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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Walking with Craig a perilous journey

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Fledgling ally's media addiction sure to be headache for Key

For as much winding up of the media that Craig may do himself, he does not seem to mind the reverse happening. Photo / NZ Herald
For as much winding up of the media that Craig may do himself, he does not seem to mind the reverse happening. Photo / NZ Herald

A mixture of grin quickly swallowed up by grimace swept across John Key's face following Colin Craig's intellectually lazy and politically stupid verbal doodling on the non-question of whether man has actually walked on the Moon.

Having participated with verve and wit in Wednesday afternoon's merciless parliamentary lampooning of the leader of the still fledgling Conservative Party, the Prime Minister generously attempted to restore some of Craig's fast-shrinking credibility the following day.

Realising the risk of collateral damage to the wider centre-right, Key was not entirely driven by Good Samaritan-engendered kindness for Craig, however. Keeping a straight face, Key asserted that Craig's seeming fetish with some of the world's greatest conspiracy theories was all about the leader of a minor party securing some hard-to-obtain attention from the media.

There may be more than a grain of truth in Key's claim that Craig was "winding up" the media for ulterior motives.

But therein lies potential trouble for Key. For as much winding up of the media that Craig may do himself, he does not seem to mind the reverse happening.

In the matter of a few short months - a period within which the Conservatives attracted National's affections at the expense of John Banks-plagued Act and Peter Dunne-troubled United Future - Craig has become nothing short of a media junkie.

He seems to have a habit which must be fed. The condition could yet prove fatal. And not just for Craig's still fledgling Conservative Party.

Key should be afraid, very afraid. National has sought to typecast the Greens as the ultimate definition of whackiness. That is going to be a theme that National will hammer relentlessly in election year. National will endeavour to put the fear of God into voters as to what the Greens might do if given the chance in Government and question whether Labour will have the wherewithal and gumption to stop them.

As Craig amply demonstrated this week, however, applying the same whackiness-ometer to the Conservatives would see them rating as stark raving bonkers several times over.

That would not have mattered so much had the Conservatives remained marooned in splendid isolation.

On the basis of some still pretty derisory results of some opinion polls, they have been allowed to jump into National's cosy centre-right nest without too much thought about the possible impact on those parties, like Act and United Future, that have long resided there without creating too much hassle for National.

These parties may now bring only limited added value for National in terms of vital extra seats in Parliament. But it is better than nothing.

With Banks insisting in public that he would be standing for Act again in Epsom next year, it looked like National would have had little choice but to tear up its relatively longstanding electoral accommodation with Act and fight the seat with the firm intention of winning it.

It would have been too big an ask to expect Epsom voters to hold their nose given the mud and the murk - much of it self-inflicted - that Banks has had to wade through since returning to Parliament two years ago.

In reality, Banks was always going to retire from politics next year and Act was quietly searching out potential successors.

That Banks is now facing electoral fraud charges in the High Court has simply advanced that process. While one fresh face has put his hand up, pressure is going on Rodney Hide to come out of the wilderness, take over as leader once more and resume his tenure as Epsom's MP.

His may be the only face of Act that still engenders some kind of respect in Epsom. The hypocrisy of the perk-grabbing supposed perk-buster is largely forgotten.

He is one of very few within Act to have the profile, energy and drive to do the near impossible - recast Act's faded and tattered image during what will be at most a nine-month run-up to polling day.

He will take some convincing. But he may well be swayed by the argument that next year's election must necessarily be Act's final making or ultimate breaking. There is a feeling in some quarters of the party that an Act future as a single-MP party reliant on National doing it the big favour every three years is simply no future, especially for a party supposed to uphold the principles of competition.

The party must bring more MPs into Parliament to fulfil its side of the bargain.

That might be easier were National performing poorly in the polls and marching back to the safety of the political centre, and thereby failing to satisfy demand on National's right for the more radical policies which Act espouses.

There is no sign of circumstances manifesting themselves in such fashion this side of the election. Act instead faces a rival in the Conservatives on National's right who have picked up the more populist aspects of Act's agenda - such as a tougher stance on law and order.

Meanwhile, based on the premise that Act is already finished, there is much debate on the right about establishing a new libertarian party pushing market-orientated policies.

Regardless of whether such a vehicle can get up and running to fight the election, Key will have to reach electoral accommodations in three seats to ensure neither Act, the Conservatives nor United Future cannibalise votes off National only to fail to meet the 5 per cent threshold.

Craig, however, has said he is not looking for such assistance and does not want it.

Even if he is persuaded otherwise for the sake of the greater cause, he is going to be a major headache for National.

A National-Conservatives Government may be just as scary a prospect for moderate voters as a Labour-Greens one.

One thing is for sure, Craig will not have to indulge in any "winding up" of the media to get attention. The media will be dogging him throughout the three- to four-week official campaign awaiting the next truly cringe-inducing embarrassment to pass his lips at the expense of his supposed allies.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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