|Is the Key administration serious about contingency negotiations with the Conservative Party? Why? And could it backfire badly on them?
From a short-sighted tactical perspective, this might seem to make rough sense. It seems to be an electoral staple that incumbent governments tend to experience ebbing support near the close of their second term of office, due to erroneous and foolhardy policies. Moreover, both its preferred coalition partners, ACT and United Future, are in marginal seats. In all, it would only take four thousand votes to shift preference, and John Banks (or his successor?) and Peter Dunne would be out of Parliament. Given Banks' impending court case and the fragility of United Future as a political party, this may happen sooner rather than later. As for the Maori Party, Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples are stepping down at the next election. It remains to be seen whether their designated successors inherit Te Tai Hauauru and Tamaki Makarau or whether their personal mana proves to be non-transferable. Whether or not there will be terminal attrition in those two seats is a moot point, which will leave Te Ururoa Flavell in Wairaki. And might he drive a harder bargain?
Moreover, New Zealand First's political survival is far from certain. Did it only return to Parliament in 2011 due to the Labour Opposition's weakness, which is far from the case now? Whether New Zealand First will even return to Parliament in 2014 if that is the case? Will it side with National, even if that is the case?
Clearly, the Key administration fears a post-election situation where it either loses office and is isolated on the centre-right, has to form a coalition with ambivalent and opportunist New Zealand First if it survives the election, and has insufficient numbers to form a viable coalition, perhaps only with Te Ururoa Flavell and the Maori Party.
But is wooing the Conservatives a risky proposition? The party is too much of an unknown quantity. Colin Craig has never held public office, although admittedly some party candidates have in the past. More seriously, the National Party bases its future government expenditure on asset sales and the Conservatives oppose asset sales. Expensive and excessive binding referenda are unaffordable in an environment of tight government expenditure. Such populist gimmicks are usually only endorsed by those with contempt for the normal procedures of representative democracy and the electoral process.
Why is it that some political commentators have such short memories, for that matter? In 1996, the Christian Coalition's extremism led to centre-right voter share meltdown and forced National into a post-election deal with New Zealand First, which only lasted until 1998, whereupon Winston Peters flounced out of the coalition, leaving National dependent on a series of ex-NZF caucus members and improvised microparties until the axe finally fell and the Clark administration and a Labour/Alliance coalition replaced it. In 2002, United Future had to rely on stealth to parachute its pack of fundamentalist carpetbaggers into Parliament, which led to retribution for their shenanigans in 2005, where they were decimated. As if that wasn't enough, erstwhile United Future List MP Gordon Copeland walked out of United Future in 2007 after Peter Dunne dared to vote for the abolition of parental corporal punishment. It would therefore seem as if conservative Christian political parties are liable to place sectarian religious beliefs above the common good.
I had a look at the October 2013 Conservative newsletter, noting some worrying statements by contributors to the Conservative Party conference in Christchurch, back in September. Garth McVicar argued that the abolition of national service in 1965 (!) and the emergence of the Bill of Rights in 1990 (!!) were an "obstacle" to "victim's rights." Effectively prejudging whatever anticrime measures that Labour or the Greens might introduce, such as increased DNA profiling, tightened bail eligibility or an offenders levy, the Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson centred on "three strikes" and "life means life." To be frank, it's high time that the Trust retired Mr McVicar and selected someone younger and nonpartisan in terms of their social and political attitudes.
When I saw Bob McCoskrie's section, I gritted my teeth- only to find no moaning about marriage equality, but arguments that "marriage does matter" (except ours, apparently) and that "welfare harms kids", given the rise of crime, substance abuse, ill health, family violence, mental illness, educational failure and (gasp!) "illegitimacy and unmarried births" (!!!) How exactly McCoskrie squares this with Family First's declared aim to interfere with competent adolescents and minors abortion access is unclear- obviously, he can't have both. Predictably, there was a lot of shallow rhetoric about "protecting life," "protecting family', 'speaking "truth" and not developing "moral laryngitis."
There was also tiresome John Robinson, a Treaty-basher. Exactly what happens if the Conservative Party has to go into coalition with the Maori Party after any election success will be interesting to watch. One wonders if the Maori Party is aware of this individual. He seems to associate with a network of Treaty-bashers that include Dr Muriel Newman (Centre for Political Research, former ACT List MP), Peter Cresswell (Libertarianz), David Round (contrarian University of Canterbury legal academic) and Robinson himself. Significantly, none of Robinson's anti-Treaty books are published by mainstream reputable New Zealand academic publishers, but a small Christchurch imprint, "Tross Publishing." Robinson himself lacks qualifications in New Zealand history.
But what do the pundits think about all this? On Sunday 27 October, Colin Craig appeared on TVNZ's Q+A current affairs programme. He seemed in an expansive mood, asserting that the Conservative Party was growing. He denied that the Conservatives were a "Christian party," which is subterfuge. Many of his recent Auckland local body candidates indeed do disclose religious affiliations if one analyses their social network links, and many of them are conservative evangelical Christians. Craig did acknowledge that the Conservatives were a "social conservative" and fiscal conservative party, however. He also noted that the party appealed to small businesses and older voters.
On average, the Conservatives only poll about one to two percent in most opinion polls, but not according to "their own" and National Party polls, particularly in Auckland. That is logical, as Auckland has become the locus of New Zealand Christian Right activity and they could rely on infrastructure there. He boasted that the Conservatives were a "functional, unified" party and stated that he sought to focus attention on "issues and policies." As for Q+A's panel, opinion was predictably polarised. Former National Party Michelle Boag talked up the Conservatives, but Phil Goff's former media manager, Josie Pagani, and Auckland University politics lecturer Raymond Miller provided useful balance. Pagani wanted greater scrutiny of the Conservatives and pointed to climate change denial, deregulation of herbal medicines, compulsory property acquisition in the context of land banking and other problematic Conservative policies, while Miller noted that the Conservatives were competing with New Zealand First for the elderly and populist voters. I'd agree with Pagani and Miller- this option is fraught with risks for National, and I hope that they won't regret this. However, I suspect that they probably will. As well as that, I couldn't help but note the negative tone of some of the Twitter feedback.
Recent political history provides a clear and unequivocal lesson for the unwary. It would appear that mainstream New Zealand voters do not regard religious social conservatism as a viable political philosophy and if it looks as if National is foolhardily gifting the Conservatives an uncontested constituency seat, then they are gambling with the future viability and stability of any consequent centre-right government.
Recommended: Q+A: http://www.tvnz.co.nz/news
Not Recommended: Conservative Party of New Zealand: http://www.conservativeparty.org.nz APOLOGY: In an earlier version of this article focusing on the Conservative Party, I incorrectly referred to Professor Paul Moon of AUT as a member of a network of social and constitutional conservatives opposed to recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand international law. I was subsequently horrified when I was advised that my remark was seriously factually wrong and that I could unintentionally have defamed Professor Moon. I offer a full and unreserved apology to Professor Moon over this incident, which was a breach of my and GayNZ.com's usually high standards and commitment to accuracy. I retract my mistaken claim of his involvement in this context and regret any professional or personal distress this may have caused him. Craig Young - 1st November 2013