Can Colin Craig help keep the Nats honest?
Numerous polls are suggesting Colin Craig’s Conservative Party may the third party National desperately needs to continue governing at this year’s election. What does Craig bring to the table? IAN WISHART finds out in our first 2014 campaign interview
Q: What inspired you to get into politics?
A: The first thing that inspired me was the leaky homes crisis. Business-wise I was involved managing property in the building industry. I’ve got over a thousand clients with leaky homes and saw it as a major failure of government – particularly because I knew people in Canada, and Canada had the same crisis, sorting it out within five years. It took thirteen years for our government to do anything even about the existing building legislation, let alone address the problem.
I had those two comparisons, and I honestly thought we were living in a banana republic. I tried raising it with various politicians and they didn’t want to know about it, and that just made me politically aware for the first time – I realised there were some major shortcomings in the way we were being governed.
The second thing that inspired me was the anti-smacking referendum. After the result came out (because I wasn’t involved in campaigning for the referendum itself), but I had voted in it and couldn’t believe that John Key would ignore an 87% vote. I just thought that was outrageous, and I guess that led me to organising the march for democracy, which was my introduction to politics.
Q: Just picking up on the leaky homes issue as a conservative…that was a crisis brought about by deregulation in the building industry. Do you see that as ironic, as deregulation swinging too far?
A: Look, I think it was brought about by the fact that we abandoned what had worked for us for so long, and that was building codes that were tried, true and tested. What we had was pressure by certain interest groups within the building industry to say ‘look, you can use anything you like as long as it lasts for fifty years’, and then those same interest groups set up or were part of the certification agencies that ‘decided’ which products lasted for fifty years. They gave themselves all the rubber stamps they needed to use systems which may have worked in an ideal situation in a laboratory but were certainly not going to work in real life.
I don’t put it down purely to deregulation, I put it down to big business interests taking advantage of a deregulated market. And of course some shady operators in the industry – you can’t leave them out – who did pretty much the same thing.
Q: What sort of learning curve has been involved in the various political campaigns you’ve taken part in?
A: The very first thing was organising the March for Democracy up Queen Street. That in itself was quite a learning curve, because I got to meet politicians and got a feel for how apathetic some New Zealanders are. They might have an opinion, but the connection between having an opinion and acting on that opinion is nowhere near as strong as it would be in many other countries. I don’t think the comparison of us being sheep who just bleat a lot and follow the leader is far wrong, sometimes.
I learned out of that, and out of the mayoral campaign I learned that the media are king. I wasn’t in many of the debates, until the end when I got into one. I wasn’t given any of the media time or following that others were.
And of course there are spending limits, so it is not as if you as an individual can actually compensate – you can’t – so the media really direct the shape of where the debate goes. They can get things wrong, and they do, and they apologise, but the reality is an apology is meaningless, it’s the first headline with what they say that matters no matter how sorry they are about it afterwards.
So that would be my major lesson out of the mayoral campaign. Then with the election campaign we only started seven and a half weeks before the last election, and my big learning curve there was that’s not long enough for a new party. People are quite entrenched in their voting habits and it takes a bit more time to get people to change their mind.
The other thing I learned out of that was you need a lot of people on the ground, and that’s been the focus of where we’ve gone since then – to build the membership and the supporters so that this election will have a big team on the ground, not just rely on eighty really organised people.
Q: How much of this election campaign rests on your shoulders?
A: For the Conservative Party I think it does entirely in terms of whether we get over the line or not. There is a big team now and they’ll do a lot of the work, and that’ll be very different from last time. We did have a lot of candidates last time but some of them were not that active, I mean, they only signed up two weeks before their name was going out on a list, so the speed of things last time meant that it all really relied on head office. It won’t be the same this time, but as far as the media interaction goes, as far as the message goes, I expect it probably will rest on my shoulders.
Q: How have you coped with the trial by media over the last 12 months?
