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Thursday 09 April 2009

United Future 2.0: The little party that's changed

Posted in: Features
By Jay Bennie - 12th October 2008

This is the first in a series of brief interviews with representatives of political parties conducted in the lead up to the November 8th General Election. They will be presented in the order in which they were able to be arranged and conducted.

Jay Bennie is the interviewer and first in the chair is United Future leader Peter Dunne.

United Future is the party that grew out of several under-performing Christian-based parties and, though a somewhat politically centrist outfit, on social and moral issues it's had more than its fair share of far right bible-bashing screamers.

United Future leader Peter Dunne
For instance, who can forget the appalling U.F. MP Paul Adams who once seriously wanted people with HIV (read: "diseased, uncontrollable homosexuals") quarantined on an island somewhere; who wailed that equal rights for gays would see men in frocks teaching in classrooms; and who went on a futile three week-long fast to urge God to smite the Civil Unions Bill.

Then there is the bizarre Gordon Copeland for whom United Future didn't represent a toxic enough political or religious environment and who jumped into bed with God's slicked-back boot boys at Destiny, only to discover rough trade wasn’t to his liking, and quickly bolted for the safety of independent MP status.

And as for Bernie Ogilvy, there was something just plain creepy about him.

Peter Dunne, the man who on the strength of appearing to be the middle of the road voice of the common man in 2002 got these and fellow misfitted MPs into the house, is eager to distance himself and his party from those dark, repressive days when it seemed that United Future and the Maxim Institute surely had each other on speed dial. “I know that some [glbt people] may have an understandably jaundiced view of us because of past events, and I’d simply make the point that the people who were associated with some of those more extreme guises are now long since gone. We’ve moved on from that phase – we've got rid of them."

"We are a party that’s genuinely committed to human dignity, human respect, and recognizing the rights of all," says Dunne. "So if people are attracted to our policies, then they should just go that one step further and appreciate that we are a Party that deeply respects people’s choices and people's freedoms.

Although United Future didn't exist in the late 1980s, Dunne says he was "a strong advocate in 1985 and '86 for the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in its entirety – you may recall that it was split in half. The Human Rights element was taken out, in the end. I was a strong supporter of both provisions, and I was a strong supporter of the 1993 Human Rights changes. And I don’t resile from that."

Unsurprisingly, when the Civil Unions Bill went before Parliament, the fractured United Future party treated it as a conscience vote. Dunne was one of those who filed out the Noes door. "Various people voted against it for various reasons. I voted against it because I didn’t think it was necessary, but I did vote for the companion [Property] Relationships Bill because I saw that as being a far more critical piece of legislation."

Would Dunne turn the clock back on Civil Unions now? "No I wouldn't, in the sense that Civil Unions are here to stay. I don’t think that the sky has come falling in. It’s part of our evolution, frankly. New Zealand’s changed a lot, even since the passage of the Civil Unions legislation. I think that there are a lot of people now who were vehement opponents of that who say now: 'What was the fuss all about?'"

Dunne seems to genuinely regret the worst excesses of anti-gay rhetoric which characterised his now gone party team mates. "Sometimes you wish you could wind the clock back and do things a little differently, but you don’t have that luxury always."

If times have changed that much, does United Future have any glbt candidates in next month's general election? "To be perfectly honest, I don't know. There may be one who's indicated that, but we don't ask, and I don't frankly find it my business to know. I think a few years ago it would have been a big issue. But I think the number of gay candidates that have been around over the years and who've been elected indicates that the public at large has moved on from a huge concern about that issue and I think that that’s entirely as it should be."

Life for glbt New Zealanders has changed to a remarkable degree over the past two decades, with more visibility, legal changes and a slow move by most sectors of society to be more inclusive, less judgemental. But what does United Future think are important issues that Parliament could still tackle? "I think there's the ongoing issue of the protection and promotion of Human Rights across the board... I don't think that it's under greater or lesser threat than it has been," says Dunne. "I think probably the most pressing issue coming forward as one we will need to address, and I think with a measure of care, is the issue of adoption. At this stage I think that's a debate we have to have. I've got an open mind on it – I think we do need to work our way through that, because it's fairly inevitable that the issue is going to arise, and I don't think we can afford to have a sort of a knee-jerk reaction to it."

Dunne sees same-sex adoption as a logical consequence of the passage of the Civil Union legislation. "There are some who will say: 'yes, right, that's exactly as it should be, no problem’; and there will be others who will say: 'this is what we feared would happen all along.’ My point is simply that we need to work our way through things calmly, without ramping it up to the point where all the prejudices start to come into play. It's just a matter of looking at the evidence, it’s a matter of seeing what models work internationally, what can be applied in New Zealand, and what the time frame for any movement in that direction might be. I just think we need to do it in quite a calm and structured way, and I think actually society might be more ready for that now than even five years ago."

What about the so-called 'gay panic defence?' The Law Commission has recommended doing away with the legal quirk that allows attackers to justify to a court their brutal and sometimes deadly assaults on the basis that the victim's homosexuality represented an understandable threat. "It's some time since I read the Law Commission's paper, but I think that's part and parcel of a whole broader sweep of actions, really, to get us away from some of the phobias that were around previously, and I think again it's time to remove them."

Where does Peter Dunne see glbt people in New Zealand society in the future? "I would like to see us get to the position, and I don't think we're that far from it, frankly, where everyone is able to live their own lives equally and freely, and where their sexuality is, harking right back to [sex scandal-plagued Canadian PM] Pierre Trudeau's famous phrase, 'Their own business'. I think that we’re getting close to that point now, and I think that some of these things like the Hero Parade or its successors, those events have helped break down a lot of the – I was going to say 'fears' but it's stereotypes people have. I think that’s good. I think New Zealand and its diversity is something we should be celebrating across the board, and I'd just like to get to the point where people felt comfortable in their own sexualities and didn't feel it had to become a big issue."

As our twenty minute limit - our stipulation, not his - for the interview closes in we wonder if there is a glbt person who has made an undeniably positive impact on Dunne.

"This is going to be a cop-out, but I'm actually going to give you two answers. I think as a public figure, for me one of the most inspirational and courageous and I think genuinely wise people has been [retiring Labour MP] Tim Barnett. I think he's done a huge amount because of the way in which he's approached issues. His quiet determination... Tim's never left you in any doubt where he stands or what his end point is, but I think he's shown a remarkable sense of tolerance and compassion, and sensitivity right the way through. So I admire him for what he's been able to achieve, and I think when you look at his Parliamentary record, it's quite a remarkable one."

Dunne's other choice is "a friend of mine who I've known for probably well over thirty years. He has some physical disabilities for which he was pilloried. This was in the late '60s early '70s. He was pilloried for his sexuality. But still he managed to lead a cheery, happy, successful life and basically was able to – and I don’t mean it in an aggressive sense – blow it all back in their faces. Because every criticism or snigger that came in his direction he managed to see off very nicely with a calm, reasoned manner. And he's someone I admire very greatly for his perseverance and humility in the face of huge provocation."

Next up: NZ First's Doug Woolerton, followed by ACT's Rodney Hide.

Jay Bennie - 12th October 2008