Why National could save itself by losing some support, how John Key is strategising for next year, where Colin Craig's Conservatives fit and what it means for the other minor parties...

On Firstline this morning John Key was talking up National's many coalition options at next year's election, as if he was a man who could walk into the election shop and help himself in the pick n' mix section. It's not going to be that easy, but it could be easier than some people think as the vote on the right fragments.

Yesterday Key spoke openly to Paddy Gower – at least as open as he's been thus far – about the possibility of endorsing Colin Craig in a north Auckland seat and this morning has reaffirmed that, making it apparent that this is a strategic announcement by National. Finally, the signal the Conservatives have craved and which has seemed so inevitable, has finally come – a year out from the election.

Gower pronounced that the Conservatives are now serious players, something I've been saying all this term. It won't please either New Zealand First and United Future, who see the Conservatives as a new competitor in a small slice of the electoral marketplace. Winston Peters has always refused to appear on television with Craig, Dunne called Craig's party "crackpots" at his party conference this weekend – if you want to know who a party fears, look at who they insult or try to ignore.

But National doesn't have the luxury of being that kind to its existing friends; it always seemed likely Key and co would need another option if Labour was able to eat into its 12+ point lead. What Key's willingness to engage on questions about the Conservatives shows is National conceding that the Labour-Greens lift this year to a polling position that has the pair of them neck-and-neck with National has stabilised. Heading into election year, it's the new normal. National's hope that it might be able to govern alone (or all-but alone) now seem forlorn.

And that means National will be forced to use its mana to enhance another potential partner.

What's notable is that Key seems to be leaving the door open to all four potential coalition partners – the Conservatives, ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. It's a policy of not putting your eggs in any one basket. It might seem obvious to keep your options open, but it doesn't come without risk. A glance at that grouping of parties shows a rather messy group of conflicting ideals and personalities. It recalls Labour in its quest for a fourth term, when National mocked its desperation to bring coalition partners on board and warned voters of a "five headed hydra" government.

So why is Key opening the door to his own hydra-government? Because he has little other choice.

One thing the polls have consistently told us this term is that National risks being a victim of its own success (and its partners' failings). As ACT has been sucked into an electoral black hole of its own making it has become very hard to see the party delivering more than one seat, and that only with a pretty clear backing from Key himself (and that he cannot give without some damage to his own brand). Even Epsom voters will be loathe to vote for John Banks, with the smell of corruption still so strong, but history has shown that they are loyal and strategic National supporters and will likely hold their nose in the event of a close race.

Peter Dunne's margins in Ohariu shrunk from 2002 to 2008, before rallying slightly in 2011. But his majority of 1392 is small and still utterly dependent on split votes by National voters. He's most certainly a one-seat party at best.

The Maori Party are under intense pressure - so much so that they're in talks with Mana and Labour likes its chances in the Maori seats. They are most likely a two seat party next year.

So the three current partners are unlikely to deliever more seats than they did in 2001; probably they'll deliver fewer. No government seeking a third term would expect to grow its share of the vote. All of which tells you that National will need something extra.

Winston Peters and New Zealand First? Key has pointedly not ruled him out as a coalition partner, which given the personal antipathy has an air of desperation about it that's unusual for the PM. There are well-rehearsed every good arguments on both sides of the argument as to whether National and NZ First could come together. Peters spoke with a passion against National in 1996 before doing a deal... Would be play third fiddle to the Greens?... Would he join a third-term, dying administration or help launch a new one?... What does he make of Cunliffe?

The reality is that any decision by Key will be poll-driven. But Peters is often painted as the passive figure in this scene awaiting Key's judgment. Duncan Garner reckons Key will make a call on Peters early next year, but I wonder whether Peters might beat him to the punch and make his own call on National prior.

Which brings us to the Conservatives. TV3-Reid has them at 2.8 percent, which is higher than most polls. We'll only see whether that's a trend in polls to come, but I don't think it's disputable that Craig has built himself a strong launching pad. Win a seat and on that poll he'd have three or four MPs on board - the second largest party in government. I'd guess by late next year he could add another one or two.

