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Uncle Colin

Uncle Colin

First, he’ll take Parliament, then he’ll rule as Prime Minister. Steve Braunias goes inside the mind of Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.

 

We met in a hotel lobby, and he looked like the bellhop. I expected guests to give him their luggage. There was such a meekness to him, an adolescence; he stood around awkwardly in a suit that hung off his shoulders as though it was a size too big. He was very thin. He seemed so vulnerable. His appearance wasn’t entirely deceptive. A gaunt, hollow-eyed figure, Colin Craig — millionaire businessman, leader of the Conservative Party — is the strangest man in any room, at once manic and bland, with the temperament and vanities of a sensitive artist.

I wanted to discuss his character and examine the state of his mental health. He liked to refer in lofty, confident terms to “my political career”, something which doesn’t officially exist yet — but, even so, Craig is the talk of New Zealand, with his penchant for weird remarks, his distaste for gay marriage and his taste for smacking children, and the very real possibility he’ll be swept into Parliament at this year’s election. “I’m entering politics,” he said, “and I’ve got 30, 40 years ahead of me.”

Thirty, 40 more years of Colin Craig in public life! The mind, as ever with this appealing eccentric, boggles. I asked him if he ever dared think that one day he might become Prime Minister, and he said, “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Like many politicians who possess extreme and loathsome ideas, he’s charming. I warmed to him immediately.

Prime Minister Craig. Ridiculous, probably, but who knows how far he’ll go? Like many politicians who possess extreme and loathsome ideas, he’s charming. I warmed to him immediately. He had a tremendous innocence about him, an optimism and playfulness, a pleasing Christian decency. His light brown hair was cut short. He had an open smile and pretty green eyes. He was boyish, in spirit, but also in the fact there wasn’t much of him. At 46, he could pass for a tired 15-year-old. He stands six feet tall, and has shed 30 kilograms to get in shape for the coming election campaign, bringing his weight down to about 75kg. The gauntness, the shrunken cheeks… It wasn’t anything as sinister as bulimia, but it advertised some other fanaticism.

He exercises three, sometimes five days a week, at home, on the treadmill, walking nowhere fast for 40 minutes to an hour while watching documentaries (Who Gets the Best Jobs?; Sugar: The Bitter Truth) on You Tube. He gave up pies, he drinks a lot of water. “I did a complete check-up and the nurse said, ‘Oh, you’ve got the body of a 20-year-old!’ I feel just so fantastic.”

His clothes are another kind of make-over. He gave away all his old clothes to the Salvation Army, and was told to get his hair done at Servilles, buy Hugo Boss shoes and measure up for suits, shirts and ties from Barkers, and Rodd and Gunn.

I asked where the floppy blue suit was from, and he said, “This one, I think you’ll find it’s Country Style.”

His PR handler, Rachel MacGregor, said, “No, it’s Working Style.”

She sat with him during both interviews. They made a sad couple. They were both outsiders. I told MacGregor that TV3’s David Farrier wrote on his Twitter account that he was in her communications class at AUT, and felt really sorry for her now that she worked for Craig. It wasn’t anything she hasn’t heard before.

MacGregor is a former producer at TVNZ, working on shows such as Breakfast and Good Morning. She said, “There’ve been people who have deleted me off Facebook. Tamati Coffey, who I worked with for many years. There’s actually been a number of people in the media who’ve gone, ‘Oh, you’re working for Colin Craig? I can’t talk to you anymore.’ Steve Gray at Good Morning is a lovely guy, we got on really well, but now I’m the devil, apparently.”

Craig listened impatiently to her speech, and then gave a rather long disquisition about how, when it came down to it, he didn’t have any enemies. “We can work with anyone,” he said, imagining himself as an MP in an MMP environment. But does anyone want to work with him?

 

Last year, Prime Minister John Key dangled the possibility of entering a coalition with the Conservatives. Since then… nothing, not a peep, despite intense press speculation that National would offer Craig the safe seat of East Coast Bays. “You think we’d have heard something!” Craig laughed.

It’s his best bet for getting into Parliament; otherwise, to cross the five per cent threshold of the national vote, Craig estimates the party will need about 120,000 votes. He claims that’s a reasonable ambition. The party attracted 59,237 votes in the 2011 election. Membership is a healthy 4000. Craig is scheduling a tour of the South Island, and the party is likely to announce its candidate list at its conference in June. He talked about the rigours of commuting from Auckland to Wellington after the election. “Oooh, I’ll have to get used to the weather there!”