A: I think that’s an opinion thing and it will depend who you ask. It doesn’t worry me because I know the truth of the matter and if the media come out with all sorts of strange things – and they do from time to time – I can just laugh it off, it’s not even vaguely near the truth. I think the frustrating thing about it is that I know it affects other people’s opinions. People will come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Colin, you don’t think we went to the moon?’ I answer, ‘Why do you even think that?’, and they’ll go, ‘But didn’t they say that on TV?’. Actually, they didn’t say that on TV, they were very careful not to say that because they knew I would have gone for them if they had, but impressions are created by the media and those impressions stick. So that’s a frustration that I have.
But I don’t find myself being beaten down by the media. I don’t mind being challenged, in fact I do better where I am. Where I’m confronted with a challenge and someone saying ‘Why do you believe that and why should we go down that track?’, I thrive in that environment.
Q: Do the public realise how much power the media hold over the political process?
A: No, I don’t think they do. We’re influenced by the media every day, and if you just look at the advertising side of it and how much advertising is sold for, and how much our opinions and buying habits and goals are shaped by the media, I’ve become far more aware than I ever was.
Look, I did media studies at university so I wasn’t an idiot when it came to the media, but I myself have become so much more aware in the last couple of years of just how much the media shape things. I look at myself as an example of the ordinary New Zealand public, and I had no idea how much the media were shaping things. I now do.
I meet people all the time that I’ve read something in the media, and nowadays I ask them directly, ‘Was it true?’, and half the time it’s not true.
Q: Having said that, do you like journalists?
A: Actually, I quite do, quite a lot, which is a strange paradox really. They’re people doing a job, and I understand their job much better now. While I don’t always agree with it, I understand that most of the time they’re trying to get a ‘grab’, trying to get a headline, trying to get something exciting. Now because I understand that, I get why things can get twisted or taken out of context – they are not really interested in the pure argument or policy, they’re just looking to pick something that’s going to sell a newspaper. Understanding that, I get why they do what they do and most of them have to be pretty persistent, creative and interesting to do their job and I like that.
So yeah, I feel I get on well with people in the media even though they may come from quite differing political perspectives, and the reality is that in my view most in the media do come from a different political perspective than I do.
Q: It sounds as though the baptism by media that you’ve gone through has actually been very useful for you.
A: Fantastically useful for me, yes. The reality is that I knew nothing about politics four years ago, I wasn’t involved, no one in my family had ever been involved and I’d never been a member of a political party. I needed to have a really steep learning curve and I needed to refine my skills and abilities, and that’s what’s happened. It’s been tremendously useful.
Q: In terms of public perception, given the headlines generated around you and the Conservative Party, who is Colin Craig?
A: I don’t think my message of who I am has changed. I am a hard working New Zealander, I’m a successful businessman, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I really care about the country and I do believe that traditional values and a conservative approach to money and social issues will hold us in good stead and will give us the best outcomes for our country. That is a deeply-held belief and that’s why I’m looking to make a difference in New Zealand.
Q: How do you wed that with the need – if you take a governing position – to govern for all New Zealanders?
A: I think everybody in government is going to have their own opinion, and they are always going to have to be able to represent constituents. One of the ways for me is to look at referendum, and say that I will always recognise the sovereignty of the people of the country and their right to override any decision that a politician – myself or anyone else – will make.
By having that viewpoint, I am ultimately recognising that the people of the country are the master, and therefore that even if we reach a point of absolute disagreement, the people have still got the power to override that.
That’s the first point. The second is that I relate well to people, I don’t have any enemies as far as I know. They might not like what I am trying to do but they still generally like me as an individual. I feel very comfortable representing people and working for people who do come from different perspectives than I do. Certainly our party and what I want it to do for the country is clearly framed within that sort of conservative outlook.
Q: Do you think the public recognise that all politicians come with their own worldviews and agendas?
A: Not always. I think there are people in our parliament who perhaps are not as transparent about what they really want to do or intend to do as I am. I’m very open and transparent, I’d rather say what I’m about so there aren’t any surprises. Whereas, I think other politicians, sometimes very deliberately, don’t really come out and say what their core beliefs are and what they’d really like to do. I think they have perhaps a sales-pitch version of who they are that’s not quite as transparent as I am.
Q: What would a New Zealand government tinged with Conservative influence look like?
