|The Conservative Party's electoral prospects...? As the time for New Zealand's September 20 election draws nearer, the Conservative Party is strangely becalmed, almost in political limbo. Some of it is its own fault, while some of it is attributable to its object of desire, the Key administration, which has so cruelly spurned it.
Several months ago, the Key administration said that it was contemplating working with the Conservatives, ACT and United Future. ACT has been treated comparatively leniently, even given its own self-inflicted wounds and internal turmoil over John Banks' recent local body Auckland electoral donation guilty verdict in the courts. To its comparative credit, Banks made sure that future party leadership and Epsom candidacy were resolved beforehand, and David Seymour and Jamie Whyte have moved rapidly to distance themselves from their predecessor's quagmire. United Future has been treated similarly respectfully, given their organisational membership crisis in 2013. However, the same courtesy has not been shown to Colin Craig and his entourage. Why is this?
The Conservative/National relationship has been strained, ever since Colin Craig formed the party back in 2011. Like Bob McCoskrie and Family First, as well as the equivalent United Kingdom Independence Party in the context of David Cameron and the British Tories, Craig has continually sniped at the National-led government, primarily over religious social conservative obsessions like marriage equality and (tiresomely) the current legislative ban on parental corporal punishment of children. It hasn't been helped particularly by Colin Craig's repeated hamfisted attempts to exploit National Party setbacks and desires for a gift constituency in their context, especially in the context of Epsom, Pakuranga (after the Donghua Liu donations scandal), Upper Harbour, Rodney and East Coast Bays. After much prevaricating, Craig eventually said that he intended to stand in East Coast Bays, which has been held by the National Party since incumbent National MP Murray McCully won it off Social Credit's Neil Morrison in 1987. Boastfully, Colin Craig referred to that event almost thirty years ago as 'evidence' that the seat was 'potentially winnable' for his microparty. Much of Social Credit's support base consisted of fundamentalist rural and provincial Christians, explaining its protest vote success in such semi-rural seats as East Coast Bays and Rangitikei during the seventies and eighties.
Really? Thirty years is a lot of time for demographic change to happen- migration, childbirth levels, economic shifts, mortality rates and religious observance statistics have undoubtedly shifted during that period- although I concede the only way to make sure is for an objective and neutral pollster to conduct a local constituency micropoll of the voting intentions of East Coast Bays voters, or assess relevant census data in this particular context. Murray McCully is unconvinced and like Mark Mitchell (Rodney), Paula Bennett (Upper Harbour), Maurice Williamson (Pakuranga) and David Seymour (Epsom), the incumbent National MP is refusing to stand aside. Nor does John Key seem willing to concede East Coast Bays to the microparty. Why? The Conservatives are polling from one to one point five percent and Colin Craig has made silly remarks about the potential for crossbenching if National doesn't kowtow to it over forced religious social conservative ideological purity. In other words, Key may have decided that in the case of ACT, United Future and perhaps the Maori Party as well, it's better the devil one knows if one is contemplating MMP coalition deals.
As for its other coalition partners, ACT derided the Conservative Party's income tax policies as instances of progressive income taxation, which it finds reprehensible as a staunch fiscal conservative party committed to lowered tax levels for higher income earners and diminished central government spending. One wonders if Jamie Whyte and David Seymour will therefore move toward increased critical focus on (thus far) uncosted Conservative Party policies incompatible with its own philosophical perspectives and party policies apart from income tax. One certainly hopes so. As for United Future, it despises the Conservatives- or more precisely, the former Kiwi Party MPs and activists who deserted United Future in 2007, which may have destabilised the party's membership base and organisational management. Te Ureroa Flavell has kept quiet thus far, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Maori Party didn't find the ignorant anti-Treaty policies of the Conservative Party anathema, and no-one would blame them.
As usual, media opinion seemed to diverge over this potential development. TV3 commissioned a Reid research question that found that opposition to the Conservative Party as a potential National Party coalition party was high amongst the general public and even half of National Party voter respondents opposed any such developments. However, in a TV3 Nation interview with Patrick Gower, the Prime Minister was noncommittal. Not so the National Business Review, who speculated that Key might ask Murray McCully to step aside in East Coast Bays so that the Conservatives could win the seat and sweep one or two coat-tailed List MPs into Parliament, despite growing public opposition to the practice of coattailing.
