End of the Conservative Party?

In 2009 a wealthy businessman organized a protest to highlight the failure of New Zealand politicians to recognize Citizens Initiated  Referendum results. His name is Colin Craig.

In 2011 Mr Craig had a brain wave. For four years it was the fascinatingly annoying new party on the block in New Zealand politics. It was born in 2011 to fight the 2011 and 2014 General Elections and bring a fresh face to conservative politics in New Zealand, with a platform of family, cutting red tape and the moral high ground. It got 2.7% and 4.0% in the 2011 and 2014 elections respectively. Not enough to get into Parliament but enough to make it the largest party outside of Parliament.

Four years, two election campaigns, and several lawsuits later, where is the Conservative Party of New Zealand?

With most parties in New Zealand politics now seriously looking towards the 2017 election, a survey of the active parties in New Zealand politics finds the Conservative Party missing in action. Whereas the others have been engaging in the political debates ranging from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement to changing local government legislation; from the introduction of communities of online learning to the looming Residential Doctors strike – and showing rare multi-partisanship supporting Helen Clarks bid to become Secretary General of the United Nations – nary a word has been uttered from anyone in the Conservative Party.

To be fair, it is a vastly weakened organization after a spectacular falling out between the Conservative Party Board and Mr Craig, which led to him resigning in 2015. It stemmed in part from Mr Craig’s demeanour towards his Press Secretary Rachel MacGregor who resigned from the Party just before the 2014 election over a pay dispute, and later complained to the Police of sexual harassment. Various other behavioural incidents and an increasing feeling that the party is being run like a cult led to the resignation of nearly the entire board in 2015. The remaining member, John Stringer, appointed a provisional board that imploded almost immediately upon hearing its appointment may have been unconstitutional, at which point Mr Stringer resigned after hearing he had been suspended from the Party.

Out of that a succession of defamation causes was launched against the Board member who did not resign with the others, Jordan Williams of the New Zealand Taxpayers Union, and Cameron Slater the author of the blog Whale Oil. Mr Williams launched a counter suit. The cases involving Mr Stringer and Mr Slater are ongoing.

Mr Craig donated $36,000 to the party in January, saying he would still like to support the Conservative movement. At the end of September 2016, Mr Craig was found to have defamed Jordan Williams and told to pay $1.27 million. A couple days later it was revealed that Mr Craig and Ms McGregor had agreed to settle for $128,000.  Given that Mr Craig is likely to appeal the defamation case ruling, it is unlikely that he will be able to do anything politically until it is settled. With the Conservative Party Board collectively acting as a leader and no President governing the Board, creating a governance structure that can get the party ready for the 2017 election is most likely the biggest problem.

But would a party built on a moral standard as the Conservative Party claimed to be, want someone like Mr Craig back? Probably not, if they are serious about competing in the 2017 election. But unless one like Christine Rankin were to lead the party, there is no other name that is well enough recognized in the media to make people equate them with the party. And the problems do not stop there. Much of the party’s policy platform is a hodge podge of policies taken from other parties.

It has been an interesting five years since Colin Craig first came to the nation’s attention as a political wannabe in 2011. He tried to make an impact on New Zealand politics that he hoped would be positive and help steer New Zealand towards his conservative ideals. In the end under a mass of litigation, self destructive politics and his tendency to burn bridges, Mr Craig and his Conservative Party are more likely to remembered as a dirtily colourful side show on the landscape of New Zealand politics than anything else.

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