Gower characterised a National-Conservatives coalition as a potential shift to the right. But it's not as simple as that. The Conservatives pull both ways - socially conservative on smacking, marriage, tougher prison sentences and climate change, for example, but also conservative (as opposed to liberal) economically.

As we have seen with ACT and United Future, coalition partners can't expect that much out of this National government - the odd charter school, perhaps, but not much more. So if the Conservatives can only expect a couple of policy gains, it's as likely they might pull National to the centre as further right.

On housing, the Conservatives would ban foreign buyers and force land-bankers to use their land or else. If National hasn't sold Genesis before the election, that or any other partial asset sales would be off the table. And so on.

So yes, Key certainly has choices. But they are small choices, he may need many and, worst of all, they may be contradictory. The big glaring problem with the Conservatives is that it could kill any other minor party it touches.

Could Colin Craig and Peter Dunne sit around the same table, for example? Could Craig and his anti-Waitangi ideals sit down with the Maori Party? United Future or the Maori Party wouldn't survive that deal.

The best case scenario for Key would be a continuation of the status quo. If that's not possible - and it seems unlikely to get him across the line - then what Key must be realising by now is that the next best option could be the Conservatives on their own, hence this week's signal.

However you put the jigsaw together the Conservatives always seemed like a player to me. But now that Key has acknowledged the new party and admitted it is part of his equations, that means one thing for certain: It will only get stronger. And that could mean some desperate plays by the other minors.

Comments (18)

by Steve on November 12, 2013

The Conservatives are a good option for Key, as they are taking votes off National,    NZ First and Labour's ignored socially conservative supporters.

If Colin Craig had won an electorate seat at the last election, the Conservatives would have three MPs now and National, Labour and the Greens would each have one less.


by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2013
Tim Watkin

Steve, they may be a good option in many ways, as I wrote. But they wouldn't be an easy option. There's a 'nothing to lose' air to them, a zealotry and an old-fashioned economic nationalism that Key and Joyce in particular amongst the inner circle will find very hard to stomach. It would be a spikey relationship, I'd imagine.

by Steve on November 12, 2013

I think the relationship between Cunliff and Hone would be more strained. At least Key and Craig are rational.

by william blake on November 13, 2013
william blake

"Key and Craig are rational."

Steve try syringing your ears, it's National.

by Andrew Geddis on November 13, 2013
Andrew Geddis

Look, everyone with a particular political leaning is going to see those of the opposite persuasion as being "irrational", or even "crazy". So, opponents of Key's current government will point to things like Craig's "scepticism" of human-created climate change or his belief that only a small handful of Treaty settlements have any merit to them and ask "how could any 'rational' person think this?".

Just as those who like Key's current government and don't want to see Labour replace it will point to things like Harawira's "white mo-fo" comments and arrest for his part in the Glenn Innes housing protest and ask "are these behaviours of a 'rational' person?"

So I don't know how useful claims/counterclaims of "rationality" really are.

by Tim Watkin on November 13, 2013
Tim Watkin

Steve, I think you're right, that Cunliffe and Harawira could have some tensions. But Harawira and the people around him have learnt something of political realities over the years. Craig is fresh and I suspect less patient. Also, is "rational" really the best word for the leader of a climate change denying, end-Treaty-settlements, binding referenda party? Depends on your politics.

by Gregor W on November 13, 2013
Gregor W

I wouldn't be entirely suprised to see Banks running alongside Craig under a Conservative ticket as part of his political rehabilitation.


by Che Nua on November 13, 2013
Che Nua

Won't b that hard 4Winston 2find some gentile dirt on the other as yet unheard of Conservative Party election candidates; if so they may easily slide right off the political map

by Ross on November 13, 2013

In my understated opinion, the Conservative Party is to politics what the Boston Strangler was to door to door salesmen.

by Ross on November 13, 2013

I don't know how useful claims/counterclaims of "rationality" really are.

Except I can't recall the last time an MP got so uptight at some humour that they threatened to sue.


by Tim Watkin on November 13, 2013
Tim Watkin

Gregor, why would the Conservatives - positioning themselves as squeaky clean and fresh - take on the battered brand Banks? Not a starter.

