Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Redemption or death for Colin Craig’s Conservatives

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Former Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Redemption is a powerful biblical and electoral concept. So can Colin Craig and his Conservative Party be welcomed back into the fold? At the moment it’s not looking likely, but Colin Craig works in mysterious ways.

Political party meltdowns don’t get much worse than this. A morally conservative party has faced its worse nightmare – its leader has been outed as engaging in “inappropriate” personal behaviour, and has resigned but is fighting to retain control of the party. The departure of nearly the entire party board, together with the continued outspokenness of Craig’s internal-party nemesis, surely spells political death. Yet, resurrection and redemption is still possible.

Can Colin Craig be resurrected?

Although Colin Craig appears to be utterly defeated – ousted from the leadership of his own party – there are plenty of signs that he might yet prevail. You can watch his latest extraordinary media appearance on TV3’s Paul Henry Show – see: Colin Craig refuses to back down

The Conservative Party board has essentially dissolved itself, and a “provisional board” or a general meeting of members is likely to occur. For details of the party board resignations, see Isaac Davison’s Poetic justice scuppers leadership. As Davison says, the exodus raises the “possibility of Colin Craig regaining control”, and “Mr Craig said yesterday the Conservative Party board was likely to dissolve and a membership vote would be held to choose the next leader”. Craig is also quoted saying that “The party still has a future” and “This is a really good watershed and I think good things will come out of it.”

According to Patrick Gower, “Craig might have engineered a reverse takeover” – see: Conservative Party in meltdown. But regaining the party could be a Pyrrhic victory: “Craig could be back on his throne. The problem is his kingdom has been discredited and destroyed”

Today Gower has elaborated on this in his 3-minute interview on the Paul Henry Show, saying “There is a Conservative Party in name only. Colin Craig started it. It’s a three-and-a-half million dollar baby. He’ll get control of it. But it has zero credibility with voters… Colin Craig has become a sad joke in this country” – see: Conservative Party implosion worst in our history

In response to Craig’s interview today, Gower also says that “Colin Craig has a god complex when it comes to the Conservative Party”, and labels the interview “Another bizarre moment in what will probably be another bizarre day in another bizarre week in the bizarro world of Colin Craig”.

A resurrected Craig-led Conservatives would face other problems, according to Tracy Watkins – see: Colin Craig fights for survival as the Conservative Party implodes

First, there is the moral issue: “For a morals-based party founded on a family values platform there does not appear to be any way back from the explosive impact of its leader being the subject of sexual harassment allegations, which he has denied”. Second, his return “will likely sound the death knell to any prospect of Key opening the door to a deal in 2017”.

A bigger problem might simply be the disunity, which is voter poison in this country – especially for minor parties. This is well put by John Armstrong today: who says that voters apply a simple test: “if a party cannot run itself properly, then there cannot be much hope of it running the country properly.  Because minor parties have scant loyal voters, they get punished more heavily than National and Labour. To the long list of minor parties which have found themselves on the wrong end of voters’ venom – the Alliance, United Future, Act, Internet Mana – add the Conservative Party” – see: Few survivors on Conservative train wreck

Similarly, David Farrar stresses the disunity factor (as well as the moral issue): “Voters hate disunity, and even if they force Colin Craig out, they will find the way it is being done will scare voters off.  The best coup is quick and quiet. Not done through the media.  It is difficult to see how Craig can continue as leader, if the sexual harassment allegations are correct.  They would not be fatal for all politicians, but for a party leader than campaigns on family values, they are more difficult” – see: The Conservative schism

In another blog post, Farrar says the party appears to be over: “It would be highly surprising to see Craig resume the leadership of the Conservatives after this. Also be surprising to see them remain a viable force – however they do have at least one other wealthy donor who can keep them alive. However they need a leader who can front a national campaign, and there seems no one apparent” – see: Craig admits to inappropriate behaviour

Yet according to Armstrong, the Conservatives are unlikely to survive without Craig: “As founder, funder and leader, Craig has built a substantial public profile for himself while ensuring his party has not been marginalised as a bunch of Bible-bashing reactionaries.  Without Craig at the helm, the Conservative Party would suffer the same fate as the New Zealand Party in the 1980s” – see: Lame duck or dead duck, that is the Conservative question

And in his column today, Armstrong reiterates this point: “At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, Craig is the Conservative Party and the Conservative Party is Craig.  Without him, the party amounts to little more than a political sect. It is now a political train wreck”.

