The curious case of Colin Craig

COLIN CRAIG: The Conservative Party leader says New Zealand women are promiscuous, and should pay the cost when there were consequences.
COLIN CRAIG: The Conservative Party leader says New Zealand women are promiscuous, and should pay the cost when there were consequences.

Fifteen ago Colin Craig was looking to furnish his Albany house.

Driving down an Auckland road he spied a sofa dumped at the side of the road. Telling wife Helen "that's a free couch" he hopped out of the car, declared it comfy and dragged it home. To this day it is in use – alongside furniture bought on Trade Me.

Mr Craig – a millionaire businessman – is just as opportunistic when it comes to politics. The Conservative Party leader has made hay with John Banks' current woes.

Although the ACT leader is hanging on to both his seat and his portfolio, Mr Craig was quick to make it clear he is ready to stand in a by-election.

This pronouncement last weekend kicked off a press release blitz which sparked a backlash not seen since the Employers and Manufacturers Association's Alasdair Thompson said women's "monthly sick problem" means they should be paid less than men.

The week began with Prime Minister John Key embracing the Conservatives as potential coalition partners of the future. By Wednesday – once headlines of staff prayer meetings and declarations about female promiscuity had captured the public's attention – he appeared less enthusiastic about hopping into bed with the new Right-wing party.

"It's going to be a long two and a half years," he muttered when asked for the umpteenth time about Mr Craig's suitability as an ally.

In the mould of NZ First, the Conservatives' anti-asset sales stance, proposals to put prisoners to work and vocal opposition to dirty election deals over cups of tea were beginning to appeal to voters dissatisfied with the established parties.

Only four months after formation, Mr Craig managed to attract more party votes than UnitedFuture, ACT, Mana, and the Maori party – making them the fifth largest party in terms of support. Seven months on they have around 3000 members.

And next to Mr Banks, he looked like a clean-cut, Mr Sensible.

Unfortunately, the most successful politicians are guided by expediency rather than principle. And Mr Craig's promiscuity gaffe was the political equivalent of premature ejaculation.

As curiosity about Mr Craig rose with his profile this week, all sorts of stories came out of the woodwork. "I'm very keen on personal initiative," Mr Craig insisted – trying to explain away why an employee took a grievance over a New Testament parable.

Zaccheus, the diminutive tax collector who climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus, was a good example of taking the initiative. But the staffer, whose son is "not tall", wrongly assumed Mr Craig was preaching that shortness is a sin.

One five-year old Employment Relations Authority finding and a Durex survey on bedroom habits blew apart all the good work Mr Craig had done trying to convince the public his seven-month-old party was a sensible alternative to the crumbling ACT party.

Mr Craig insists he isn't a church-goer but he does hold very strong beliefs. A Christian streak runs though his "family values" policies. Married for 20 years and with a 6-year-old daughter, he opposes gay marriage and adoption, teenage access to abortion and voluntary euthanasia. He stumped up $450,000 for a march over the anti-smacking law.

It is this "moral conservatism brand" that has spooked many in National. Having managed to unshackle themselves from the erratic ACT party, they will be slow to reanimate ghosts of the Exclusive Brethren by taking up with more evangelical zealots.

DESCENDED from the Auckland architect John Craig, the North Shore millionaire was brought up – with "`good, homegrown Kiwi values" – in the Baptist faith by his teacher father and housewife mother.

One of five children, he was heavily influenced by his frugal grandmother, who was raised in an Edinburgh slum. "She handed down to me certain values. You didn't waste things."

After university, he worked as a financial controller and then established his own Auckland accountancy practice, aged 23. Reluctantly he took on some property management work – "and then I found out I wasn't too bad at it". From there the work grew into a firm with a $1.3 billion portfolio and turnover of "a few million" (he won't be more specific).

His father was a local councillor but politics beckoned only six years ago when he witnessed the struggles of more than 1000 clients with leaky homes. When his pleas to super-city architect Rodney Hide fell on deaf ears, he ran for the mayoralty promising to hold a referendum on reversing the plans to amalgamate councils.

He funded his own mayoralty campaign and last year's general election race – making him clean as a whistle on the dodgy donations front.

Politics isn't a tax break, he insists. "As a country we are borrowing over $4m a day. In comparison, a couple of million [spent on last year's election campaign] is a drop in the bucket. Some people would buy a big, flash yacht and sail round the harbour. For me it's about making changes, it's not an ego boost."

But he does really want to be an electorate MP – and do it without the help of National. Mr Key would never hand him Rodney – Mark Mitchell is a rising star who won't agree to move on to the list. Tamaki may be an option – or Pakuranga if Maurice Williamson retires or moves over to the Speaker's chair. Mr Craig might not accept a deal, but he will work with anyone. The Conservatives are the quintessential MMP party. "I don't look at any person and say they are not workable with," he says.

He has even found common ground with Mana's Sue Bradford, sharing concerns about the effects of alcohol on lower socio-economic groups. He sees no problem in cosying up to Winston Peters.

But after a week of sharing the political stage with Mr Craig, even Mr Key is starting to warm to Mr Peters – giving his broadest hint yet that he is open to a NZ First-National deal in 2014.

Mr Key once remarked there is "a very limited market for secondhand politicians". With the Maori party in terminal decline and ACT all but buried, the survival of his government may yet depend on the parsimonious Mr Craig.

The Dominion Post