A by-election can have some meanings

Some of the most thoughtful political writing these days is coming from — Peter Dunne.

Dunne, who leads, and is, United Future in Parliament, has been sounding more like he did in 1994, when debating breaking with Labour.

He then aimed to be a centre force in politics, perhaps even a power-broking Prime Minister between Labour and National in the impending MMP politics of coalition. He wanted to do that from a middling-liberal perspective.

Multiple mergers, separations and erosions later, United Future is down to 0.2 per cent and Dunne’s Ohariu seat is a limp overhang. But Dunne had, when dumped for a time as minister in 2013, started putting down thoughts in a weekly “Dunne speaks” email.

He has explored a wide range of topics, both of the day and deeper, usually in a rational, liberal tone, mostly nearer National than Labour but, recently, more often nearer Labour than National.

In January he lamented prejudice, instancing “repressive” Saudi Arabia. Last week he argued the need to address the “issue of medicinal cannabis … in the light of new and emerging evidence … against the three pillars of compassion, proportion and innovation”.

Recently he has fundamentally differed with John Key’s National party on going to war in Iraq and on changing the consent criteria under the Resource Management Act (RMA).

Dunne’s differences on major issues are one reason National panicked over the Northland by-election earlier this month, especially because since 2011 Te Ururoa Flavell, now Maori party leader, has sounded far more Labour than National and so does his new coattail list MP, Maarama Fox. They, too, oppose the Iraq war and the RMA criteria rewrite.

On the official interpretation of the law, if Winston Peters were to win the Northland seat, National’s seat tally would drop from 60 to 59 and ACT’s David Seymour would no longer by himself deliver an automatic majority for deregulatory measures. If Peters resigned as a list MP, New Zealand First would go from 11 to 12.

So some of National’s programme would stall or need renegotiation.

In the past some in National have mooted a legal challenge in such circumstances. A rationale could be that MMP distributes seats by the party vote and an electorate vote in one seat on local sentiment should not override the nation’s decision last September. A counter-argument could be that the people of Northland feel neglected by governments and parties and might validly try to secure some leverage. Moreover, MMP allows parties to keep all electorate seats they win, whatever the party vote.

Of course, this is all speculative. Northland has been a very safe seat — 9300-vote majority in 2014 — with no recent history of maverick voting, as, for example, Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham’s strong second in 1975 in safe Rangitikei before filching it off National in a 1978 by-election.

But the Northland region has had a maverick past, even electing a one-term Social Credit MP in 1966. That indicated some estrangement from the political establishment. It is poor and stressed. Populist Peters thrives on stressed, estranged voters.

And longtime far north MP John Carter used to say he owed much of his majority to Maori who chose not to be on the Maori roll. Peters can (sort-of) play a Maori card.

Two polls early this month suggested substance to Peters’ claim he can win. National panicked, promising bridges and then much more and parking a campaign team there.

That broke a cardinal rule of warfare and politics: if you panic, don’t communicate it. The smell of panic emboldens the enemy and, in this case, wavering voters.

If Peters were to win, he would gain influence when Dunne and Flavell demur. If he loses, he will remain the 70-year-old spare wheel voters chose him to be last September. Part of Peters’ predicament is arranging a creditable exit (perhaps now with help from Labour renegade Shane Jones) which he might have achieved had Key needed him for a majority last September.

Whatever happens, Labour is the loser. Andrew Little made that inevitable by in effect telling Labour voters to back Peters.

A distant third will not look good, even in a by-election in a safe National seat Labour could never win.

But it probably won’t much affect Labour’s trajectory. This is very early in the electoral cycle and other factors (as noted here last week) will be far more important.

And the party will owe a decent 2017 list place to its junked candidate, Willow-Jean Prime. Her political future has brightened.

That is more than you can say for National. Whatever the by-election result, Peters has highlighted the marginality of its 2014 win and its limited range of reliable future support.

And it is more than you can say for Dunne. He might be there in 2018, perhaps even continuing to swap sides, as middling liberals can: Labour-National-Labour-National so far. But he might not.

Still, Dunne has shown he can do intelligent, readable commentary. That is a rarity among MPs.