A: That’s an interesting question. I think it would depend very much on who we were working with, so maybe I’ll answer it in the context of what the next government might look like if we are part of that.
There are core things that we want to bring. First of all, I do believe we need to have binding referenda in the country. At this stage we see it as needing better than just a 50/50 result – we think two thirds would be good enough. That’s a very big shift, because although we’ve had citizens-initiated referenda, governments have always been able to (and have) simply discount them and throw them in the waste paper basket. We believe binding referenda would be a substantial shift towards empowering the people, and it might make quite a big difference depending on what issues came up.
If you think for example about Genetically-Modified Food-Crops, as just one possible issue, I think we’d have a very different country if the people get to decide on that, than if politicians and special interest groups get to decide.
So that’s one flavour we would bring to government. We’re also going to want changes around the anti-smacking legislation. I think that would just be a relief for people. We are not interested in getting into people’s lives and trying to tell them to do this, that and the other thing. I think what we’d be challenging is a lot of the legislation and whether it is even necessary, for a start. Is government doing its job or is it trying to take over the job of the business community, or the church community or the family? I have a view that government has a role, but these other things work as ‘equals’ with government, and therefore I think we’d be challenging the thinking that says ‘ Government must do everything, it’s got to be really big and the power of these other groups must therefore be really small’.
Q: In terms of the referenda issue, Amy Brooke of course has her 100 Days proposal based on the Swiss system. Is that something you would support?
A: Our first step is to change the existing legislation around citizens-initiated referenda, because everyone understands that. Personally, I like the Swiss system but I think we would be talking about quite a big step up from the citizens-initiated referenda we already have – which was originally drafted to be binding by the way – I think it’s a big step from there to the 100 Days, which is very much more a direct check or balance on government.
I like it, but it’s not policy. I think we would have to have a discussion as a nation around that, but to me that fits in with the discussion around constitution and all these other big issues. I think those issues belong to the public, and really should be the subject of public discussion.
Q: Is there a danger with binding referenda that someone can whip up the public mood on one issue and encroach on the rights of a minority group. Does there need to be a check and balance on that?
A: Look, I don’t think so. We have the two thirds majority to make something binding, and what we’ve done is we’ve looked at all those initiatives all around the world to see if we can find any real encroachment on minorities, and the answer to that is no, you don’t.
History tells us that change is normally a movement by the people themselves that ultimately gets the politicians and those at the top end to change the rights for minorities. The civil rights movement would be a classic example of that. It happened with the people a long time before politicians were ready to move.
So my view is no, but nonetheless we do have entrenched pieces of legislation like the Bill of Rights which can ultimately be exempted so you make sure rights are not being infringed. So we do have protections just in case, anyway.
A: In terms of general policies that every political party must have in order to present themselves as a credible governing alternative, what does the Conservative Party offer in terms of finance and economics?
Q: We haven’t released our full policy but we do believe that the debt our country is in is well beyond where it should be. We agree with the Reserve Bank when they issued their report saying we have to have spending trending down not up because we are in danger of this debt trap. We believe that’s an accurate analysis. So when it comes to economic policy on borrowing, spending, budgeting, we do think a country should live within its means. That’ll be at the core of our economic policy, but we are also big supporters of small business, of enterprise, of innovation. It frustrates the living daylights out of me that we are one of the ten most innovative countries in the world and yet we have such a poor record for taking that innovation to market. In fact, most of our entrepreneurs do it through overseas avenues. So I think we have to be prepared to take some initiatives particularly with small business and innovation, because there is a lot of prosperity that we are missing out on there. Micro-detail in our economic policy will be governed by these bigger goals.
Q: Education and health?
A: We’d like to explore other options in health. We do believe that while the health system delivers by and large good outcomes, within the confines of what it does, we very much believe in allowing people to choose alternatives.
One of the problems I see that we have is we are very much locked into what I call ‘drug-centred medicine’. We don’t give the same freedom and ability for people to explore vitamins, homeopathic, osteopathic, chiropractic – all choices that people want to make.
We’ve got a trial at the moment where there’s about 1800 people who are allowed to make direct choice as to how their health dollar is spent. It’s a fantastic programme, it saves the government about 10% of what is spent but it gets much better outcomes because people are able to make more decisions around how their money is spent. So we’d like to explore down that avenue.
