Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Inside the mind of Colin Craig

Conservative leader says despite applauding Sarah Palin and refusing to rule out conspiracy theories, he's not the least bit whacky

Colin Craig is an admirer of British political heavyweights Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Colin Craig is an admirer of British political heavyweights Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Colin Craig thinks that his days of being typecast as "whacky" are numbered.

"I think it's just a little phase," the Conservative Party leader tells the Herald. "It's not going to stick because it's just not true to who I am and I think that will become apparent next year as we head into an election year."

Yes, people had had a lot of fun with it.

"But at the end of the day I am actually a very serious person and a very successful person and I think my track record proves that I'm not the least bit whacky."

Craig has had a knack for attracting publicity this year, in inverse proportion to the success of Prime Minister John Key's support partners.

The more trouble John Banks, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party have got into, the more relevant the Conservative Party and Colin Craig have become as potential players in a future government.

Prime Minister John Key talked up their prospects a few months ago as potential partner.

Now Key is finding ways to explain some of Craig's daft answers to questions about the moon landing, vapour trails behind jets and former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

He suggests it could just be Craig "winding up the media".

Craig's reasoning is that he is not going to take a definitive position on something he has not researched.

He has stuck to the "don't' know" line on vapour trails in an interview with Paul Henry on RadioLive this week. Try as Henry did to school the political newcomer on the perils of not outright dismissing the possibility that the Government could be conducting a secret mass-poisoning campaign against its citizens, Craig didn't budge.

"I'm actually very comfortable to say I don't know about things because that's honest," Craig tells the Herald. "You can always learn about things but I have no intention to go and learn about conspiracy theories because what use are they, really? Silliness."

In an otherwise serious interview, it was tempting to get his reaction on just one conspiracy, one with relevance given the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Had anyone asked about the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination?

"No," he says. "I don't even know what the theories are. This is part of the problem."

The conspiracy theory - at least one of them - was that there was another shooter on the grassy knoll.

"Oh, okay. I've heard of the grassy knoll. But I have no idea what these theories are. I find myself far more comfortable saying, 'Look, I don't know about that', rather than making a comment."

Craig's credentials as a serious politician were further eroded when he was reported recently as saying he admired Sarah Palin - one of America's Most Whacky.

He objects to a suggestion it was wholesale support. He says he was only talking about the way she had stood up to oil companies - to extract greater taxes from them.

"That was probably her major achievement as governor and that gets turned into a headline which says, 'Colin admires Sarah Palin'. No. I found one thing in her life I could admire and I could probably do that with most people."

In fact, Craig's political heroes are nowhere close to the cut of Palin: British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Bismarck.

It's not that he's modelling himself on Churchill, he says, "but there's something about the grit and determination about him that I admire".

On Thatcher, he says he loved that she related politics to people in practical ways. "You go to the supermarket, you've got a cheque book, here's how much money you've got - talking about the nation's economy like it was a corner dairy. I felt she was in a pretty tough position and had to do some pretty tough things, but she pulled it off.

"If the worst criticism was that the poor got richer at a slower rate than the rich but everybody got richer, I think that was a job well done."

He said that as a history fan, some of his historical heroes went even further back.

"Bismarck, who unified Germany, is to my mind one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived.

"He took wildly divergent duchies and unified them into Germany and Germany became a nation that had huge influence on the world from that point on. He would be someone I think displayed outstanding capability."

Colin Craig was being interviewed in Wellington.

He made the trip south after accepting an invitation to the parliamentary press gallery's annual Christmas party.

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong last week described Craig as a "media junkie" but Craig prefers to treat it as a reality rather than the criticism intended.

"But aren't all politicians media junkies?" he asks.

"I thought this was the game. You've got to be in the media to be alive," he said.

A good merlot is his drink of choice. He is not the wowser many may think, although there is a Pollyanna side to his character - or at least to his own assessment of himself.

"I'm healthy. I exercise. I eat well. I don't drink to excess. I don't go out there and behave stupidly and I try to act respectfully even if I disagree with someone horribly.

"I'll disagree in a relatively polite and intelligent way. I'm not a guy who will ever do road rage."

Craig cannot remember the last time he went to church, although he has promised to take his young daughter to a carol service this year.

There was no one is particular he wanted to meet at the gallery party although he noted he had never met David Cunliffe.

That was not possible this year because Cunliffe was in South Africa with Key at the Nelson Mandela memorial service.

Colin Craig was in the third form at Macleans College in Bucklands Beach, East Auckland, during the 1981 Springbok Tour, so asking what side he was on, pro or anti-tour, is not as relevant as it is to Key's position.

