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 Mr Craig's
fast-shrinking credibility the following day.
Realising the risk of collateral damage to the wider
centre-right, Mr Key was not entirely driven by kindness for
Mr Craig, however. Keeping a straight face, Mr Key asserted
that Mr Craig's seeming fetish with some of the world's great
conspiracy theories was 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 Mr Key's claim Mr
Craig was ''winding up'' the media for ulterior motives.
But therein lies potential trouble for Mr Key. 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 - Mr Craig has become a media junkie.
He seems to have a habit which must be fed. The condition
could yet prove fatal, and not just for Mr Craig's still
fledgling Conservative Party.
Mr Key should be afraid, very afraid. National has sought to
typecast the Greens as the ultimate definition of wackiness.
That is going to be a theme 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 Mr Craig amply demonstrated this week, however, applying
the same wackiness-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
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 Mr Banks insisting in public that he would be standing
for Act again in Epsom next year, it looked as if 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
Mr Banks has had to wade through since returning to
Parliament two years ago.
In reality, Mr Banks was always going to retire from
potlatches next year and Act was quietly searching out
That Mr 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
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, Mr 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% threshold.
Mr 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 as just as scary a
prospect for moderate voters as a Labour-Greens one.
One thing is for sure, Mr 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
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald