Captain Sensible Peter Dunne on politics, drugs and the Easter bunny

By Dr Jarrod Gilbert

United Future leader Peter Dunne has poured cold water on speculation he could retire from politics, confirming he plans to contest this year's election. Sociologist Jarrod Gilbert went to a Santa parade with the man behind the bow tie.
Peter Dunne, aka Captain Sensible, is standing again in this year's election. Photo / Getty Images
Peter Dunne, aka Captain Sensible, is standing again in this year's election. Photo / Getty Images

Peter Dunne. What does he do for New Zealand? Nothing. That was the view of my cabbie. Wellington taxi drivers famously have a political ear and this one claimed to be the "most astutest".

Then he addressed the rear vision mirror: "Why do you ask?"

"I'm going to interview him".

"I don't trust the media", he said.

But after saying smoking doesn't cause cancer and dropping me at the entirely wrong address, I had some nagging doubts about that cabbie.

By the time I walked up a steep hill, I met the man you see on television. Earnest and serious, the person whom media dub ''Captain Sensible''. In person, welcoming and warm.

Between his hair and his penchant for bow ties, Dunne's appearance is often remarked upon in ways usually reserved for women. Once, a prominent drunk businessman yanked his hair thinking it was a wig. Dunne looked angry when he told that story.

It's an expression you never see on TV.

Advisors told him to drop the dickie bow. It's now standard Dunne-wear.

In 2005, a New York Times writer summed up bow ties as "worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors ... but perhaps most of all, wearing a bow tie is a way of broadcasting an aggressive lack of concern for what other people think."

Dunne came into politics with the beast that was the Fourth Labour Government. Political upstart and pugilist businessman Sir Bob Jones contested the seat (Ohariu, formerly Ohariu-Belmont and before that something else) in 1984, splitting the Right's vote with National's candidate and thus starting Dunne's political career.

Apart from Winston Peters, who had a short, voter-imposed political break, Dunne is New Zealand's longest serving MP.

Peter Dunne with his wife Jennifer, in 2002. Photo / Fotopress
Peter Dunne with his wife Jennifer, in 2002. Photo / Fotopress

He was a president of the University of Canterbury Students' Association (UCSA) and so was David Caygill, who towards the end of that reformist government became Finance Minister

The template for commercialising what became known as state-owned enterprises was based on the trading operations at the UCSA. Despite every indication to the contrary, student politics often has a future.

Dunne says people thought his 1994 split from the Labour Party would be his political demise.

After helping form the centrist United Future, he led the party into the 2002 election as its sole MP. Following a triumph in a televised debate, remembered mostly for the ''worm'', a wriggly live graphic indicating audience support, the party shot to popularity and Dunne stormed into parliament taking seven MPs with him.

This incipient political force quickly crumbled by the hand of God. Dunne had merged with a religious political party and with that came Gordon Copeland. Almost immediately, war between the two began.

Things came to a head over Sue Bradford's anti-smacking legislation. Dunne, who was never hit by his parents and never smacked his own two children, had a strong view. To this day he has not forgiven teachers who caned him. He calls the practice barbaric.

Peter Dunne's United Party hoarding, 1999. Photo / Bastiaan Beentjes
Peter Dunne's United Party hoarding, 1999. Photo / Bastiaan Beentjes

Copeland subscribed to the "spare the rod and spoil the child" school of thought. Dunne said his main problem with Copeland was they could never have a one-on-one conversation because God was always in the room.

Acrimony killed the party and since then United Future has been Dunne and that means holding his electorate seat, which brings us to the Johnsonville Santa Parade.

We drive to a church where he changes into a red-and-green elf costume. He used to dress as Santa Claus.

I'm unsure if it was a demotion or that a big white beard is too anonymous for a politician. If I asked the question, I can't remember the answer. Mostly because I couldn't write anything down; I'd left my notepad and pen at his house, putting a real dent in my credentials as New Zealand's most astutestpolitical journalist.

While Dunne was transforming into an elf, I sniffed around looking for stationery. An uncharacteristically foul-mouthed Santa, he swore twice, provided me with paper. Clearly I hadn't behaved in 2016 because he didn't give me much and it was already used on one side.

My notes were scribbled and small; I can barely decipher them but certain things can't be forgotten. For instance, he told me his children - one lawyer, one doctor - once joked they had enough family power to have their father institutionalised, and that his wife thinks dressing like an elf is undignified.

John Key and Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key and Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But nothing says Kiwi Christmas more than your local member of parliament loading children dressed as pixies on to a sleigh before perching at sweary old Santa's feet and waving to the crowd.

After Dunne changes from elf to self, we leave the church and an elderly gentleman asks if he is staying.

"No, no. I have to get going," he says, shaking the man's hand. But really, Dunne is not going anywhere. This is his turf and last week he told the Herald he hoped it would stay that way after "many strong messages of encouragement and support I have been receiving from my constituents over recent months".

Walking through the Johnsonville Shopping Centre, I think Dunne was hoping to show off some electoral prowess, but it never really eventuated. A few people looked at him but there were no handshakes or baby kisses. However, Dunne's political grunt has been evident for 11 elections, even when the chips are down.

In the 2014 election, Dunne was facing rare controversy. The leaking of documents to now-TVNZ journalist Andrea Vance saw him lose ministerial portfolios and his majority shrank from about 1600 to 700.

He was later partially exonerated by an enquiry and his ministerial warrants reinstated.

The risk coming in to this year's election is if the Greens and Labour do a deal leaving a single Left candidate, but Dunne says he has that covered. He'd do a deal with the National Party so it won't stand a candidate. This would certainly put a dent in Dunne's ability to negotiate with each side, but he'll deal with that if it arises.