Events took a surprising term as McCully stumbled over the question of diplomatic immunity for a Malaysian diplomatic staff member accused of violence against a Wellington woman. However, Key didn't agree that this warranted McCully's resignation or reallocation of his portfolio responsibilities. Instead, McCully blamed Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff for the upset. Obviously, Key would not want to dispose of his party's core election strategist, especially not this close to an election. If the Conservatives were hoping for policy concessions from the object of their ambivalent affections, they received none at Family First's "Forum on the Family" held in early July near Auckland Airport. Having previously ruled out reversing marriage equality legislation, Key went on to firmly reject any possibility of reversing the Clark era parental corporal punishment of children ban either- which is a primary obsession of the fundamentalist microparty in question. He has also said no to any possibility of binding referenda in the past. Moreover, in one opinion poll, the new Mana/Internet Coalition had vaulted over the sluggish Conservatives, trapped on a single voter share percentage point, polling 1.8 percent.
Trying desperately to puff up social conservative party voter shares, Bob McCoskrie interviewed Winston Peters and Colin Craig at Family First's "Forum on the Family" on July 12. Unsurprisingly, the two parties manifested highly similar leadership and policy positions.
Winston Peters was quizzed repeatedly about binding citizens’ referenda by Bob McCoskrie. He got a round of applause from his conservative Christian audience when it came to questions of binding referenda, especially when it came to marriage equality and he stated that even if a referendum had occurred, he opposed marriage equality and inclusive adoption reform anyway. Peters commented about the "preferability" of binding referenda and made some troubling comments about elected representatives and public policy. McCoskrie made a provocative remark about immigrants and polygamy that was met with typical anti-immigrant racism from Peters and again, applause from the audience. The corporal punishment ban also inevitably came up for comment, as did alcohol availability and tobacco policy. McCoskrie also asked Peters about "parental notification", attacking abortion access from competent minors and Peters replied about his support for this interference with abortion rights. He also opposes holistic anti-abortion decriminalisation. However, when it comes to cannabis, it involves a two-year debate and once more, a referendum on the matter although he personally opposes it. When it comes to sex work, he opposed the Prostitution Law Reform Act and wants street sex work recriminalised, as in the case in Asenati Lole-Taylor's private members bill, although it doesn't criminalise residential brothels. Quite unequivocal. There can be no excuse for any sane LGBT person to vote for this dangerous populist personality cult.
Colin Craig was also present. After McCoskrie's spiel, the Conservative Party leader. He was "credited" with acting as ringleader of the opposition to marriage equality. He questioned New Zealand First's reticence to debate the issue. He denounced the intensity of political pressure from supporters of marriage equality (and referred to the "elderly audience," interestingly enough). He referred to "considered votes." He stated that he would "love to" campaign against marriage equality because it had "affected" Russian overseas adoption and regards it as a "live issue." He would indeed "put it to a referendum" and failing that, give "conscience choice" to celebrants, and made ambiguous remarks about service provider discrimination. Craig believes "that at some point" polygamy will be introduced. The Conservatives do regard "binding referenda" as a "bottom line." He acknowledged that Larry Baldock, now on his own party list, as well as McCoskrie himself, had vigorously campaigned for retaining parental corporal punishment "rights." Interestingly, McCoskrie made doubtful remarks about 'charter schools,' which the Maxim Institute and Conservative Party itself support. He gave a forthright remark about overavailability of alcohol and raising the drinking age. Unsurprisingly, he also opposed further inclusive adoption reform.
He says that he "opposes" the decriminalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide and supports better-quality palliative care. But given his party's binding referendum policy, if there was a referendum that supported such decriminalisation, he would be forced to abide by it! He opposed decriminalisation of sex work, opposes subsidised day care, supports moralistic strictures on "broadcasting standards", opposed the Sky City convention centre deal, opposes Easter trading law liberalisation, supports loan shark prohibition, etc. Which is all very well. Interestingly, McCoskrie seems to have avoided asking him the tricky question about euthanasia and referenda. Wouldn't that have been interesting? And significantly, he opposes the current five percent parliamentary threshold and said that "it was too high."
