Dunne goes hunting a different kind of centre

Michael Cullen went out of his way on Budget day to credit United Future with his decision to link tax bracket thresholds to inflation. That said two things about the so-called poodle party.

One: United Future is Labour’s No 1 preferred partner in government in the next term (after Jim Anderton, of course). Helen Clark’s dream is enough seats for Peter Dunne to assure her a majority, just like now, which Labour thinks has worked excellently.

Two: United Future is not Labour’s poodle on tax. Gordon Copeland has banged on about inflation-indexing bracket thresholds since entering Parliament and Cullen, initially scornful, only slowly came round. Copeland has also argued for income splitting for families with children.

Cullen’s miserly sub-inflation threshold adjustment three years hence has attracted appropriate scorn. But Copeland has got the principle established. That is a significant new tax policy which future finance ministers will reverse at their electoral peril. It will set limits to future spending sprees. And Copeland or other agitators can argue for less ungenerous and more frequent adjustments in future.

If Copeland is doing that, however, it will likely be with a National finance minister. Cullen, who likes to talk about the huge cost of cutting tax rates, does not talk about the huge cost to taxpayers of his policy of raising the top rate and vacuuming hard-earned cash by leaving bracket creep to do its stealthy work as incomes rise. National consequently has tax cutting scope.

Which makes a third point, unspoken by Cullen: United Future can swing either way. And a lot of what United Future stands for swings closer to National.

That point will not be lost on the party’s pre-election conference this weekend. For the Christian wing, the Civil Union Act and other kindnesses to gays and other minorities caused great discomfort. For the Outdoor Recreation party, merged in last year, Labour’s environment policy is too prissy in parts.

On crime, Treaty of Waitangi issues, labour regulation, tax and a raft of other policy areas United Future is also closer to National.

Dunne’s achievement has been to hold his crew together while earning brownie points from Labour for “stability”.

His aim has been since the early 1990s to build a party of the centre, potentially always in or influential on governments. He used to muse on the possibility even of being Prime Minister, as Bettino Craxi was from 1983-87 in Italy from a small Socialist party base squeezed between the Communists and the Christian Democrats.

Dunne would not nowadays like the parallel to be drawn too tightly. Craxi’s party plunged from 14 per cent in 1983 to under 4 per cent in 1987 and he and it disappeared from Parliament. He died in 2000 in disgrace, tainted with scandal.

The media have never talked Dunne up as a potential Prime Minister as it has Winston Peters. And these days Dunne’s ambition is less immodest.

As he puts it in a new book to be published this weekend, that ambition is to “establish the centre as a viable and positive influence and not just the ever-changing midpoint between the extremes”. This he thinks United Future has done over the past three years.

And what will you find if you join Dunne in the centre? A sort of principled pragmatism that rejects “extremes or sectional interests”, just as he (correctly) thinks voters do, which explains “why the perception of over-zealous political correctness is currently such a problem for the Labour party and also why the incipient Ruth Richardson revolution of the early 1990s failed”.

Dunne subscribes to “a fair go”, which, however, must not cross the line into “unfair advantage” (shades of Orewa I). Other key words: “realistic and acceptable” and “family” (which can take many forms).

His “vision” centres on three “building blocks”: a rich, diverse society which nevertheless acknowledges traditional values; progress towards a republic that is confident of its identity and place in the world; and rewards for talent and enterprise, with much emphasis on fixing up education.

Does this actually thrill voters? Much of his party’s surprising vote in 2002 was driven not by his vision but by a tactical desire to leg-rope Labour to moderate conservatism. Dunne has yet to develop a firm positive vote for his programme.

The old logic of politics would say that he won’t, that the centre is where the two big parties have done battle for 70 years and that there isn’t room there for a middling party when the biggies are both fully combat-ready.

But if you think of politics as contained in a circle, not arranged on a straight line from left to right, and think of the centre as all the space in the circle that is well away from the circumference (that is, “not extreme”) maybe there are centre positions other than the Labour-National battleground.

A “rich, diverse society” logically does open up such possibilities. Dunne will be trying to prove that logic this coming election.