The great political survivor a likely factor in 2005

Such a beast as United Future is surely not to be found in nature: part liberal centrist and part evangelical Christian; generally right-leaning on moral and economic issues but keeping in office a leftish, moral-liberal government.

Who in the congregations of the churches behind the conservative half of United Future would have stood by a government which has promoted the legalisation of prostitution and, in all but name, the marriage of gays?

Who in those congregations will vote for United Future a year hence? Can their side of United Future’s caucus sign up to another three years of the same if Labour gets the most votes and so meets leader Peter Dunne’s primary government-building criterion?

In short, will there be a united future for his party?

And how will this bifurcated beast bed down with its latest (and fourth since 1996) mate, the huntin-shootin-fishin Outdoor Recreation party? (The others were two small ethnic parties and the Christians.)

Dunne is nothing if not a survivor: out of Labour and on his own in 1994 as Future New Zealand; in 1996 in the United Party with three National and three Labour MPs plus a seat in a National-led cabinet; in the 1996 election granted a free run by National in Ohariu-Belmont, which cemented him into the seat; beneficiary in 2002 of moderate voters’ fear of a Labour-only cabinet or Labour cabinet darkly Greened; sure to be in Parliament post-2005.

In addition to his other affairs Dunne has recently developed a taste for ex-Nats: ex-Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky and ex-MP Graham Reeves in hot succession as his party’s presidents. Yet he remains on more cordial terms with Helen Clark and Michael Cullen than with Don Brash and Gerry Brownlee who have yet to bring their party into clear enough focus for him. And lately he has balanced his habitual swipes at the Greens with excoriations of ACT.

Dunne has negotiated political shoals that would defy many a Machiavellian.

He adapted the Christian desire for moral conservatism into a generic pro-family positioning: “family” can suggest overtones of right-thinking, social stability and responsibility and old values. But so generic is “family” that even Labour, for all its moral relativism, has gone along with his commission.

For good measure, other policies, such as additional money for social workers in schools in the 2004 Budget, are promoted as family-friendly United Future initiatives.

A few weeks back, on the second anniversary of his agreement with Clark, Dunne issued a slim list of his party’s achievements.

Ensuring stable government — after two governing arrangements either fell apart or frayed — was No 1. The Families Commission and family income assistance, including indexing family support and tax credits, came second.

Then came law and order, including gender neutrality for sex offences, boy racer laws (actually promoted by Labour’s Clayton Cosgrove), more victim support and restorative justice.

Other claims include some interesting items: $250 million extra for mental health, which Labour might argue was one of its own ideas; a cut in the amount of petrol tax “diverted” off roads into the Crown accounts; advocacy of infrastructure bonds; more resources for Treaty of Waitangi settlements and an inquiry into the status of the Treaty; and reduction of the withholding tax on employer contributions to superannuation funds of those earning less than $38,000.

It is not a list to make voters swoon or swarm nor one to bring in hordes of members, activists and supporters. But it is a downpayment for support for a second term as a pivotal party.

In that position of pivot, United Future sees itself competing with New Zealand First, able to swing with either major party. But it distinguishes itself: in 1998 the National-New Zealand First coalition broke up and that has left too many National MPs too angry and suspicious to risk such an arrangement again.

Dunne insists United Future will still be at Labour’s side when this term ends, despite some reports of edginess in the caucus and on the party board. As a result, he will tell voters, he can deliver stability after 2005 with either big party whereas both believe Winston Peters can’t and won’t. Dunne will also offer a moderating influence.

Which might be the saving of his party next year.

Through this year it has averaged around 2 per cent in polls — around 2.5 per cent recently if you add Outdoor Recreation’s meagre haul. That would deliver three seats in an election, maybe four — a long drop from nearly 7 per cent and eight seats.

But what if National bangs away, as it has said it will, that a vote for Labour is a vote for the Greens, that is, for “extremism”? If polls are pointing towards a Labour-led government might not National’s scare tactic prod some conservative voters to back Dunne again?

Shades of 2002. OK, pale shades. But enough to make the point that Dunne the survivor must be factored into any long-range punt on the next election.