The career of Parliament's great survivor Peter Dunne lies in tatters after an ultimatum from Prime Minister John Key forced him to fall on his sword.
Key said yesterday he could not accept Dunne's assurances that he did not leak a highly sensitive report into potentially illegal spying by the Government Communications Security Bureau.
Dunne resigned as a government minister after a late-night meeting on Wednesday at which Key demanded he release a series of email exchanges with Fairfax Media reporter Andrea Vance, who revealed the spy report's findings. Dunne refused.
Yesterday, the UnitedFuture leader and Ohariu MP admitted he had canvassed the possibility of leaking the report but never took the final step.
An official report into the leak did not directly point the finger at Dunne, but pointedly said he had refused to cooperate fully, stifling the investigation.
His move to the back benches means a pay cut of more than $60,000 a year as well as the loss of other perks such as prime office space and access to a Crown limousine.
But Dunne said he would continue to support National on confidence and supply, meaning the Government's majority is not under threat.
"I have acted extraordinarily unwisely, even stupidly, and I'm now resigned to paying the price for that," Dunne said.
"There is no credible explanation that I can offer you as to why I acted in that way, but the fact is I did, and as a consequence I face up to my responsibility that I can no longer credibly serve as a minister."
Key said he was saddened by the turn of events. He had no choice but to accept the resignation despite Dunne's repeated categorical denials that he leaked the report.
"I want to believe him," Key twice said at a press conference in Parliament yesterday.
However, Dunne had refused an order to comply fully with an inquiry into the leak, so he could not be ruled out as the source.
"He needed to comply or he needed to resign. He chose the course of resignation and he was unable to offer to me an explanation of why he would refuse to release those emails."
Even if Dunne was not the source, Key said he was "very, very unhappy" with some of the correspondence Dunne had with Vance, including that he was being briefed on the contents of the spying report.
On April 9, Fairfax Media revealed the GCSB may have spied illegally on more than 80 New Zealanders.
The revelations were contained in a report by Cabinet Secretary Rebecca Kitteridge, which was due to be released the following week when Key returned from a major trade mission to China.
A week later Key announced an investigation into the leak, both because the information was sensitive and it was "annoying" for the Government.
Retired public servant David Henry, who conducted the investigation, said in his report that three people who had access to the Kitteridge report also had contact with the reporter.
Two of those were public servants whose contact was "entirely commensurate" with their duties.
The third was Dunne, who was due to meet Vance the day before the story broke.
He claimed the meeting never took place and released only an edited account of some of the 86 emails the two shared in the leadup to the story.
"Without Mr Dunne's permission I cannot take the matter any further," Henry said.
Dunne said he was "extremely concerned and upset" by the report, and releasing the emails would not be proper as those who contacted him should be able to assume they did so in confidence.
"While I did not leak the report, and challenge Fairfax to confirm that, some of my actions after I received an advance copy of the report were extremely unwise and lacked the judgment reasonably expected of a minister in such circumstances."
Fairfax Media executive editor Paul Thompson said the company had no comment on the Henry report, and would never comment on confidential sources.
"This story was an excellent scoop by our reporter and was handled with the utmost professionalism by the Fairfax team."
An MP since 1984, Dunne is now in his 10th term representing what is now Ohariu, making him New Zealand's longest continuously serving MP, initially with Labour before defecting to create what is now UnitedFuture. He has been a minister under two Labour and two National governments.
He said he had not considered his future, after enduring the "nastiest few days I've known in politics".
This included attacks after UnitedFuture was deregistered as a political party last month following uncertainties over its membership.
STRIFE OUT OF CHARACTER FOR CHAMPION OF 'COMMON SENSE'
UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne carved out a long political career by driving carefully down the middle of the road until his crash yesterday.
Former Labour prime minister David Lange famously described him as "a man whose life is so boring that if it flashed past he wouldn't be in it".
Other than his colourful bow ties, and an oft-mocked tsunami-like wave of grey hair, Dunne has been the epitome of conservatism.
It was out of character that he should find himself in strife. A centrist, he has propped up both Left-leaning and Right-leaning governments and he has held several ministerial positions.
His trademark has been appealing to common sense and he's noted for putting in hours of hard work in his electorate.
He has led the Government charge in the battle against party pills, but in the past he has been been criticised for ties with alcohol and smoking lobbyists.
A political chameleon, Dunne was a Labour MP for a decade until 1994. He resigned from the party in October 1994 to become a founding member of United New Zealand a few months later. A few party name changes later, he was at the helm of UnitedFuture.
His starring moment came in the 2002 election campaign, when he wooed the viewers' "worm" in a televised debate - sending it soaring every time he spoke moderation and common sense - and his party surged in support, winning 6.69 per cent of the party vote and eight seats.
But its support has dwindled and he is currently a one-man band for his party in Parliament.
Born in Christchurch in 1954, Dunne studied political science at Canterbury University, then business administration at Massey University.
He married Jennifer Mackrell, a teacher, in 1976. They have two sons.
He entered Parliament for the Labour Party in 1984 as MP for Ohariu, held the seat in 1987 and in 1993 won Onslow, then resigned from Labour to become an independent.
In 1995, he was among MPs from Labour and National who formed the United New Zealand Party.
He was the only United MP to survive the 1996 election, winning the newly formed seat of Ohariu-Belmont, and taking over as party leader.
That term he was part of an assortment of minor parties and independents who kept the National government in office after its coalition with NZ First collapsed, and in 1999 National chose not to run against him. Then he switched sides again, supporting a new Labour-led government in 2005, accepting the ministerial portfolio of revenue while remaining outside Cabinet.
UnitedFuture retained only two list MPs after that election, down from the highs of 2002 when it had eight seats.
Since 2007, Dunne has rebranded UnitedFuture as a modern Centre party and supported the current government in passing the legislation allowing the partial sale of state assets.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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