"I was totally oblivious to the issues," says Craig.

The strongest memory he had of the tour is of watching the Auckland game on television with his father and seeing the pitch being flour-bombed by a light plane.

Cricket is his sport of choice, a game he played at school and at Auckland University, where he got bachelor of commerce and bachelor of arts degrees.

"I was a fast bowler. I like to think I was a great batsman but the averages don't support that."

He doesn't have Sky TV so he doesn't watch a lot of sports on television other than at his in-laws'.

Craig was the oldest of five children.

His father taught history and geography at Pakuranga College. They lived on the single income and the family car was a Holden Kingswood.

"Wealth-wise we were probably lower-middle class but those were good times in New Zealand and it was safe. Everyone just walked to primary school.

"I like my upbringing," says Craig. "I am very pleased to have been in the family I was in. It was a very loving family but we were never very well off."

His first new clothes were his school uniform for college. "It was all hand-me-downs. We lived frugally and that is what we had to do."

Craig said he realised when he was older some of the sacrifices his parents had made. There were some flash glasses but they were golf prizes won by his father.

"Looking back on it, I realised suddenly that this was something he gave up because his eldest son thought he wanted to be a cricket player."

Over summer he will be spending as much time as possible with his wife, Helen, and young daughter and getting in some reading, probably history books.

He will be steering clear of political reading, which he has been doing all year, among them 23 books on the Treaty of Waitangi.

Both of his parents are alive and are supporting him in his political pursuits, which began with his contesting the mayoralty in the first Auckland Super City election in 2010, and continued when he formed the Conservatives in 2011 and contested the Rodney seat.

The issue of leaky homes politicised him. As the owner of property management company Centurion Management, a company with more than 6000 clients, he came across hundreds of people whose lives were ruined by leaky homes and he was appalled at what he saw as an inadequate response by the Government.

There's no decision yet but Craig is most likely to stand in East Coast Bays, his own electorate under the draft boundaries.

It's a choice that requires no colluding with National. It's his home turf and it would give National the option of pulling high-profile local MP and Foreign Minister Murray McCully from the contest and putting him only on the list, a decision that would be made much closer to the election.

Craig says with endless requests to speak at meetings and people joining every day, the Conservatives have momentum, more than he expected.

"It's good for us if we can continue it into next year. I did not expect us to succeed and do as well so quickly. It kind of got a life of its own and it hasn't stopped."

MP hopeful on issues of the day

Colin Craig on:

Increasing oil and mineral exploration

It's almost criminal to be so well vested with resources and not use them. I wonder at the logic of that. I find it fascinating that if you dig a hole and plant a tree in it, you are a greenie; if you dig a big hole, take the gold out of the ground and plant a forest, suddenly you're an eco-terrorist. There's no consistency in that. I do think we should make sensible use of our resources. I'm not so keen, however, on letting foreign corporations take the lion's share ... Norway did it well.

SkyCity national convention centre

It was not a good process. The Auditor-General said it wasn't illegal but it was a bad process and I don't believe it was the best deal for Auckland. I'm confident if it had been an open tender with everybody on the same level playing field with the same information, I don't think SkyCity would have got it.

Charter schools

I like the partnership school model. I think it will work very well. I think the results will be fantastic and given the number of students who are lining up to go into it, I think that speaks volumes. People want it and I think their results will stack up.

Labour's target to get 50 per cent women MPs by 2017

I don't believe positions should be picked on the basis of whether you are a man or a woman. I think it should be merit. I'm not a politically correct person. I despise political correctness because what it actually really does is just keeps people quiet. I would rather live in an environment where we could freely debate things.

Trans Pacific Partnership

I don't know enough about it to comment but I don't like the fact it is not transparent.

Constitutional review

The only way a constitution works is if it's requested, endorsed and supported by the people of the country and I don't see this as a process that does that. This is a political process. It has been initiated politically. Great constitutions are something that come from the people themselves and the people buy into; I think we're a long, long way from that.

On the Maori seats and the Treaty of Waitangi

We think the Maori seats served a purpose at a time; that time is over. They don't serve that purpose any more so we need to move forward and moving forward means getting rid of the Maori seats.

I lectured in finance and economics in the Maori studies department at AUT ... I generally found you've got to avoid real extreme comments on the [issue] of where we are with the Treaty. I think it's naive to ignore history too. The idea of "parking" the Treaty is not realistic. We've got a history and you've got to work from a base of who we are and where we have come from.

- NZ Herald

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