The decline and fall of Colin Craig is a tawdry tale which has all the ingredients of a Mills & Boon romance gone terribly wrong.
It is a bodice-ripper on steroids; a grotesque fable of unrequited, but apparently unconsummated love.
Someone should turn the whole sorry affair into a steamy soap opera, like the ones which run in the wee small hours of the afternoon.
National should daily offer up sacrifices to the political gods as thanks for the party not being part of the script for such a programme.
That would have been the case had National struck an electoral deal with Craig to ensure centre-right votes were not wasted.
Much of the news coverage of Craig’s defamation trial focussed almost exclusively on the titilating, but often conflicting evidence offered up by a motley collection of political misfits.
That was hardly surprising. The proceedings in the Auckland High Court provided seemingly inexhaustible amounts of what is called “good copy”.
The media, however, did not get a clear answer to the unspoken, but paramount question which hung over the courtroom. What was the degree of adultery committed by the former leader of the Conservative party?
In the end, the court had to take Craig at his word that — to use his immortal declaration — he had never taken his trousers off in the company of Rachel MacGregor, his estranged former press secretary.
The pantomime of recent weeks was brought to an abrupt end last Friday afternoon when the jury in the trial returned to court to deliver its verdict.
Its finding that Craig had defamed Jordan Williams was not a great surprise.
Such a verdict was almost inevitable under New Zealand’s tough libel laws, given what Craig had said about Williams at a press conference last year and the accusations contained in a pamphlet which Craig had distributed to some 1.6 million households.
What was a shock was the jury’s award of $1.27 million in damages to Williams. On initial reflection, the record sum seemed both utterly ludicrous and deeply disturbing.
The jury should have considered whether the courts were the place to fight what was essentially a political battle
The jury could have still found in Williams’ favour. But it could have set a useful precedent by imposing token damages of just a single dollar.
At this stage of proceedings, you might be asking Jordan Williams who? Well may you ask. Williams has the pretentious-sounding title of “executive director and co-founder” of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union. The what? Well may you ask.
The Union is not a trade union. It claims to be 100 per cent independent of party politics. That it feels it has to make such a declaration is a fair indication that at a minimum the organization is aligned with a particular political party.
The Union is comprised of a handful of like-minded individuals firmly ensconced on the right of politics. Their self-appointed role is to root out examples of government waste of taxpayers’ money. They are doing so on the expectation that people like themselves on high incomes will be rewarded by having to pay less tax.
Williams is a political neophyte. He is one of the many gadflies who feast on the more extreme elements of the Body Politic, be it on the left or right of the spectrum.
When you involve yourself with the affairs of a party of the Conservatives’ nature, you really are operating on the fringe.
Williams would argue that he was a white knight who came to the rescue of a friend, namely MacGregor.
But if so why did he put her through more hell than she had already suffered by taking Craig to court? Whatever loathing she might have for Craig and desire for revenge, having her personal life painted all over town day after day would have still been traumatic.
She was not the only one whose emotions got the better of them during the trial.
Williams exudes self-confidence and undoubted intelligence and is not slow in ensuring everyone knows this. But on at least a couple of occasions, he appeared distinctly uncomfortable.
If he harbours ambitions of entering Parliament one day, he will need to develop a much thicker hide.
Everything is fair in love and politics.The courts should not be as a mechanism for exercising political vendetta. If they were to be used in such fashion, they would do little else.
That point was made by political blogger Martyn Bradbury. Describing Williams as “manipulative” and akin to a “venomous spider”, Bradbury told the court that Craig’s leaflet was “an appropriate response to a pack of political sadists”.
The jury, however, decided Craig was the one with all the venom. Its unanimous verdict was that Craig should be punished.
The jury seems to have set the level of damages at such a height because of the level of malice and ill-will they considered Craig had shown towards Williams, the copious amount and extent of the libelous material, the widespread distribution of the offending pamphlet and, finally Craig’s subterfuge which culminated in him being outed as the “Mr X” , who posed as an anonymous whistleblower in the leaflet.
Seen in that context, the scale of the damages is not as precedent-setting as some in the mainstream media may be fearing.
Craig is — or perhaps more accurately — was the Frank Spencer of New Zealand politics.