He was somewhat taking it for granted. I was a little taken aback by how sure he was of himself. It was a theme during our interviews. He boasted about running an accountancy firm when he was only 23. A very young looking 23: “I had to grow a moustache to look old enough!” It was his first job after university. “I started out as accounts junior, and said I’d work for nothing while I learned the ropes. I ended up within about 14 months as financial controller. Within that short a time space!” he said, marvelling.

He continued telling the story, and soon “that short a time space” became even shorter. “I hadn’t been brought up in a home with any exposure to business. When I got into business, I thrived. I loved it. It was like — I don’t know whether I’d call it coming home, but I just — I hit the ground running. You’re talking to customers, you’re talking to people with problems and needs. I found the responsibility sat well with me. Within 12 months the owners went away on holiday and put me in charge of all the staff and everything!”

He drew you into his world — you could imagine his happiness, his excellence, his moustache.

He made it sound very exciting. He drew you into his world — you could imagine his happiness, his excellence, his moustache. Craig is now CEO of Centurion, a body-corporate management company, which employs a staff of 25. His wife, Helen, is a co-director, but stays home in their freehold brick- and-tile house in Fairview Heights, Albany, to homeschool their eight-year-old daughter.

The couple met at Auckland University. He thinks he first met her in the quad. “I didn’t ask her out or anything like that. I was far more interested in figuring out who she was and if she was someone who I wanted to go out with. I wasn’t going to waste time going out on dates with people who might not pan out. By the time I asked her out, I had a pretty good idea of who she was.”

There was something about Craig that made you wonder if he existed in some kind of parallel universe. His family were raised as Baptists; his brother Andrew said, “We were brought up that you have one woman and get married and that was it. We did the normal dating, but what was normal to us was getting to know someone and having a relationship, not just getting, you know, overtly physical and then deciding, ‘Oh, that wasn’t what I wanted.’ It was just good common sense. A relationship’s the most valuable thing, it’s not the sex or anything else.”

Craig refused to be interviewed at his home. He asked that his daughter’s name be kept out of the story. He said his wife, Helen, wanted to stay in the background. “That may have to change,” he said, nervously.

 

Craig likes to talk about the support of “mainstream” New Zealanders, and rejects the concept of the Conservatives as any kind of Christian party. But with his rise to prominence as an opponent of gay marriage, I told Craig, he’s become almost like the new Brian Tamaki.

“Well, I hope not,” Rachel MacGregor interrupted. “I certainly wouldn’t work for Brian Tamaki. I don’t like what you’re saying. This is not what the media would like it to be. They’d like it to be an American-style Christian party, but it’s more interesting than that.”

Is it? Larry Baldock, number three on the party list in the 2011 election, is associated with the Youth with a Mission evangelist movement, founded by a 20-year-old who had a vision in the Bahamas. The party’s Young Conservatives chairman is Adriaan (“AJ”) Heijns, a pastor at Doxa Deo Church, a South African fundamentalist outreach.

Apart from Craig, the biggest donor to the party is Laurence Day, of Hamilton, who handed over $100,000. I asked him about his stand on the smacking law. He said, “A step too far.” Same with gay marriage? “Yes.” His wife, Katrina, is the party’s electorate chair in Hamilton East. The Days belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Craig’s father and brother both stood as party candidates in last year’s local body elections. “The Bible is a key book,” said Andrew Craig. Colin doesn’t attend church, but weekly staff meetings at Centurion end with a prayer, and sometimes include scripture readings.

Steve Plummer, an ex-cop who is co-director at Centurion, said that other companies have regular meetings with a religious content. He named Sanitarium, which is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I asked him if he could name any other companies, and he said, “I can only speak for this company.”

He said staff look forward to the weekly meeting. “It’s worth noting that before every employee starts work for the company, it’s clearly spelled out there is a meeting on the Thursday which may include scripture, and does include a prayer, and people are asked if they have issues with that.”

And if someone had an issue? “You’re asking about a scenario that’s never happened.”

I didn’t much enjoy talking with Plummer. Yes, he said, he was Christian. Which church did he attend? “That’s got nothing to do with anything.” He was defensive, abrupt, hostile. His attitude only encouraged me to wonder whether there was something creepy about the working atmosphere at Centurion. Attendance at the Thursday staff meeting was compulsory. What might happen if you stepped out of line, didn’t conform?

