Helen Tunnah: Art of compromise at coalition party conference

COMMENT

Thank God for Peter's brother John.

It took radio personality John Dunne, sibling of United Future leader Peter, to finally mention the C-word - Christian - at the party's annual conference in Christchurch over the weekend.

It had seemed that a party which evolved in large part out of the Christian Democrats has some reservations in touting its Christian heritage.

Or perhaps party strategists have already recognised the limitations of being labelled, as delegates were reminded on Saturday.

"There is no law against being labelled," John Dunne said in Christchurch. "There is nothing wrong with being labelled Christian, just as there is nothing wrong with being labelled gay.

"The problem is, and always has been, the perceptions those titles can create in the minds of some."

United Future is a coalition of two parties - Peter Dunne's United Party, which initially comprised mainly disaffected National and Labour MPs, and Future New Zealand - the new-look Christian Democrats previously led by long-time MP Graeme Lee.

It boasts eight MPs, some with strong evangelical backgrounds, after coming from the wilderness to pick up almost 7 per cent of the vote at the last election - enough to see it sign up to an agreement to support Labour in government, and target a continuing role as a centrist coalition option for Labour or National.

That central role will be focused on family-friendly policies, but, if the conference was anything to go by, will not include marketing a Christian brand.

Future New Zealand's leader (and United Future deputy) pastor Anthony Walton, told the Herald that when he took over from Mr Lee it was on the basis that the new party would drop the Christian name in order to broaden its appeal.

"Personally, I don't believe you can have a Christian party. You're being arrogant to set yourself up as the voice of Christians," he said.

Arrogant, and also potentially vote-limiting. Because, as John Dunne told the 120 conference delegates, beware of "zealots".

Since polls suggested most people hadn't a clue who United Future was, the party needed to be careful not to limit its appeal by imposing an absolute moral standpoint on others.

That leaves United Future needing to balance its members' concerns about what Labour is doing with avoiding any voter perception that the party is too conservative.

Contentious examples include the rewrite of guardianship laws giving increased parenting rights to same-sex couples, and a possible law allowing gay couples to tie the knot and have the same legal status as married couples.

And United Future's flagship policy, setting up a Families Commission, is already in trouble.

The Herald understands the party is unhappy about the bill's broad definition of a "family" which includes anyone with "significant psychological attachments".

Talks with Labour aimed at coming up with a tighter, more traditional, family definition have so far failed.

According to party president Inky Tulloch, there was no reference to Christianity at the conference because "United Future isn't a Christian party - it's a political party that has a lot of Christians in it, and a lot of non-Christians. The United and Future backgrounds are history."

He said the fundamental planks underpinning New Zealand society arose from its Christian heritage, but you didn't need to go to church to agree with them. "They are just universal principles of family, of common sense, of looking after one another, of compassion, integrity."

Peter Dunne, a Catholic from the United rather than Future side of the party, has to marry the Christian strength of his MPs and members with a secular and popular appeal.

After warning of the dangers of a "pink think" Labour agenda, he said pragmatic compromise could lead to more progress than rigid ideological extremism.

"We are not here to push a narrow or extreme agenda, but to be the middle party capable of working with either of the major parties that the voters decide should lead the Government."

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