Gordon Campbell on the Speaker’s lifeline to Peter Dunne

Whatever wiggle room exists under Standing Orders, yesterday’s ruling by Speaker David Carter on the Peter Dunne funding scandal will have done nothing for the tattered reputation of Parliament among the general public. The double standard in play here seems a pretty glaring one. Under the Electoral Act, Dunne gets taxpayer funds as the leader of a political party, but only under certain conditions. One of those conditions requires a certain level of paid up membership. The Electoral Commisison has found that Dunne’s party no longer meets that condition.

For most people that would be it: end of story, and the only remaining questions would be ones for Dunne to answer. Such as, what did he know and when did he know it? For how long has he known his party has been non-compliant with the Electoral Act, and what backdated payback does he think he might owe the taxpayer for accepting money for which his entitlement evaporated some time ago? At the very least, payback should seem to kick in at the point when the Electoral Commisson finally pulled the plug.

Instead, the Speaker – on the basis of reasoning he will not disclose – has apparently deemed that the relevant factors under Standing Orders are (a) his unfettered right to determine the doings of Parliament and (b) his decision to interpret the relevant Standing Order to the effect that since Dunne was elected to Parliament on the United Future ticket, his credentials as party leader somehow endure – even past the point apparently, when his party ceases to exist, as defined by the Electoral Act. (The party leader whose phantom party has finally vaporised? Truly, the man from Ohariu is The Ghost Who Walks.) Or at least, Dunne’s entitlements will endure for oh, six or eight weeks of further investigation – after which time the matter may be revisited by Mr Speaker.

Hard to interpret this as anything other than a green light for Dunne to go out and press friends, family and the homeless living in the hedgerows to join up with United Future ASAP to satisfy the Electoral Act. It is this timeframe that really exposes the absurdity of the Speaker’s ruling – if Dunne’s entitlement was legitimate and enduring and based on credentials established at the last election, why is he being extended this time-out-to-fix-it-up indulgence – and with all the relevant funds still being dished out in the interim, while Dunne puts things right?

That’s where the double standard kicks in, with a vengeance. One needs only to make the contrast with the likely outcome if Dunne had been a beneficiary, and had knowingly kept on receiving taxpayer funds after the legislated basis of the entitlement to them had lapsed. Would that beneficiary be told that well…don’t worry. Back then, you met the conditions, so you can keep on getting the money while you see whether you can manage to fulfil the proper requirements again. And hey, don’t worry about paying back the money you’ve had in the interim on what looks like false premises. To state the bleedingly obvious: beneficiaries are not extended the same courtesies being extended so charitably yesterday by Mr Speaker, to Peter Dunne.

Perception matters. From the outside, it looks like the over-riding factor has been the preservation of the government’s relationship with Dunne, one of its Ministers. Such a conclusion – which this ruling invites – damages public confidence in the Speaker’s willingness to independently manage the affairs of Parliament, free of party political considerations.

A few months ago, Carter faced criticisms of partisanship over his decision to bar Green and Labour MPs from hosting a reception for the visiting West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda within Parliament’s grounds. (Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully had expressed misgivings about Wenda’s visit.) The infringement by Carter of the right of Opposition MPs to host guests of their choice within the shared space of Parliament seems to be on a par with yesterday’s decision on Peter Dunne.

Talk about karma, though. There has always been a certain ectoplasmic quality to Dunne’s political identity. He’s a shape changer. Down the years, his party lists have come and gone, of various sorts and combinations. One election year, Dunne headed a list comprised largely of ethnic minorities, while during the 2002- 2005 period he became the front person for an intake of Christian fundamentalists, among whose ranks he quickly became the odd man out. (Reportedly, he was a non-starter at the prayer meetings of his own caucus.) Endlessly flexible and remarkably adhesive, Dunne could attach himself to either Labour or National, depending on which held power at the time.

Thus, it seems entirely fitting that if there ever should be a party where the leader pedals off the cliff into thin air and keeps on pedalling regardless…it should be the one that’s headed by Peter Dunne. The trick, as we know from the Coyote vs Roadrunner cartoons is – don’t look down. He’s good at it.