Early days in politics, with the Labour Party in 1984. Photo / NZH Archive
Early days in politics, with the Labour Party in 1984. Photo / NZH Archive

This is the new wave of MMP manoeuvring; made trendy in Epsom.

We head north to Tawa and another Santa parade. It's in Dunne's electorate but this time he isn't participating. Before it starts we have a bite to eat and talk drugs.

As Associate Health Minister, drug policy is where Dunne receives acclaim and criticism. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013, which Dunne oversaw, created a regulatory environment for recreational drugs that prescribed scientific rigour to determine safety.

Basically, if science says it's safe then it can be sold. This provided a clear and scientific path to legitimacy for legal highs as well as for other recreational drugs such as marijuana and, surprisingly, Dunne told me, potentially ecstasy. Both drugs are seen by many as less harmful than legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

Before this Dunne says we had a situation where we "name products and ban them but all that means is you're banning what you know ... so you ban Kronic, then eight days later Kronic Two emerges ... and it just seemed to me, it's like skittles, you put them up, I'll knock them down, but this is a silly game".

The law was lauded by the New Zealand Drug Foundation but if you're wondering why we haven't seen anything happen, it turns out that we have moral panic, former Prime Minister John Key and the Easter Bunny to blame.

A number of substances (all synthetic cannabis) that were on sale when the law passed were deemed legal for an interim period and restrictions on sale meant that queues outside shops selling the products were in the news.

Peter Dunne checks the view from his office. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Peter Dunne checks the view from his office. Photo / Mark Mitchell

In a haze of synthetic reefer madness, the public panicked.

"The PM said to me, 'you've got two weeks to sort this out, otherwise I'm just going to step in and ban the whole lot'."

Then came an amendment on testing standards. According to standard scientific procedure, animal tests are needed before human trials of new chemicals could be considered safe to attempt. While animal tests are allowed for therapeutic drugs, the public appetite for experimentation on rabbits was felt to be more limited when it came to recreational chemicals.

"Originally, they thought [the testing] would be rats and mice, and nobody's concerned about rats and mice. Later in the piece they said, 'no, the effects on the reproductive system in rats and mice aren't good enough. Rabbits [are needed]'.

"This was gathering political steam and I could see that I was losing political numbers."

Again, Key stepped in.

"This was 2014 with an election looming, and the prime minister said 'I am not going out on Easter to tell every little girl that the Easter Bunny could be swiped for testing'."

Without the ability to conduct essential safety tests, the Psychoactive Substances Act stalled.

While there are plenty of types of recreational drugs that might be approved, there is currently no way to meet the requirements for licensing; a result essentially no different than a blanket ban.

Despite this, Dunne remains confident that history will prove the law a success.

In the meantime, he's seen as the man standing in the way of cannabis reform.

"I just cop all the flak. I'm always painted as the bad guy. I get the blame for the attitudes of the vast majority of Parliament. Mine are no different but I'm not the impediment. I've actually been the progressor for all of this."

It's a view media commentator Russell Brown, who recently recorded a podcast series about the history of drugs in New Zealand, agrees with.

"A lot of people in the cannabis reform community think Dunne's the devil but they don't realise it's potentially a path to legalisation," Brown says.

"Dunne is a reformer but probably not as bold as he thinks. Particularly around medicinal marijuana where he could have kicked more butts. But I've always been staggered by people who think Dunne can legalise cannabis by himself."

Peter Dunne celebrates winning his Ohariu Belmont seat with his wife Jenifer Mackrell at the Backbencher pub in Wellington in 2005. Photo / Anthony Phelps
Peter Dunne celebrates winning his Ohariu Belmont seat with his wife Jenifer Mackrell at the Backbencher pub in Wellington in 2005. Photo / Anthony Phelps

If Parliament changes its stance on dope, Dunne will make the change as workable as possible.

He will steady any ship. In fact, if it weren't for politics, differing opinions, controversies and that Easter Bunny, Dunne would have quietly battled down an evidence-led path.
But until the majority of MPs change their stance or science moves past animal testing, which will both happen at some point, Dunne's efforts, as good as they are perceived, have stalled.

Remarkably less controversial has been Dunne's reform of the New Zealand Fire Service.

In the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes it became clear that the legislation was outdated. Urban Search and Rescue Teams had no mandate in law.

More than that, fires had long been the least of what the Fire Service actually did. On July 1, it will be called Fire and Emergency New Zealand and paid, volunteer and rural fire fighters will come under a single umbrella.

Dunne modernised the entire organisation. Have you heard about it? Probably not, yet he has overseen the most significant restructuring of the fire service since the Ballantyne's fire of 1947. (Incidentally, the code for a death used by the fire service is K41, 41 being the number of people who died that day).

As a volunteer fire fighter, I know and appreciate the breadth of the reforms. There have been more than a dozen attempts at sorting things out in the past 20 years. Dunne sorted it in one fell, and uncontroversial, swoop after leading 40-odd meetings around the country.

The Wellington cabbie be damned.

So what's next? Dunne has reformist views on Superannuation that would give old people choices to retire earlier with less or later with more. He thinks it ought be more flexible and affordable, but with his party polling somewhere near zero, a shot at real political influence may be over.

Dunne doesn't give up hope of dragging some more MPs into parliament once again but it's likely he will be more servant than master.

As it happens, I was working on a gang project the day of our first interview and I'd organised to be collected by a member of the Mongrel Mob. Pushing through the Tawa Santa Parade emerged a heavily-tattooed madman.

The elder statesman of Kiwi politics wasn't even slightly phased. He simply extended a hand, "Hello. My name is Peter, nice to meet you".

- Herald on Sunday

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