Peter Dunne’s resignation thrust Damian Light under the hot lights of the leaders’ debate. He takes us through the highs and lows of United Future’s last year.
What a rollercoaster of a year: starting with a slow build, some unexpected turns, a sudden rush then a wild ride. And before we knew it, it was all over.
2017 was always going to be a key year for United Future. We’d struggled to get other MPs into parliament, making it hard to shake off the impression we were just the Peter Dunne party. We were determined to make this election different, a turning point for the plucky pragmatic party that we loved so much. We’d worked hard over the past few years to identify our strengths and weaknesses, focus our message and policies.
While unnoticed by many, we knew we were making contributions to government that other parties could only dream of. In August, United Future was set to make history as the party with the longest continuous role in government in nearly a hundred years – a record held by the Liberal Party (1890 to 1911) and the Reform Party (1911 to 1928).
But it was shaping up to be a rather boring and predictable election. Labour was imploding in the polls and National was set to glide into a fourth term.
Then Metiria Turei, co-leader of the Greens, admitted that she’d lied to ensure her benefit wasn’t cut while struggling to raise her daughter on her own during the 1990s. Within weeks, she’d stepped down as co-leader and was not seeking re-election.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Andrew Little made the extremely brave (and ultimately right) decision to step down, with Jacinda Ardern stepping up as a fresh face for the left.
Seven weeks out from the election, two parties had changed their leadership. The election was heating up. We were prepared, we had our campaign strategy sorted, the billboards, flyers and campaign video designed. Our list was confirmed, though we hadn’t received the completed paperwork from all the candidates.
Dunne catches party off-guard
On Monday August 21, Peter Dunne announced that he’d decided to not stand for re-election.
It wasn’t an entirely unexpected decision. We all knew that Peter had to retire at some point and we had a succession plan (of sorts): get another MP or two into parliament and begin a handover. But we thought that this was a discussion for 2020, and the timing caught us off-guard.
It was tough for me personally – Peter was the reason that I’d voted for United Future, why I’d become involved. Seeing him perform in the infamous worm debate in 2002 drew me to look into the party. The policies were solid and aligned with my views in a way that no other party did. I was running for parliament for the fourth time because of Peter and now I had to accept his resignation. Many have speculated what might’ve happened if this decision had been made earlier, but we’ll never know so I’ve never wasted too much time.
There was a lot of coverage about Peter’s decision to retire, and rightly so. It was the end of an era for parliament and Ohariu. However, most of the media had written us off as a one-man party and with Peter gone, we were too. It was up to us to prove them wrong.
So we took it in our stride. Within two days the board had appointed a new leader. As number two on the list and party president, this fell to me. It was never my intention to be party leader, certainly not at this stage. But the opportunity and challenge were there, so I embraced it.
At first nothing much changed and our campaign continued as planned. We updated the candidate list and marketing materials, but the vision, policies and slogan were consistent. The party had spent years working towards this point and, despite what many believed, this was never just Peter’s ideas – we all stood behind this vision for New Zealand.
I knew that I was leading a committed group of candidates – you don’t sign up for a small party to get an easy ride into parliament. It was time for the next generation to take over. Our top four candidates were all under 40. Candidates confirmed their determination to continue and we moved forward.
We weren’t registering in the polls, we had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Then in the week leading up to the TVNZ multi-party leaders’ debate, the media noticed that there was a new leader of United Future. What started as an offhand comment by Duncan Garner on the AM Show – “Who is Damian Light? We should get him on the show.” – turned into an early-morning detour on the way to work. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but it wasn’t a disaster which seemed to do the trick.
It was a good warm-up for the leaders’ debate on Friday – my first televised debate. I’d debated against the other leaders before and I felt comfortable (despite the hot lights). We weren’t registering in the polls, we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So I rattled off the policies and vision I knew so well.
My phone lit up as Twitter did its thing (including some funny comparisons to certain celebrities) while our website crashed from the demand. The sudden attention was a bit of a shock, not just to me. One of my brothers texted me during the debate to helpfully inform me that I was on TV.
The last two weeks were an incredible experience, with all the highs and lows of an election campaign intensified by the short period and high stakes. We knew that, despite the bravado, the chances of us hitting the five per cent threshold were beyond slim, but we had to try.
And so election day came, billboards came down and we waited for the result.
It’s fair to say it was disappointing. Our small team had put in some incredibly long and intensive hours, but to no avail. Our candidates all outperformed our party vote, which showed to me that we had the right people but we couldn’t convince enough people to vote for United Future.
It was time for some tough conversations – the party AGM was planned for after the election, the perfect opportunity to reflect and decide.
We had a robust and wide-ranging discussion: continue as we were, rebrand, merge with other parties, reform as an action group. In the end, it became clear that the only realistic option was to disband. It was an incredibly tough decision, but ultimately the right one.
After I sent out the email to members, I had numerous replies pointing out other significant victories. It was great to see that people were proud of what we’d achieved.
And that’s how we wanted United Future to be remembered – as a party that punched above its weight, lived and ultimately ended pragmatically.
While the party has ended, the people that made it work for 15 years still have that passion that drove them. While some may take the opportunity to retire from politics, many are just getting underway. All good things must come to an end, making way for something else.
Damian Light was the United Future leader and party president.