Nothing he says or does seems to embarrass him. Whether it be conspiracy theories surrounding the Moon landings or leafleting the Prime Minister’s electorate because John gKey was “too gay” to represent the people of Helensville, Craig seems to be irresistibly drawn to the extreme, the bizarre, the mysterious or the mythical.
Craig lives on the edge. If the earth was flat — something he may or may not believe — he would fall off it.
But it now turns out the credibility of the House of Craig — what little was left in it — was already in free-fall prior to Friday’s High Court verdict.
Craig might feign nonchalance regarding the huge bill he must pay in damages. (‘, it will be interesting to see what Williams does with the windfall.
Not so easy for Craig to dismiss is a Human Rights Review Tribunal decision which required him to pay nearly $130,000 to MacGregor for repeatedly breaching the confidentiality agreement which was a vital condition of the pair’s pay dispute and MacGregor’s claim of sexual harassment.
The tribunal’s report was suppressed until Craig’s defamation trial was over. It did not mince words, saying that Craig had “comprehensively, deliberately and systematically” breached the confidentiality of his settlement with MacGregor.
The breaches had been “extensive, calculated and engineered to attract maximum publicity”.
They had caused MacGregor “significant humiliation, significant loss of dignity and significant injury to feelings”. The tribunal’s order that Craig pay MacGregor $128,780 in damages plus costs is the largest sum it has ever awarded for emotional harm.
The tribunal’s ruling is the final kiss of death for any resurrection of Craig the politician should he be stupid enough to think he can make a comeback if not soon then later.
Craig’s future in politics is easy to assess. He has no such future.
He deserves no sympathy. He will get none. He has used his wealth as a weapon to threaten legal action against almost anyone who has spoken ill of him.
He has taken this to ridiculous lengths, most prominently in taking exception to some perceived slur on his character made by the website, The Civilian. He ended up thinking — or was persuaded to think — that suing satirists was not such a good idea after all.
Likewise his similar threat to take action against Russel Norman. The former Greens’ co-leader’s uncompromising response was a Dirty Harry-like invitation to Craig to “make my day”. Craig subsequently chose not to do so.
The High Court’s verdict and the accompanying damages will be viewed by the majority of people as very much Craig’s just desserts.
Assessing Craig’s future in politics is easy. He has none.
Heaven knows what he thought he was doing by thinking he could transform a working relationship into something that was far beyond the platonic.
Heaven knows how he thought he could keep juggling all the balls in the air without dropping at least one.
Craig is hardly the first politician, however, to have become besotted with one of his staff.
He may have kept his trousers on. But in the Court of King Colin, however, he was seen as an emperor with no clothes, judging from the observations of other staff working in the Conservatives’ head office.
In their minds, MacGregor’s relationship with Craig had blatantly gone far beyond that normally expected between press secretary and politician.
With rumour and innuendo mounting at an exponential rate, Craig’s affaire de coeur was doomed not to have a fairy-tale ending.
It was instead destined to be more the stuff of Brothers Grimm.
One question remains. And it is an important one. What would those who used his liaison with MacGregor to dump him from the party leadership been so enthusiastic about doing so had Craig succeeded in crashing through the 5 per cent threshold and secured six or seven seats for his party in the new Parliament?
The answer is an unequivocal “no”. Like all fowl fattening themselves by picking and pecking at the perks and privileges of life in the parliamentary farmyard, these political turkeys, had they made it to Wellington, would never have voted for an early Christmas.
Like moths to a flame, some of those who signed up with the Conservatives did so because the party offered a much easier route into Parliament than was the case with National.
By ensuring the likes of Christine Rankin were high up the party’s list, Craig hoped to raise the Conservatives’profile and make the party look something more than a one-man band.
in doing so, Craig was sowing one of the seeds of his destruction. Rankin was als9 the party’s chief executive. She was much perturbed by Craig’s behaviour. She had joined the party because of its principles. She rapidly lost coofidence in Craig.
But the real killer for Craig was MacGregor’s resignation. Coming just two days before the election, it was timed to perfection, completely eradicating Craig’s by now slim hopes of breaking the threshold.
On election night, the Conservatives won just under 4 per cent of the party vote — a result which was only marginally better than the near 3 per cent which the party had secured in their electoral debut three years earlier.