At the party conference for 2014, CEO Christine Rankin defiantly stated that mainstream media were deliberately focusing on "eccentricities" within Colin Craig's initial responses to media inquiries. She expressed her faith in Colin Craig. Other keynote speakers at the Conservative conference were (once again...) antigay Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson Garth McVicar, Auckland University historian Paul Moon (who intended to challenge Conservatives over their radical rejection of the Treaty of Waitangi) and centre-right commentator Matthew Hooton. To applause, Hooton asked why the Conservatives shouldn't embrace the religious social conservative label. He also wondered if they should also embrace a referendum on reintroduction of capital punishment.
However, over in the National Business Review, Rob Hosking wasn't having this. He claimed that the National Party's own polling showed that there would be "substantial loss of support" if they were seen to hand East Coast Bays over to Colin Craig and manipulate the "coat tail" rule of MMP to enable at the most two Conservative MPs into Parliament. It's not only the factor of Colin Craig's strident religious social conservatism, but also the mixed bag of (still uncosted) Conservative economic policies which may have also spooked National and centre-right voters.
To complicate matters, the Conservative Party and New Zealand First now seem to be at each other’s throats, following rival conferences held during the weekend. Colin Craig stated that his bottom line was binding citizens referenda and that if the party didn't achieve that objective, it would sit on the crossbenchs. At that point, Winston Peters weighed in and threatened to stand in East Coast Bays himself if there was any question of a deal between National and the Conservatives over East Coast Bays.
On TV3's The Nation, ACT's Jamie Whyte was visibly uncomfortable with the presence of Colin Craig, and reiterated his questions about the Conservative tax policy, a core issue of disquiet for many fiscal conservatives. Or it may have been bad poll results that suggest that even if ACT's David Seymour does retain Epsom for his party, he will be a lone constituency MP. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was holidaying in Hawaii and Murray McCully was busy dealing with the consequences of the MH17 tragedy in the Ukraine to comment. This prolonged silence is telling. It is now just over two months to the next election and the Conservatives are still not showing any signs of opinion poll rallying. It's all very well for Colin Craig to discuss the fortunes of Social Credit during the eighties, but that was thirty years ago. And will Peters' threatened presence turn Key off any electoral accommodation in East Coast Bays?
The Maori Party was less than impressed when it came to the Conservatives either. Understandably, Te Ururoa Flavell slammed the radical Conservative anti-Treaty policy as colonialist, assimilationist and an anachronism. This might lead to an interesting situation were the Maori Party to win more than Flavell's Wairakei at the forthcoming election- especially if they have more MPs than the Conservatives, assuming they get into Parliament. Which party would National choose- a trustworthy, responsible party whose Members of Parliament had served as Cabinet Ministers in two previous administrations, or a microparty that polarises or alienates? No contest, really,
On 28 July 2014, the waiting was over as Key confirmed which parties that National could work with- ACT, United Future and the Maori Party made the final cut, although tactically, they could form a coalition with New Zealand First if they had to do so. As for the Conservatives, several factors told against them and they were left out of the final cut. These may have included Colin Craig's lack of prior public office, poor Conservative opinion poll ratings, mostly uncosted and elaborated party policies outside its core religious social conservative obsessions and its dogmatic insistence on binding citizens referenda. Added to which, withdrawing a Cabinet Minister like McCully from a constitutency seat in order to placate a possibly extremist party that wouldn't even to commit to a coalition unless it got its way on binding referenda was a big ask. In short, Colin Craig's dogmatism, inflexibility and naivetie led to the demise of consideration as a viable coalition partner for National.
As the election season begins in earnest, is it 'fade to blue' for Colin Craig and the Conservatives?
"Murray will take one for the team" National Business Review: 28.06.2014: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/murray-will-take-one-for-the-team-ck-158418
Isaac Davison: "Rankin hits back at Conservative Party critics:" New Zealand Herald: 19.07.2014: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1