Conservative scandal

The fate of Colin Craig and the Conservatives may be decided by the promised release of documents detailing the “facts” of the dispute between the politician and his former media adviser Rachel MacGregor – see Stacey Kirk’s Colin Craig expects ‘face-palm moments’ ahead. This article quotes Craig saying that the document would be both damaging and redeeming: “I mean obviously, there’s going to be one or two face-palm moments in there. But… they’ll amount to far less than the speculation so that can only be good for me as I’m concerned.”  

For a hint of what might be in the document, see TVNZ’s Colin Craig sent press secretary ‘poems and sexts’, Conservative Party board member claims

There is now a great deal of media attention on Craig’s “inappropriate” actions, as well as the way that he has dealt with these in the media. On the Pundit blog, Jane Young says “Craig seems to be joining an endless line of self-described Christian conservatives who preach a subjective notion they call “family values”, but fail to practice what they preach” – see: Another little Conservative politician train wreck…

Young compares Craig’s situation with that of former Christian Heritage Party leader Graham Capill, and tries to explain such behaviour via reference to the theories of American psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz.

Body language experts are also being called upon to explain what Craig and his wife were really feeling when they appeared together this week – see Belinda Feek’s Colin Craig’s body language – what did it mean? 

So should we be interested in such scandals? Certainly the role of the Conservative Party is to be taken seriously in politics. After all the party won many more votes than the Maori, Act, Mana, or United Future parties. By gaining four per cent of the party vote (over 95,000 votes) the Conservatives made themselves a serious force in New Zealand politics and very nearly became an important player in Parliament, if not government.

Newstalk ZB’s Frances Cook also argues that leaders such as Craig should be put under scrutiny, and she bemoans Craig’s legal threats: “When evidence is mounting that something went wrong behind the scenes, and caused Craig to resign, journalists would be abandoning their duty if they didn’t investigate and report it.  The standard is higher for those who want to be in politics. MPs run the country, hold huge amounts of power, and that means they come in for stronger criticism. The issues are too important to go easy on them” – see: Scandal shows Craig’s litigious side

Then there are issues raised about sexual politics. Referring also to Len Brown and Roger Sutton, Newstalk ZB’s Tim Fookes asks “What is it with men in high profile positions getting themselves in trouble with young women?” – see: Colin Craig’s Predicament

And to see some of the reactions in social media, see my blog posts, Top tweets on Colin Craig’s resignation and Top tweets on Colin Craig’s fightback press conference.

The Problems of “One man band” parties 

The demise of another minor political party might mean that New Zealand voters have an even smaller range of ideological options to vote for at the next election. But perhaps a bigger problem is the persistence of minor parties dominated by their leaders, who often play roles founding and funding the parties. 

Danyl Mclauchlan has blogged about this, including Dotcom’s Internet Mana Party, which has also failed miserably – see: Colin Craig and the failure of founder-funded political parties. He says “The founders of both parties were also the primary funders and that meant they got to do pretty much whatever they wanted”.

A different way of looking at it is proposed by National Party aligned columnist Liam Hehir who argues that New Zealand has two types of minor parties: Authentic vs Ornamental. By this he means that some parties have genuine ideologies and are part of a movement, such as the Green Party, and others are essentially personality cults – see: Conservative confusion over leadership

In terms of the Conservatives, Hehir sees the party as an “ornamental” one: “the Conservatives have always looked more like an instrument of Colin Craig’s ambitions than a coherent political organisation… In the minds of the public, the party is less about the ideas and more about the man who leads it – which is always risky given that individuals can always be discredited by the mistakes they inevitably make”.

The Colourful Conservatives

If Colin Craig is to have any chance of redemption with his morally conservative target market, he will probably need to show much more contrition, as well as convince his supporters that his sin was not as bad as is being suggested by opponents. There is no doubt that he has the ability to garner the necessary media coverage. 

Craig has always had an impressive ability to win public attention – largely due to his utterly colourful approach. And for this reason it’s worth watching David Farrier’s 2-minute heated interview that sparked his recent problems – see: Sauna Session with Colin Craig

Finally, New Zealand politics would certainly be less colourful without Colin Craig and the Conservatives, and cartoonists have been showing this in 2013 – see: Images of Colin Craig and the Conservative Party, in 2014 – see: Images of Colin Craig’s Conservative Party, and now, in 2015 – see: Recent cartoons about Colin Craig and the Conservatives.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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