The disappointment rapidly morphed into a behind-the-scenes campaign to force Craig to step down. Not only had he blatantly and brazenly infringed, cheapened and thus undermined the very morals and values which were the party’s core foundations.
He had wrecked the rationale for the party’s existence. How could the party proselytize the virtues of its policies when the leader had — as a minimum flirted with breaking the seventh commandment: thou shall not commit adultery?
But the plotting to rid the party of Craig was at the same time a four-landed highway which to nowhere fast, of course. Craig was the founder and funder of the party. Without him, there would be no party.
As so often is the case with minor parties, however, electoral failure is followed by finger-pointing, recriminations and infighting in general which becomes an end in itself.
The protagonists often prefer to split the party than cave in to factional opponents.
Once the bellicosity and belligerence erupted onto the public stage, it was all over for the Conservatives.
It was not so much a case of destroying the village in order to save it. It was more a case of destroying the village come what may.
What can be learned from this debacle? Two things. Political parties which are the playthings of their founder and funder are always vulnerable to some life-destroying crisis be it generated within the party or outside.
The Greens have understood the dangers of someone believing they are bigger than their party. That might be an unstated reason beyond the one of gender why they have a constitutional structure which requires two co-leaders be elected.
In contrast, New Zealand First could easily and quickly disintegrate once Winston Peters eventually exits. The grooming of former Labour Party heavy-hitter Shane Jones as Peters’ sucessor may do little to stabilise things.
If Peters leaves a vacuum, there will be chaos. That is because whomever succeeds him has precious little chance of matching Peters’ finely-honed political skills, popular appeal and razor-sharp political acumen. The party will start dropping in the polls. Infighting will spread and intensify.
Peters makes politics look easy. It isn’t.
The other lesson to be drawn from Craig’s demise is 6hat religion-based political parties have consistently failed to get themselves elected to Parliament despite the possibilities offered by MMP.
The reason is simple. New Zealander tend to be conservative of mind. They occasionally break out of that mode and elect Labour governments. But they tend to keep National in power for longer.
The true meaning of conservatism is to “conserve” changes made by another administration, but manage them better.
Natoonal fits that prescription to a tee.
Parties which want to ditch reforms and return the country to doing things as they used to be done are defined as “reactionary”.
Craig’s Conservatives could not be more misnamed. Graig’s Reactionaries would not be easy to market, however.
The dismal performances of Christian=based parties have also confirmed that New Zealanders are averse to religion being mixed with politics and vice versa.
There are just too few people who want to see religious values having a real impact on the political discourse and action. Furthermore, there are already political parties which would argue their values and policies are very close to Christian beliefs.
The centre-left parties’ promises to attack social and economic disadvantage is the obvious example.
None of the above, however, will deter people from trying to establish a Christian-based voice in Parliament.
When it comes t0 would-be political messiahs, there always seems to be a would be politician who ignores history and is convinced there is a large latent Christian vote just waiting to be tapped, be it the Conservatives’ Colin Craig, Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki, Christian Heritage’s Graham Capill or, going back to the 1990’s, the Christian Democrats’ Graeme Lee.
The latter had been a long-serving National MP prior to founding his own party. Lee’s party formed an alliance with Capill’s outfit to jointly fight the 1996 election under the banner of the Christian Coalition. The coalition registered 4.3 per cent of the vote. It remains the high-water mark for the Christian vote.
Tamaki’s 2004 prediction that his church would be “ruling the nation” by the time it celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2008 proved to be a trifle optimistic. Destiny New Zealand failed to get even 1 per cent of the vote in the 2005 election.
Capill’s party dissolved after its leader was sentenced to nine years’ jail in 2005 after pleading guilty to charges of sexual molestation and rape involving girls between the ages of five and twelve.
Add to those embarrassments the several mliions of dollars that Craig has poured down the drain in a vain bid for self-glory in the form of his doomed attempt to turn his Conservative brand into a real force in New Zealand’s domestic politics. Then add his current disgrace which has seen him sink fast an animal stuck in quicksand.
All up, you can say without question that the track record of the county’s Christian parties has varied between being just dismal to being truly pathetic.
The saving grace — to mangle the famous dictum of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes — is that while their lives have been nasty and brutish, they have also been mercifully short.