labour and United Future will discuss broad budget parameters) and the re-regulation is in place and therefore part of history, not a battleground for the future. So United Future won’t try to roll back the 1999-02 changes.

Notably, Dunne sees “no appetite for a lurch to another framework” in industrial relations. So future change needs to be by way of amendments to that framework, not a new one.

But United Future is determined not to be a “doormat” either. Though it can support most of the legislation on the government’s very long order paper, it opposes the Television New Zealand Bill as neither public nor commercial television and opposes parts of the Tertiary Education Bill. Its support will be on a case-by-case basis and partly depend on the degree to which Labour ministers take on board United Future suggestions and objections.

And in that process, United Future MPs “have plenty of strong views but I don’t see any high horses,” Dunne says.

One policy area in which United Future’s “strong views” are not likely to cut much ice is workplace law. Dunne is promising a “particularly close look” at Labour’s bill on workplace safety, now in a select committee and would go in the opposite direction from Labour in reforming holiday law. On his track record he will be wary of proposal to protect workers when businesses are sold or contracted out, pay equity and extension of parental leave.

Dunne is also against “hypothecated” taxes, such as Finance Minister Michael Cullen’s proposed health tax. United Future would vote with National if it put up a bill to cut company tax.

Dunne opposes early ratification of the Kyoto agreement and the proposed extensive powers of entry, search and seizure in Labour’s enabling legislation for Kyoto.

So there is plenty of disagreement. Clark will need the Greens.

Where might United Future have influence with Labour? One early example might be public-private funding of road building. An indefatigable campaigner for a bypass north round Wellington’s north-western suburbs (the Transmission Gully route), Dunne sees public-private funding in a wider context than Labour has hitherto.

Dunne’s version is not a narrow contractual arrangement to build a road along a government-determined route, the so-called BOOTS approach — build, own, operate to a specified rate of return and transfer to the state after a specified time. Dunne wants — and thinks he has Transport Minister Paul Swain’s support for — a wider PPP version, which allows potential private partners to propose various ways of achieving a broad government objective and is thus more likely to attract private sector interest.

Larry Baldock and Swain are “within a hair’s breadth of agreement” on the long-delayed Land Transport Bill which will, among other things, give local councils generic power to commission toll roads. Baldock is a city councillor in Tauranga, which is particularly keen on toll roads.

And on government involvement in stimulating business Dunne is not as sceptical as in the past. He has noted a marked shift in Labour from a “here’s our plan and you (industry) get out and make it work” (which he opposes) to something nearer “let’s work together and figure out how we both make this show run”, which he can support. Dunne says the “climate has shifted” in public attitudes on this role of government.

Dunne instances other areas of rapprochement. Marc Alexander, a law and order campaigner, is close to agreement with Justice Minister Phil Goff on victims rights legislation. In discussions on United Future’s cherished commission for the family he has found Maharey “very good” and the two have been able to agree the definition of “family” needs to be broad: one that attracts United future is “a group of adults responsible for the upbringing children”.

If they can agree on the “family” there might well be a lot else they can agree on.