United’s future is history
Long before it became UnitedFuture, the United New Zealand party positioned itself at the dead centre of the political spectrum in advance of the first MMP election in 1996. Three former Labour MPs, including the party’s enduring frontman Peter Dunne, and four former National MPs came together in a coalition of the sensible.
The 1990s were fractious times, MMP was still an unknown quantity and it probably seemed smart of Dunne and his fellow travellers to set a course for the extreme middle. But that also meant they would be forever subject to the slings and arrows of other parties’ fortunes.
It meant that 1999 was a bad year for the party but 2002 was a good year. Dunne became associated with common sense after an unusually commanding TV appearance and his rejuvenated party brought in a host of Christian MPs, who peeled off and defected to more overt conservative parties. A two-year association with Outdoor New Zealand became another casualty of the party’s evangelical dalliance.
UnitedFuture finally folded up its tent this week after 22 years, which is a geological age as far as New Zealand’s small parties are concerned. It survived because it successfully became a one-man band that reflected Dunne’s abilities as a reliable constituency MP and his skills and experience as a parliamentary operator.
Some will argue that UnitedFuture seemed, in the end, to stand for little. Future historians might say it was rash of Dunne to suddenly abandon the 2017 election only four weeks before the finish and to hand over the reins to the unknown Damian Light. Light impressed but not enough and he was never going to lift his head above the wave of change that also swept away the Ma¯ ori Party.
Some parties fall apart noisily and chaotically – see the Conservative Party and The Opportunities Party. Others limp on long past their use-by date – see the Alliance and Democrats for Social Credit. It was fitting that UnitedFuture closed the curtain reasonably and without dissent, by issuing a moderate press release.
Dunne called the decision ‘‘sad but understandable’’ and pointed to his and the party’s achievements. The most high-profile is the Psychoactive Substances Act, world-leading legislation that seemed to confuse many New Zealanders.
Light has mourned the demise of the party he briefly led by claiming that further drug law reform is now less likely to proceed. But it has a better chance than ever. Dunne always acknowledged that he was just one vote in a National-led coalition that refused to budge on drugs issues.
By contrast, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already signalled that funding for alcohol and drug addiction services will increase, addiction will be treated as a health issue, medicinal cannabis will be available to people with terminal illnesses or in chronic pain, and a referendum on legalising personal cannabis use will happen by 2020.
That is what real power and influence look like. One MP could never force such concessions. If UnitedFuture began its life as an expression of MMP’s potential, it ended it as a demonstration of its limits.
It was fitting that UnitedFuture closed the curtain reasonably and without dissent.