Colin Craig has been hogging headlines this past week. Many have laughed him off - most notably the PM literally rolled his eyes - but that would be perilous in the extreme. Here's why

Colin Craig is a bundle of contradictions and surprises, but if you don't get that he's now a voice in New Zealand politics, you're not paying attention. And he will keep surprising us for a while yet, I think, as he kicks against the right-wing 'moral majority' box in which he's so quickly been placed.

Colin Craig's Conservative Party got 2.65 percent at last year's election from a standing start -- heck, if you were being honest you'd say it was from a horizontal start. Now he's benefiting publicity-wise from the Kim Dotcom-John Banks fallout and his consequent claims about this country's high number of young promiscuous women.

So let's tick off the easy stuff first. No, he won't be MP for Epsom, because there won't be a by-election. Yes, he will be an MP in 2014 because there's a distinct audience for his message and he's ultimately likeable. I reckon he could well make five percent, but if the MMP review drops the threshold you can lock him in.

The only risk is the Christian element of his message. Religious parties don't do well in New Zealand, and at the moment that's the perception around the Conservatives. But Craig is blatantly and wisely playing down that side of himself -- on Q+A he went so far as to say he's not a church-goer - so as to not scare the horses.

Why wisely? Because it's a curious truth that NZers have a strong puritanical streak and like telling others what's what, but hate being told themselves. We don't like wowsers and thou-shalts.

Thing is, as he gets better known voters will see more of the other side of him -- the sincere, goofy, dare I say John Key-esque side of him. Because that exists. Key and Craig have some distinct similarities - centre-right self-made millionaires with a goofy intensity about them. The difference - or at least one that stands out - is that Key is a dealer while Craig is a moralist. That's over-simplistic, of course, but consider this: Supporters say Key is flexible and open-minded, critics say he lacks principles. Craig, in reverse, has principles, and I suspect relies on them more than a cost-benefit analysis.

Craig himself says National and the Conservatives have the same principles on just about everything, yet disagree on quite a but in practice. The implication being that while Craig holds to his principles, National trades theirs. (It could also mean, of course, that National is a much wider church targeting a much broader following).

Those very principles will get him into trouble with the majority of the electorate. I doubt he could spot a zeitgeist at 20 paces, so he's not exactly on the pulse.

From a modern, liberal point of view he looks hypocritical. His own party's founding principles espouse:

A belief in the equality of all New Zealanders and that all citizens, regardless of race, have equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of New Zealand

Yet as soon as he opens his mouth, he starts making exceptions. That equality doesn't extend to women wanting to take control of their own reproduction... or to gays... or perhaps to those young promiscuous women. This is a tightly prescribed personal responsibility, which doesn't just want you to make your own choices, it wants you to make the choices the Conservatives want you to make.

That won't wash with many (including the refugees from ACT looking for a new home). But as Winston Peters knows, under MMP angering the majority is a great way to win the support of at least five percent. And that's all you need.

My impression is that Craig gets MMP. He told me there's nothing certain about the Conservatives being anyone's coalition partner; he says he has something in common with just about every party and when I mentioned the Greens' model of independence and memorandums of understanding, he nodded energetically.

It's been easy this past week to dismiss Craig, and roll your eyes as Key did. But he's right that he has cross-over with every party, and therefore the potential to pull voters from every party. People talk vaguely about the ACT vote and certainly he'll pull from the soft National vote. He could be a real threat to New Zealand First and their elderly base. But he tells me most of his members in Northland are Maori, and imagine how his message will go down in the P.I. churches, so he may well chip votes from the left as well.

Don't get me wrong; he's clunky on race. Look at this from an election flyer:

By way of background, I am not Maori (yep, it’s true, and you probably guessed it from my white looking face), but I have had the benefit of a lot of positive multicultural interaction and I like Maori people.

He might as well have just said 'some of my best friends are Maori'. But the policy thrust will make some in-roads until his message improves.

Take this example: One Conservative policy is no pay without work. He wants to cut the welfare state and like Paula Bennett thinks parents are better working. How does that hold with the family values message? He reckons kids do better when the household is richer, so after the first year you really should be working, regardless.

Paying parents to stay home? Nah. Because that takes money out of someone else's pocket.

So economics trumps morality on that one. But where are the jobs then?

The government will have to create them, he says. Start by planting forests. It's the sugarbag years all over again.

But the thing to note is that there's no trite devotion to the markets. Here's a small government man promising bigger government when it comes to job creation. Listen to him talk about job creation in the north and you could be listening to Hone Harawira.

Or rather, Rob Muldoon.

I know, you couldn't think of a wilder comparison. That grinning nobody from Rodney like the grumpy, fierce King of New Zealand? At face value, they're miles apart.

But what is the Conservative Party if not the National Party circa 1975? Conservative yet interventionist, with a 'we know best' streak a mile wide. A friend of the farmer and enemy of the rule breaker, a bit populist, and a lot old school. This is the 'old right' -- the sort of thing National used to be pre-Ruth Richardson.

And as all things go in cycles, I suspect there's an appetite for a bit of that these days. My bet is that the Conservatives will be up in the next polls.

Comments (5)

by stuart munro on May 13, 2012
stuart munro

Agreed. But religion actually is viewed positively in NZ - just folk go to church for that, not to the ballot box. Let Colin Craig show he plays it straight and he might have a much better following than 5%.

by Chris Trotter on May 15, 2012
Chris Trotter

A very dubious comparison, Tim. Rob Muldoon was actually on the liberal wing of the National Party. In 1961, for example, he voted against the restoration of the death penalty. Temperamentally speaking, it is difficult to imagine someone more unlike Colin Craig than Rob Muldoon. The former radiates an almost innocent political charm; the latter was one of the most intimidating - not say frightening - politicians this country has ever elected. Where we do agree, however, is that there is definitely political room for the sort of "strong state" conservatism Mr Craig is promoting. You could almost argue that it's New Zealand's default ideological setting - adaptable to users from both the Left and the Right.

by Tim Watkin on May 15, 2012
Tim Watkin

It was a comparison Chris, suggesting similarities not duplication. I figured the headline would make that clear. Anyway, of course he's no facsimile. Craig doesn't do reincarnation!

I think your later sentences indicate you did get the point I was making, though – that while the personalities are miles apart, Craig is a proponent of the sort of conservative politics we haven't seen since the Muldoon era and that have long held appeal for many New Zealanders. This is a man who'd embrace a good 'think big' project at the drop of a hat.

That suggests to me he could nip votes from several parties. You agree that 'strong state' conservatism won't just take from National?

by Chris Trotter on May 16, 2012
Chris Trotter

Oh, no, Tim - you're quite right. Mr Craig will reruit followers from all over. Strong State Conservatism offers both the Left and the Right a chance to tap into Kiwis' longstanding love-affair with authoritarian political interventions. It was Labour's Norman Kirk, after all, who pledged to "Take the bikes off the Bikeys" in 1972, and Rob Muldoon who suggested that young Maori offenders be sent back to their marae. The classic Strong State issue is, of course, Law & Order - a reliable supplier of raw meat to both major parties since the 1980s.

by Andrew Geddis on May 18, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"The classic Strong State issue is, of course, Law & Order - a reliable supplier of raw meat to both major parties since the 1980s."

Yes ... the siren call of "Salus populi suprema lex" is pretty hard to resist. Isn't it?

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