Interview: Peter Dunne - United Future Leader

Interview: Peter Dunne - United Future Leader

You were the President of the University of Canterbury Studentsí Association, so obviously you would care a bit about student politics. What do you see as the biggest issues for students at the moment? Why should students vote for you; what would you do about those issues?

Well, if I go back to my experience, I was president of Canterbury the year that the students took over running the student union and broke away from the University and set up the basis that theyíre autonomous and independent, etc. So I guess the first thing Iíd say is trust people; this is the next generation of leaders coming through. I think that for students one of the issues that Iím quite concerned about, and Iíve been talking to NZUSA about it, is itís not just about student representation; itís about good governance of institutions and the contributions students make and how you get students interested and aware of and involved in governance. Because I think thatís important to the institution, but itís also important for what they might do subsequently. So yeah, I have a particularly strong interest in that area.

I agree with that. Our voter turnout for OUSA last year was exceptionally high, historically, and it was only 25 per cent.

Yeah, well at one level itís about who the student exec is and all of that sort of thing, but at another level itís about whatís going on in departments, how students are being represented, how do those views then fit into the whole in terms of whatís coming up to the University council or whatever, and are those views more than just those idiosyncratic views of the particular individual? At the moment itís almost quite easy to say, ďThatís not the student view, thatís just his or her view,Ē and I think thereís a much greater role for students in governance.

Yeah, and thinking about it more generationally as well. Alright, so whatís your take on the student loan scheme and allowances and the like?

Well, look: at the moment we have a student loan scheme that I think works as well as it can within the circumstances, but I think fundamentally itís time to look at what you want. And although the numbers donít entirely add up, my argument would be to say letís have no fees, or no fees borne by the students Ė the fees would still be imposed [but] effectively the cost is borne by having no student allowances, so you trade one off for the other. You allow students obviously to work part time and borrow for their living costs within the same parameters at the moment, but what that means is the cost of the loan comes down dramatically, and it doesnít matter if youíre doing your first degree or a postgrad degree; the costs are broadly the same. It also puts pressure, because youíve identified a fixed sum, a fees bucket, it puts pressure on the institutions in terms of what they want to impose. Because there will be people who stand outside the system. So the argument at the moment Ė someone in my office said to me the other day that when they began in their studies over the last seven or eight years, the fees per course was about $600. Now, itís about $3,000. And so whereís the pressure on the institutions to keep their costs down? And I think that one of the trade-offs here is to say, if youíve got a fixed bucket, okay Otago University or Canterbury or whatever, you justify your fees within that bucket.

Itís really interesting, when I first raised this, Vice Chancellors thought this was a great idea until they thought about what it meant to them. They said it was unfair, but they donít mean to students Ė they mean to them.

Okay. So for you, your year has been an interesting one to follow. One thing that is relevant to the live-and-let-live attitude of students has been the legal highs. Now, we covered it quite extensively in Critic back in 2012, and I just wonder whatís going on? Itís been quite hard to follow, and it seems that itís been portrayed as changing hugely but I donít know that it necessarily has?

No, it hasnít, and thatís the point Iím trying to make. That if you wind the clock back to this time last year, if we knew then what we know now I wouldnít have had the interim regime. I wouldíve said all products were off the shelf until they were proven to be safe. But I figured that since for some there was no visible perception of risk with, and I still think thatís the case, and therefore pragmatically youíd still let them stick around. The transitionís taken far longer than we anticipated because the testing regime takes time, and then when we had all this uproar early in the year led mostly by some local councils and others who had vested interests, I just felt that we were in danger of a situation occurring whereby the Government would say, ďstuff it, weíll just ban the whole lot.Ē Which is impractical, it doesnít work, and it wouldíve been disastrous because it wouldíve driven the whole trade up. So that was why I thought, okay, thereís a pragmatic way through here, letís just pull the ones that are on the shelves at the moment, say weíre just going to put them all into the testing regime, and so thatís what weíve done. People say, ďOh, youíve done a u-turn, youíve introduced a ban, youíve done all the things you said youíd never do,Ē but no, all we did was say that those interim products have had their approvals withdrawn.

Well, youíll find this question to be another tired old tune Ė youíre a liberal centrist party. I feel like the tide is turning in the wider populationís opinion on marijuana. How do you match up this public opinion with the supposed evidence you have for its hazards?

Well, we need to be evidence based, and Iím aware of some polling thatís going to come out shortly that shows the public tide has turned far less than people think. But for me itís the evidence, and if the evidence was there Ö The argument that youíve let alcohol out of the stable and youíve let tobacco out, well youíre going back hundreds of years there and I donít think those arguments still apply. But if you say, well, if youíre talking purely about safety and risk, if the evidence was there that there is no risk or thereís very little risk or thereís no threat to safety, then for me it doesnít matter whether itís marijuana or something more serious Ė that should be the governing point. But my role, as Associate Minister of Health, is to protect the public interest in terms of protecting the publicís safety. Exactly as it is with psychoactives and the slightly different situation with tobacco and alcohol.

All right, so, back to the centrist thing. In the unlikely scenario that theyíre in a position to form a government, would you look at going into government with Labour and the Greens?

Well Iíll tell you what my answer is to that. Iíve never ever, with any government, seen this in terms of ďthis group or that group.Ē Itís about policies. And itís about policy compatibility. Now, thatís on two sides. On the one hand they may agree to do some things that we want to do; on the other side is would the price be one thatís too high to pay? Now, I made a pretty strong stand throughout my career of opposing high taxes, opposing things like capital gains taxes, and so they are central to Labourís campaign, and so the idea of saying ďoh yeah, Iíll actually vote with you and for those things that Iíve strongly opposed,Ē is pretty difficult. Thatís what it comes down to, and thereíd be other examples.

Cool. Well, thatís all the questions Iíve got for this short amount of time, but to do the student media thing and throw you a curve-ballÖ Iíve gone a bit left-field on this one. Back in 2012 when we were following the legal highs, we took particular pride in Photoshopping you (pulls out defamatory poster Ė see page five. ďAh!Ē) and I was wondering if youíd sign this?

Sure! I havenít smoked a tobacco cigarette since 1971, and it would be a little less time but probably since the 70s that Iíve smoked any form of cigarette, so Ö Do I just sign it up here?

Yeah, thanks!

I like that! This is really good! (Laughs)

Thank you very much, Peter.
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2014.
Posted 1:08pm Sunday 6th July 2014 by Zane Pocock.