The Conservative Party: Creative creationists?

by Jane Clifton / 26 May, 2012
The “polls” that catapulted the Conservatives into prominence barely deserve the name.

Conservative Party leader Colin Craig says he believes young New Zealand women put it about far too much, because a couple of polls – of uncertain methodology – say so. And, of course, he would. Because a touching faith in opinion polls of uncertain methodology may well be the only reason his opinion, as the leader of a small unelected party, is deemed of interest. This may be the first time a party has literally – and there’s no other word for it – bullshitted itself into a public profile. Going into the last election, the Conservative Party was a sideline oddity, based on Craig’s modest profile as an unsuccessful Auckland mayoral candidate, until word got around of a poll showing Act was in trouble in Epsom.

The source of the word about the poll? The Conservative Party, which had its eye on Act’s voters – such as they were by then. Then word got around of another poll, showing Craig ahead in the Rodney electorate. Source of the poll? Again, the Conservative Party. Well, good news should be shared, shouldn’t it? In the rush of the election campaign, the provenance of the polls was never examined by the media. But it did transpire, under the beady eye of blogger Whale Oil – until then not unsupportive of Craig – that the pollster was a person quite high up on the Conservative Party list. Then out came the Horizon poll, which I’m going to call a “poll”, because it’s a self-selecting online survey, which is to the art of polling what a $10 Rolex from a street vendor in Rome is to the art of horology. And lo and behold, this “poll” showed support for the Conservative Party had soared and it had a viable chance of getting to Parliament.

This factoid got onto the media treadmill, and in general commentary it quickly became a given that the party was a player. This was despite the party having openly emailed its supporters telling them to vote in the “poll”, and despite other parties’ supporters having obviously participated in stacking the same “poll” in the past. The robustness of the methodology used in the polls of Epsom and Rodney that the party touted is unknown. But history tells us Act was not in trouble in Epsom (although a poll of local retailers would have undoubtedly found a surge in the sale of nose-pegs), and Craig missed out on Rodney by a fairly convincing 12,000 votes. This whole scenario might strike the average fair-minded reader as beastly unfair and unbecomingly sly. Say what you like about the Act Party, at least it achieved its most recent opinion poll result of 00.00% by its own genuine and scientifically measured efforts.

But it doesn’t matter now, because by persuading the media to run unsubstantiated polling data, the Conservative Party created around itself the aura of potency. Now, Craig is the media’s go-to guy on the question of a new coalition support party for National next election. The provenance of the polls showing young New Zealand women to be promiscuous is also pretty dubious, although gold to headline writers. This writer prefers the view of the American humorist Erma Bombeck, who never trusted polls again after reading one that found 63% of women had had affairs in their lunchtimes. She said she had never met a woman who would give up lunch for sex. The degree to which the media is to blame for treating a phantom fact – that this little-known party had meaningful voter support – as real, and making it a self-fulfilling prophecy is a fairly bitter debate that it wouldn’t help much to have here.

There is an eternal tar-baby relationship between the media and politicians, and it can be hard to tell who stuck to whom first. But National is stuck, for better or worse, with this new “force” on its right flank, and at least we have the incidental fun of watching Winston try to run Craig off. Both are peddling brands of social conservatism. The Conservatives’ is heavily Christian-based, which,as we found in the first MMP election, when the then Christian coalition got close to 5%, can be a useful vote magnet.

Winston is right to be worried, for although it seems unlikely the Conservatives will outpace him, he could suffer a vote drain to them. Backhandedly, Craig’s contribution to the debate over National’s plan to provide beneficiaries free contraception was a boon to the Government by bumping the debate further into the realms of absurdity.

We had already suffered Sue Bradford claiming the policy amounted to eugenics, and the Greens carrying on as though welfare officials would be frog marching women into clinics for injections to render them barren. But no one had plumbed the interesting trajectory of Tariana Turia’s objection to the policy. Whatever the Maori Party’s official position, Turia is on record as urging young Maori women to breed early and often, advice she offered in the manner of a battle-cry a couple of years back. Craig’s intercession was so generally offensive and outlandish that further public debate was drowned out by charges of ungallantry, sexism, religious extremism, and some quite funny jokes and cartoons about the tourism possibilities inherent in the proposition. Still, this furore has cemented the party’s position as a potentially viable vote-getter, and this means a potential nightmare for National. Prime Minister John Key has set his face against doing a deal with Winston, and will quite likely do the same with respect to Craig.

Craig’s promiscuity claim very nearly rendered Key speechless, and you could practically see a serious prime ministerial allergy developing before your very eyes. Key already carries an EpiPen with respect to Winston, and at least needs a dose of Flixonase to deal with John Banks. Colin Craig would send his political immunity into dangerous territory. But if the next election yields a result that would restore National to the Beehive only if it did a deal with either or both of those parties, Key’s principles will become awfully inconvenient. Key would probably walk away. He’s here for a serious time, but not necessarily a long time. But it’s stretching the imagination to think he would even try to persuade the National Party to turn down a deal. Political parties exist to get into government. Any other collective instinct is against nature.

Most likely, National would elect a new leader, and he or she would raid Epsom’s nose-peg depository and try to do a deal. So, despite the Conservative Party’s rather unsporting past tactics, rightleaning voters might well consider the policy trophies the party would try to extract from the Nats. It’s a poor substitute for Act among those with libertarian ideals. Craig has expressed intolerance for the unwed and the non-heterosexual, whereas National and Labour both share a strong liberal, tolerant sensibility. What if the Conservatives, as seems quite possible, demanded an end to civil unions as the price of its support? A return to legal smacking of children? What if they insist on creationism being taught in schools? Craig believes in intelligent design.

National, of course, has the option of chancing its arm by excluding the Conservatives, as its MPs would hardly turn around and support a Labour coalition. But at any rate, the New Zealand Parliament would have a vociferous new platform for the sort of social conservatism we haven’t seen in mainstream public life for several decades. Still, it’s fun to note that Craig has cemented his public profile by again trucking with a dubious poll – a condom-maker’s survey of how many sexual partners various countries’ women have had. “The Conservative Party – brought to you by Durex” has a nice ring about it.
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