Editorial: Stars aligning for Craig and his untainted party brand

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Colin Craig. Photo / NZ Herald
Colin Craig. Photo / NZ Herald

Like an over-eager sprinter, the Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig, left the starting blocks too quickly yesterday. His excitement was understandable, however, given the implications of the Representation Commission's draft boundaries for the 2014 and 2017 elections. Population change means a new Auckland electorate has been created in the Upper Harbour area. As Mr Craig enthusiastically noted, it seemed an "awfully good" fit for his party. The area, close to his own home, had, he said, a high proportion of elderly and immigrants, who tended to have values aligned to those of his party.

As events transpired, Mr Craig will have to think again. No sooner had he spoken than Cabinet minister Paul Bennett, whose current electorate of Waitakere will disappear, was declaring her intention to stand for the new electorate. Her decision carries the National Party's backing and means that any accommodation with Mr Craig will have to come in another electorate. The most likely prospect for him is East Coast Bays, where the Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, is widely predicted to leave a vacancy as he switches to the National Party's list.

One thing is clear, however. National is keen to make an Epsom-style deal based on the Conservatives' potential to be a serviceable ally after next year's election. The fledgling party's appeal is based on two major grounds, the first of which is its leader's political nous. This is easy to under-estimate. The Conservatives polled 2.65 per cent in the last general election, creating an impression that Mr Craig had to find a way to build on. It was important to keep the party in the public eye and he achieved this by standing 22 candidates in this year's local-body elections. Two were elected to local boards, both in the Upper Harbour area.

According to the Prime Minister, the Conservatives could now be polling as high as 4 per cent in Auckland's "blue" seats. That may be overstated, but, nonetheless, it is possible to envisage a strong campaign garnering something like that share of the party vote nationwide. With an electorate for Mr Craig achieved on the back of what the Prime Minister says will be a more explicit message to National voters than previously, the Conservatives would enter Parliament with five MPs.

National is also, of course, much aware of the sagging fortunes of its three current support parties, United Future, Act and the Maori Party. The brands of the first two have been almost totally devalued by the self-destructiveness of their leaders, both of whom have resigned as ministers. Both parties will, at best, have one MP even as much as the new boundaries for the Ohariu electorate aid United Future's Peter Dunne. The Conservatives, by way of contrast, bring a new brand untainted by major mishap and the promise of more substantial support to supplement or supplant National's present allies.

Elsewhere, the redrawn boundaries, which will be finalised next April, have a variety of ramifications. The population movement in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes means that city is also much affected. Christchurch Central, held by National with a slim majority, appears destined to become a Labour seat. Auckland Central, however, seems safer for National. There will also be sterner challenges for National's Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga and Labour's Phil Goff in the seats of Maungakiekie and Roskill, respectively.

Yesterday's developments may not be the absolute ideal desired by Mr Craig. But the stars are aligning for the Conservatives irrespective of the boundaries decisions. A party that has come a long way in a relatively short time is now well positioned to take the next step.

- NZ Herald

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