Words were very much Paul Goldsmith's forte before the
former speechwriter, press secretary and biographer entered
Parliament three years ago.
But the National Party backbencher was briefly, but
embarrassingly, lost for that commodity this week.
The list MP had been keeping a low profile after opting not
to take part in an all-party studio debate on TV3's The
Nation last weekend for candidates standing in Epsom.
Seeking an explanation for the no-show, one of the channel's
news hounds finally tracked Goldsmith down on Thursday. The
ambushed MP was caught completely off-guard. He was gasping
like a fish out of water. When he did find his voice, he made
an absolute hash of answering the reporter's questions.
It is little wonder the normally highly articulate and
unflappable MP was so hopelessly tongue-tied.
For the second election in a row as National's Epsom
candidate, Goldsmith is partaking in a ridiculous charade
that seemingly requires him to pretend he is a normal
candidate, presumably so the local branches of the National
Party can pretend they are fighting to win the seat. Yet
everyone knows he is under strict instructions from head
office to lose.
While it is not yet official, National once again intends
gifting Epsom to Act New Zealand, in the supremely optimistic
hope that party can resurrect itself and pick up enough
support to bring one or two more centre-right MPs into
Parliament under the ''coat-tailing'' anomaly.
Goldsmith, however, has been sending mixed messages. One
moment he is standing in the electorate to ensure National
hangs on to its hefty party vote, the next he is promising
National will do the ''best job we possibly can'' in Epsom,
thereby intimating National intends winning back the seat.
That is not going to happen. However, a new phrase has been
added to the political lexicon - ''doing a Goldsmith''. It
would be far simpler and much more honest for National not to
stand in Epsom at all, but National harvested more than
24,000 party votes in the electorate in 2011 and it does not
want these voters left feeling they are being taken for
However, the days are now long over when it comes to an
oblique nod-and-a-wink or symbolic cups of tea as supposedly
subtle methods of informing voters how to cast their
electorate vote to best tactical effect, but without being
castigated for manipulating the electoral system.
What was artifice is now just farce. Much to Goldsmith's
relief, no doubt, it sounds like the Prime Minister will be
far more explicit when he finally declares with whom and
where National is willing to entertain mutually beneficial
electoral accommodations at the coming election.
Apart from throwing Act yet another lifeline, it is also in
National's interests to ensure Peter Dunne maintains his
30-year hold on the Ohariu seat in Wellington. United Future
- Dunne's party - is highly unlikely to register a party vote
high enough to get it a second MP. In a hung Parliament,
however, Dunne's lone vote could be the difference between
National clinging to power and absolute deadlock, which could
force another election, unless an opposition party was
willing to abstain on confidence votes and Budget-related
One reason National is willing to help Act and United Future
is that neither party poses any threat to National.
Things are more problematic when it comes to the third leg of
the electoral accommodation trifecta - Colin Craig's
All election year, John Key has ensured there are several
lengths of bargepole between Craig and National.
Back in January when he flagged the various post-election
coalition options available to National, Key referred to
''policy differences'' with the Conservatives, but said it
was likely there would be enough common ground for the two
parties to work together in government.
Indeed, that is the case on policy fundamentals such as
health and education. National could drive a bus through the
holes in much of the Conservatives' policies. There is
certainly room for compromise. Craig has also said he will
not try to re-litigate issues where Parliament has spoken
strongly in favour of a measure, such as gay marriage.
Furthermore, Craig's party will be doing extremely well to
get 4% to 5% of the vote. Its leverage when it comes to
pressuring National will be minimal.
That is all fine and dandy. What worries Key is Craig's and
the Conservatives' public image as a bunch of crazed,
Consequently, when Key issued his ''who can work with who''
treatise back in January, he made it clear he would not be
talking about possible electoral accommodations until much
closer to the election.
Key was obviously hoping he would not have to rely on Craig.
He certainly did not want to have to agree to another
electoral accommodation and thus hand over another of
National's safe seats.
However, the distinct possibility the Maori Party will lose
all its seats really leaves him no choice.
Worse, from the moment Key agrees to such an arrangement,
Craig, along with his party, will be transformed from
interested observers on the margins to significant players at
the very heart of domestic politics - especially if they hold
the balance of power.
The media will assess every utterance Craig makes and judge
how it squares with National's thinking.
On top of that, there is Craig's capacity to say something
truly outrageous, weird, wacky or just plain silly. Wary of
collateral damage to National, Key does not want to spend the
election campaign apologising for the ravings of a would-be
Before any accommodation is reached pre-campaign, Key will
weigh up the hit National might take simply by being
associated with the Conservatives. Indicative polling
suggests Craig's reactionary (to use that word in its proper
non-pejorative meaning) bent appeals most to middle-aged
males in the provinces. And the latter are most definitely on
Craig's radar, along with the elderly.
Key will be worried that being seen as close to Craig will
cost National the votes of urban liberals, especially women.
His problem is that he does not have the luxury of being able
to write off a chunk of the centre-right vote. He has to
Craig, however, poses more of a threat to Winston Peters with
regard to which segments of the vote he is targeting, and
that could help National.
Key might yet strike lucky. Giving Craig a seat that brings
in a handful of MPs could result in Key needing either New
Zealand First or the Conservatives to govern. That would
force Peters to negotiate with Key. Otherwise, Key could turn
However, it would be a short step from that relative comfort
to needing both Peters and Craig to govern. And would not
that be the stuff of nightmares for any prime minister.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political