Peter Dunne’s announcement that he will not be standing in his Ohariu seat at next month’s election was a distraction the National Party could well have done without.
Dunne may well have worn the moniker of being the sole United Future MP in Parliament. But he had become so aligned with National that he had come to be regarded as part of National’s furniture.
Even though it was unintentional on his part, his exit from politics has added grist to the impression that the electoral tide is going out on National.
Source: 1 NEWS
The departure from Parliament of someone who was very much part of the post-1984 generational shift in politics has heightened the view that another such shift is currently underway — one that is not being driven by National.
The feeling that National is heading for loser status has been reinforced by the increasing likelihood of the party’s friends evaporating into thin air.
These friends are the ones who enabled National to run minority governments for the past nine years without having to go cap in hand to Winston Peters to secure a majority in Parliament.
Dunne has gone. The Maori Party may well go the same way.
Some within National’s ranks will likely view Dunne’s last-minute decision not to stand again as betrayal. They will regard him as jumping ship when the going got tough rather than going down with his vessel.
His declaration that he did not want to lose an election in a seat which he had won 11 times in succession will be regarded as vanity in the extreme.
Dunne’s critics have another and more genuine gripe. If as he says he had been contemplating retiring for some time, he might have let National know on the quiet. That would have avoided National’s candidate Brett Hudson stuffing letterboxes in Ohariu with a message carrying the firm instruction to cast their electorate vote for Dunne, not him.
Hudson now has to convince floating voters why he is suddenly deserving of their backing when he was unwilling to back himself for the sake of political convenience.
In a rallying cry to his troops, Bill English promised to fight hard to win Ohariu. That was further emphasised by Hudson saying he would now run a full "two ticks" campaign seeking both electorate and party votes in the seat.
However, Dunne’s retirement has abruptly ended Ohariu’s status as a special seat — one where the mathematics of the MMP “overhang” conspired to give the ruling party a parliamentary majority which voting figures showed it did not deserve.
Ohariu is now no different from the vast host of seats in which National won the party vote in 2014.
National does not need to win the seat. It can leave Labour’s candidate, Greg O’Connor, the former head of the Police Association, to wrack up thousands of of essentially worthless electorate votes.
National needs to win the party vote in the seat — and win it big.
Therein may lie a further clue as to why Dunne changed his mind about standing, beyond merely revealing a growing lack of enthusiasm for the sheer hard grind of yet another on-the-ground electorate campaign.
He cited recent polling “and other soundings” he had taken over the last few weeks showing there was now a mood for change amongst voters in the Wellington seat for a change of MP — a mood which was unlikely to alter.
Dunne was of course referring to the findings of a Q&A snap poll in the electorate released 10 days ago which had him trailing O’Connor in the electorate vote by what was a substantial margin.
O’Connor registered backing of 48 per cent against Dunne’s 34 per cent. The writing was firmly on the wall.
There was another finding from the poll which has been largely ignored, however. It was one which might have worried Dunne just as much.
When Ohariu voters were asked which party would be getting their party vote, around 46 per cent backed National, while some 35 per cent opted for Labour.
When placed alongside the actual party vote recorded at the last election in 2014, the gap between National’s and Labour’s share of the vote has narrowed to the former party’s disadvantage from 27 percentage points to just 11.
Of course, drawing such conclusions by comparing two very different sets of figures taken from just one electorate would horrify statisticians.
But the figures are stark. The scale of the shift in Labour’s support would have sent a cold shiver up and down the National Party’s spine as well as Dunne’s.
Labour’s revival also posed a special quandary for Dunne. If he somehow defeated O’Connor yet Labour won the election, Dunne would likely have been shut out of government and left to rot on Parliament’s back benches for the next three years.
For someone aged 63, that would be unlikely to be a welcome outcome. The only way out would be for Dunne to resign from Parliament, thereby triggering an expensive byelection which many would regard as completely unnecessary.
Only one byelection in the dozen held since 1994 was used by an MP as such an escape route.
That was in Ruth Richardson’s Selwyn seat some months after Jim Bolger, National’s then prime minister, dumped her from the Finance portfolio, thus bringing her political career to an abrupt end.
List MPs can slip out of Parliament with relative ease. Electorate MPs do not enjoy that advantage.
Rather than suffering loss of face after the election, Dunne has wisely chosen to cut his losses beforehand.