Jane Clifton: Why I'm feeling for Peter Dunne

by Toby Manhire / 21 June, 2013
The demands made of the United Future party to re-register are downright inane.
Party poopers.

It would help if he took the damned bow tie off. But even with his now very redundant “happy chappy” accessory, Peter Dunne is starting to evoke my sympathy.

Not for the spy report leaks fiasco, over which he has been a prize chump. But the deregistration of his party, and the dumb insolence of Electoral Commission bureaucracy since then have punished the man unfairly. It’s always hideous to watch someone being kicked when they’re already down, and Dunne’s treatment qualifies as gratuitous face-grinding.

Doubtless qualified legal minds have guided the Commission in its handling of this business and its behind is well insulated. But the net effect is hardly natural justice.

No one imagines for a second that United Future was the only party to have let its membership dip below the 500 minimum during a parliamentary term. The truth is probably that most small parties wouldn’t notice whether their enrolments were up or down.

You’re in Parliament, an election is ages off – who’s counting? Certainly not the Commission, which has always taken the parties’ word on compliance.

But in the plodding, dependable honesty for which the Dunne brand has long been known, the party decided to confess to the Commission that its membership had sunk below the eligibility mark.

It appears even at the time this was an administrative rather than a haemorrhage situation, and it was rattling its dags to get renewals up to date. Though the party president hilariously noted that “some people have died and not told us”, the fact that the party so quickly restocked its larder, and is now able to assert its figures are up well past the minimum, suggests the deregistration was precipitate and an overreaction.

That the party must now be treated as an entirely new entity for the purposes of the system, and wait a couple of months for restoration, is little short of a joke. Again, this may be legally in order. But it’s still inane.

The Opposition, and doubtless members of the public, will see the financial penalties Dunne has incurred as perfectly righteous – but that’s a different argument. It is rather grandiose for a one- or even three-person caucus in Parliament to have the mighty infrastructure of a Leader’s Office and a Research Budget. A bit of judicious recalibration of parties’ entitlements is probably overdue.

But that Dunne should lose these entitlements because a) his party was the only party foolish enough to be honest with the commission, and b) because the law is an ass and it was unclear how to process such a novel situation through the red tape and c) because in all likelihood officials were spooked by the histrionics of Winston and Labour in Parliament about Dunne’s entitlements, is very unfair.

Dunne is facing a tricky climb-back to redeem his career. But the commission needs to redeem itself too, by instigating equal treatment for all registered parties. Having taken such a flinty line with United Future, it should now actively check the numbers for all the parties, and keep a running monitor. That would, of course, be to look for more trouble, so it will probably handily find it lacks the resources for such rigour.

The moral of this story might be that honesty is not necessarily the best policy. Keep quiet and fix your faux pas before anybody notices.

But of course, the wider moral is that it doesn’t matter how distinguished a career an MP has forged, how diligent he or she has been or, as in Dunne’s case, how creditable and rare it is to consistently win an electorate in your own right.

He has had one all too human lapse of discretion and judgement, and presided honestly over a minor technical infringement which was quickly fixed - but it’s the trivia that gets pasted large on the wallpaper of history, rather than all the good stuff.
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