United’s fu­ture is his­tory

The Press - - Operspective -

Long be­fore it be­came United Fu­ture, 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.

United Fu­ture 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 United Fu­ture 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 United Fu­ture 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 looks like. One MP could never force such con­ces­sions. If United Fu­ture be­gan its life as an ex­pres­sion of MMP’s po­ten­tial, it ended as a demon­stra­tion of its lim­its.

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