Conservatives play canny game
Long term, probably the most significant feature of this election has been Labour’s fall to mid-20s percentage levels of support, and the rise in support for New Zealand First, and the Conservatives.
Whatever else may be said about Colin Craig and the party he has bankrolled so handsomely, he has played an astute political hand this year – especially for a self-professed amateur.
It can’t be taken for granted that Craig and his team will get across the 5 per cent MMP threshold on Saturday night.
Previously, the Christian Coalition had stalled at 4.33 per cent of the vote in 1996, and missed out.
However, the current momentum in the polls for the Conservatives does seem likely to carry Craig, Christine Rankin, Garth McVicar etc into Parliament – including even perhaps Edward Saafi, the Conservative candidate who reportedly thinks our child violence protection laws are contributing to youth suicide.
Evidently, Craig has long-term strategic goals on his mind.
Last week, he was continuing to cite binding citizens initiated referendums as his top priority, despite knowing that National would almost certainly reject the idea outright.
For good measure, Craig told reporters he would need to learn the ropes in Parliament before aspiring to ministerial status.
In sum, Craig seemed to be preparing the Conservatives for a spell on the cross benches – from which he would lend support to National only on matters of confidence and supply – rather than trying to join National in a formal coalition.
As a strategy for 2017, this would make a lot of sense.
By stressing a policy that National would be certain to reject, Craig and his team could depart for the cross benches with their integrity intact, and watch from afar as New Zealand First suffers the usual fate of junior coalition partners tarred with the brush of collaboration.
Time, after all, is on the side of the Conservatives. This could well be the last roundup for Winston Peters.
Moreover, if and when New Zealand First enters into a formal coalition arrangement with a victorious National Party, that would leave the Conservatives as being the only socially conservative party that is seemingly not interested in the baubles of office.
As mentioned, the prospect of two social conservatives in the next Parliament underlines the identity crisis now facing Labour.
Older, socially conservative voters who were once a bedrock of Labour support have departed – perhaps forever – from the sort of party that has chosen David Cunliffe to lead it. (Much of the liberal Labour left departed for the Greens some time ago.)
If Labour loses badly on election day, business as usual would be a recipe for its permanent marginalisation.
Yet if binding referendums are mainly a tactical gambit, what are the Conservatives really interested in?
Tax cuts for one thing, of multibillion dollar proportions.
At a more practical level, Craig last week mentioned his interest in helping the next centre-right government to promote userfriendly policies for small business. That’s quite significant.
As the country gets to know Colin Craig in Parliament, they could well find out that he is not the new Winston Peters, but more like a socially conservative version of Peter Dunne.
Memorably, Dunne described Craig last week as an ‘‘untried fruit loop’’. Some interesting times (and turf wars) lie ahead.