Jane Clifton: Peter Dunne’s gobsmacking fall from grace

By Jane Clifton In Politics

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Dusted: Peter Dunne announces his resignation. Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZH

The cliche male midlife crisis entails buying a sports car, suddenly affecting demographically inappropriate clothing, and even attempting to trade in one’s spouse for a later edition. In the political male, it would seem, the middle-age wig-out is marked by temporarily mislaying one’s party, developing a powerful urge to leak to a journalist, and refusing to cooperate with an inquiry.

MPs’ falls-from-grace are typically distinguished by spectacle and farce: Chris Carter, Aaron Gilmore, David Garrett, Darren Hughes; it’s tough competition. But Peter Dunne’s is the most gobsmacking I’ve ever seen. As you can see from the footage of his press conference, he’s struggling even to explain it to himself.

In an anthropological sense, Dunne is Middle Mortgage Belt Man, who has done all things in moderation. His “Mister Sensible” tag is pretty dated now, but he has distinguished himself for the rare feat of hanging on to his Ohariu electorate in his own right, despite a waka-hopping career.

Since leaving Labour in 1995, he has enjoyed diminishing returns from his later iteration as United/United Future leader, with and without Christian and deerstalking add-ons. But Dunne has maintained a solid reputation as a competent Revenue Minister, able to work in Governments red and blue.

To witness him making an idiot of himself in this way – discussing leaking a classified document with a journalist known for getting scoops, and then refusing to disclose half of the 80-plus emails he exchanged with her – is simply staggering.

We may never know for sure whether Dunne did, even inadvertently, leak the document. He says he didn’t, and the journalist, Fairfax’s Andrea Vance, in accordance with a bedrock journalistic article of faith, is not going to say. But the fact that he refused fully to cooperate with the inquiry – the sin for which he has been forced to resign – will leave a cloud over his reputation.

It was, after all, a leak damaging to his own Government, an administration with which he has no apparent beef. On the contrary, Prime Minister John Key was shocked, saddened, and not a little inconvenienced, to have to let him go. Revenue is not an easy-to-fill portfolio.

The affair does underline the dichotomy we in the political firmament face over the issue of leaks, though. Labour and New Zealand First are harrumphing like scandalised Wodehousian aunts about Dunne’s behaviour. Yet both have received, publicised and gloated over similarly spicey leaks in their time.

Leaks have come to the Opposition from two of the most sacred departments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government Security Communications Bureau, at times in farcical quantity. Information from these bureaucracies have the potential to harm this country’s security and trade.

It’s a very unhealthy sign that such officials are prepared to undermine the Government by leaking information that could also undermine the welfare of the country. Yet the Opposition has trafficked in them with abandon, and never has a single Labour, Green or NZ First politician called the police about such documents, as they have done over the Dunne situation.

Leaks are, in a media sense, undeniably desirable. Journalists spend much of the working day trying to obtain leaks or nuggets of suppressed information. It’s a quest that includes humouring politicians to the point where they might feel comfortable enough to tell us a secret. It’s nothing personal for us. But it is for them. Generally, they only oblige when they themselves have something to gain by the information coming out.

This can seem like a sport, but it’s also a public service. Voters deplore any suggestion that important information about the departments that they pay for is being kept from them. In trying to winkle out the hidden information, we generally have the public’s support. It may therefore be hard for the average voter to process how it was that a minister had to resign for being indiscreet about information that should have been public anyway, and that in fact was released shortly after Vance obtained her scoop.

But then we come again to the unanswerable question: why did Dunne consider leaking? Even he says he is baffled. There was nothing in it for him. It was a report into a leak. And it wasn’t the first report into a leak that has leaked, or the last. Winston Peters has had an “in” to the very leak inquiry that has tripped Dunne up.

My best guess is that being a source can be quite ego-boosting, and it is part of a midlife crisis to seek ego-boosts from novel sources.

It’s certainly not uncommon for new, young MPs to show off to journalists by swaggering about all the secrets they know. It’s much less common for seasoned MPs to do so, though many have reporters they trust, and are happy to give them briefings on a paw-print-free basis.

Vance is a young, intelligent and highly personable journalist, but that’s hardly a pre-requisite for getting such briefings. It’s a well-known vanity statement, for instance, for MPs to get themselves an audience with the brainy veteran commentator Colin James.

MPs can quite shamelessly hurl themselves at TV news reporters, knowing that ingratiation there could potentially get them exposure on the biggest-audience news vehicle.

The politician-media axis has one bottom line, however: if an MP presents him or herself as a source of hard-to-get info, and if we know them to be reliable, and we have a handle on their self-interest in the matter, and are satisfied that that doesn’t invalidate the story, then – well, we certainly do not smite our brows and say, “no thank you, for leaking this information is very naughty of you”.

We grab it with both inky mitts. And, Dunne’s woes notwithstanding, we always will.

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