In education, we think partnership schools are a good idea although we want to see outcomes to support them, if we’re to keep them going. We don’t think they should just stay open like public schools do, when the results really struggle to support that. But we think they will deliver. I know four or five reasonably well that have been given the tick and I expect them to do an outstanding job. So we do believe it’s the right direction, we believe in choices and letting families decide for themselves is positive.
Q: What about welfare?
A: I think we have to do some very serious thinking about welfare. The UK said they had a ‘crisis’ when they reached five percent beneficiary dependency. We are in double digits, which puts us way beyond a crisis. I think the numbers are that we had over 36,000 sign-ups for the first time on the DPB last year, the biggest growth industry in New Zealand, and I think we need to seriously change the direction of welfare. I believe we are creating what people used to call an ‘underclass’, but I think it’s bigger than that. We’re very much in danger of our society becoming one of dependence, that loses its self-sufficiency and loses that fundamental principle that you have to get off your bottom and work for yourself. I think we’re in pretty serious trouble on this one and we have to make some major changes.
Q: How serious is the impact of welfare on the political process, that governments essentially end up buying elections?
A: As I understand it, and I stand to be corrected, many of those on welfare are disengaged from society to such an extent that they don’t vote anyway. I don’t believe that welfare is yet deciding outcomes in the political process, but the danger is that it will. If you’ve got too many people getting a handout then they’re going to vote for that condition. Even though every stat says it’s bad for them, it’s a bit like people who drink too much – they may know in the back of their minds ‘this is bad for me’ but they’re locked into a certain way of living that keeps taking them back to the welfare.
It’s a danger, it’s long past the time we should have blown the whistle and said hold on, we’ve got a real problem, we must do something. I like what the UK has started doing and I believe we should be following at least some of their line of thinking. Their guiding principle is ‘It should always be better to work than it should be to stay at home’. A lot needs to be done, or we run the risk that people are simply going to vote for who’s going to give them the biggest handout.
Q: Looking forward ten or eleven months from now, you may have to choose between Labour and National. Can you work with either?
A: I think we can work with either. My difficulty with Labour is that there’s no way I can see them forming a government without bringing the Greens in. The proposal that’s on the table would make the Greens an integral part of the cabinet and I genuinely struggle and find ourselves at odds with the Greens on many issues.
Financially, we are a world apart. Socially we are a world apart. So I think that’s the difficulty with Labour. I don’t know David Cunliffe, I did know David Shearer and found him to be a moderate, which may be why he didn’t last in the Labour Party. That’s the difficulty I see.
We have always said that the party that gets the highest vote really ought to be the party that leads the government.
Q: So could you see a scenario whereby if Labour ends up with a higher proportion of the popular vote than National does, that on principle the Conservatives could sit on the cross benches giving confidence and supply?
A: Absolutely. I think the chances of us supporting from the cross benches rather than going into formal coalition with either party is probably high, and the reason for that is, let’s face it, we’re a new party and we’ve got a lot to learn.
Also, the history of coalitions worldwide, and there are excellent books on this, basically the closer a small party gets to a big party the less likely it is to actually survive. I think we need to protect what we are bringing to the table; we know we’re not going to get everything but we want to get some things, and in return for that we need to support someone else taking the lead and work diligently with them.
However, I’m not interested in giving a blank cheque, I’m not interested in becoming a United Future or an Act party who simply put their hands up pretty much when told and their political survival hangs entirely on the goodwill of the National Party.
Q: Finally then, critics would ask, are you a ‘dog-wagger’?
A: No. Look, I really don’t think so. A lot of our policies will be looking to slightly improve or enhance the direction that one of the two major parties wants to go. We do have some things we want to achieve, but those are not representative of only a small number of New Zealanders. I believe the things we are pushing for are things that a lot of New Zealanders really want.
When I look at the process, frankly, I don’t see the ‘dog’ as the politician, I see the dog as the people of this country, and we are very much wanting to put them in charge. The things we’re going to be looking for are the things the people want, so although we will be a small party we’ll be representing the majority of the people.