Che, you're right that it's hard for smaller, new parties to find quality candidates without baggage. Just ask Peter Dunne... Or Winston Peters... Or Jim Anderton... Actually it's hard enough for the bigger parties as well. so yeah that's a real risk for Craig.

by Gregor W on November 13, 2013
Gregor W

Because people forget quickly, and it would be a great redemption / Cinderella story.

Banks, not even slightly libertarian, repents (being a good Christian) and returns to the conservative fold, buries Act once and for all and uses the platform to atone for his rorting ways, pulling a Len in the process.

People love a comeback (look at Winston), Craig looks the epitomy of Christian forgiveness, Banks returns to his natural constituency.

Tea and biscuits all round.



by Gregor W on November 13, 2013
Gregor W

Boscowen would be happy to. Gets to start afresh with a new brand once Banks exits, without suffering the further humiliation of stumping for someone he clearly detests.

by stuart munro on November 13, 2013
stuart munro

There is a substantial group of moderate conservative Christians out there I am sure. Whether they are going to line up behind someone like Colin Craig is something else altogether. It's a little like a conscience vote in parliament - only people who know each MP really well can tell which way they'll jump.

There is at least a fair possibility that playing the confessionalist card will work like fratricide on those Christians already amenable to supporting the Gnats. Colin Craig is no Billy Graham, to much of NZ he might look a bit like Brian Tamaki. Religious antipathies find distinctions that make quibbling lawyers look downright friendly.

by Tim Watkin on November 13, 2013
Tim Watkin

Stuart the Christian element is complex. It's, literally, a very broad church. As many would find Craig appalling as appealing. Even for those who are looking for a more openly style of Christian leadership, does Craig fit the bill given his constant protestations that his is not a Christian party and he doesn't even go to church. And even then, is the 'Christian vote' reliable? You can argue that Christian parties have never made much impact in New Zealand and we're not very keen to have faith mixed with politics.

Yet Paddy Gower has pulled together some interesting numbers:

1996: 4.33 percent (Christian Coalition, 4.33 percent)

I view this 4.33 percent as the bedrock of a united Christian-Conservative vote under MMP. It is important to note, it was taken alongside NZ First getting 13.35 percent.

1999: 3.5 percent (Christian Heritage 2.4 percent, Future NZ 1.1 percent)

2002: 8.1 percent (Christian Heritage 1.4 percent, United Future NZ 6.7 percent)

This was when Future NZ bundled in with Peter Dunne - it shows what can be obtained when the Christian vote is "mainstreamed".

2005: 3.27 percent (United Future 2.67 percent, Destiny 0.6 percent)

2008: 1.26 percent (Family Party 0.35 percent, NZ Pacific Party 0.37 percent, Kiwi Party 0.54 percent)

2011: 2.7 percent (Conservative Party)

Read more: http://www.3news.co.nz/OPINION-Beware-Colin-Craig---Conservatives-on-rise/tabid/1382/articleID/321016/Default.aspx#ixzz2kW5BlI00

Which makes a case that there's certainly a few percent up for grabs; add in some older folk, some farmers and you're starting to have a viable party.

by stuart munro on November 14, 2013
stuart munro

Statistically there's no denying it the possibility exists. Nevertheless I rather fancy a real Christian influence on the man who has been turning God's own country into a den of asset thieves. Right up there with seeing him begging on Winston's mat.

by Brendon Mills on November 14, 2013
Brendon Mills

We should all be concerned by the acsent of the Conservatives. To paraphrase that chap up in Britain:

I warn you not to homosexual

I warn you not to be in a 'non conventional' family arrangement -- incliding being a single parent

I warn you not to be a person who enjoys sex outside of marriage

I warn you not have kids in a public school

I warn you not to be a high school bio teacher who teaches evolution

I warn you not to be a scientist

I warn you....

by Andrew Osborn on November 18, 2013
Andrew Osborn

I know little of Craig and his policies, but I watched a recorded TV interview of him last night. What I saw was an extremely competent speaker: a person who knows how to look good in front of a camera. I would rate him ahead most of the current parliamentary pack in this regard and a light year ahead Cunliffe, Peters, Banks, Dunne Gogh and a few others who need putting out to grass.

So I think we'll see more of this particular political weasel.

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