In 2007, an account manager took Centurion to the Employment Court in a personal grievance claim. It was a weird, messy dispute and at the end of it she was awarded $3000 for hurt and humiliation. Part of her complaint involved the weekly staff meetings, or “devotion sessions”. She told the court, “While attendance was compulsory, participation was not. But it’s pretty hard to sit in a room and be preached at and just ignore it.”

Craig was happy to talk about the case, but got cut off. “I know you’re going to be focusing on this employment dispute and whatever,” said Rachel MacGregor. “I’m sure it’s very exciting for you. But I’ve got to meet a lot of the people at Centurion, and they just don’t leave. Most people are having their 10-year anniversaries. Colin’s a good employer. He cares for his people.”

I like Craig, but it can be a challenge to take him seriously. He’s said such a wide range of various and assorted stupid things.

“His people” — he was Jesus of Albany, who talked about politics as the chance to “unload my burden of what I’m meant to be in life”. I liked Craig. He was fun, engaging, an enthusiast. I didn’t think of him as any kind of religious maniac. But it can be a challenge to take him seriously. He’s said such a wide range of various and assorted stupid things. “We are the country with the most promiscuous young women in the world.” Also: “Fluoride is a poison put in the water supply.” It’s his depressing, anti-intellectual opinion that evolution is just a theory and should be taught alongside creation “theory”.

Party policy is a mish-mash of the usual windy militant trash (work for the dole, abolish Maori seats). There’s his endless yap about a parent’s right to smack their kids, his alliance with the dreary Family First, his bitter little threat of legal action against satirical website The Civilian, his gormless remarks about the moon landing and chemtrails… Craig talks about his “political career” in terms of wanting to leave a legacy. Each month, he writes out another cheque for $40,000 or more to fund the campaign.

But is the whole enterprise another exercise in vanity? “I’ve got the body of a 20-year-old”, “I was put in charge of all the staff and everything!” Anxiety runs like a current beneath everyone who brags; if the Conservatives fail to make it into Parliament this year, it will be an expensive and traumatic flop — verily, the gravest sin of all, a waste of money.

MT0314_ColinCraig_DSC1567

There are so many adorable stories of Craig’s thriftiness. They’re like his foundation myth: people know him as the millionaire businessman who saw a couch left on the side of the road (“I tested it out. It was comfy!”) and took it home. Rebecca Wright of Campbell Live filmed him shopping for specials at Pak’N Save. I tried to go one cheaper, and asked him about the $2 Shop.

He said, “Oh yeah, you can buy useful stuff there that looks and functions very reasonably. Just last week we got plastic food tubs. They were five-litres with proper sealing lids. Five of those, 10 bucks, and you’ve reorganised the pantry — that’s fantastic value!”

Here was a leader of a political party who could speak knowledgeably and intimately about plastic food tubs with proper sealing lids.

He can be so boring. I loved it. Household drudgery is one of my favourite topics of conversation, and here was a leader of a political party who could speak knowledgeably and intimately about plastic food tubs with proper sealing lids.

He also talked about the joys of household budgeting sessions around the dinner table with an Excel spreadsheet.

“It hardly takes any time on Excel,” he said. “As a successful businessman I suppose I could spend whatever I want. But we always said we didn’t want our household budget just to expand because of our success, so we’ll sit down and compare notes every few months. More often if there’s a change in what we’re buying. It’s a fun thing. We enjoy talking about it. It’s part of the interaction and discussion of life. ‘You know what, I think we should change fruit shops.’ That kind of thing.”

Their father, Ross, taught at Pakuranga College, and the family grew up in Howick on a single income. Pocket money was $1 a week. “I remember debating with my parents that it should be raised to $1.50,” he said. “I actually did a great big chart, put it up on the wall, and gave them a presentation as to why they should increase the pocket money. Maybe that was a bit of political lobbying of my parents. I got my brothers and sisters in on this and said, ‘Look, as a team, we’ll all be better off.’ A bit of political lobbying! And we got it.”

Craig told Fairfax business journalist Matt Nippert that he runs the household budget through credit cards; tell me more, I begged. He said he and Helen use ASB Platinum Visa cards, and explained, “With credit cards, you don’t actually have to pay the money until sometimes up to 60 or 70 days, so for that 60 or 70 days, the money is sitting in your account, earning interest. And the reward points you get for spending money more than covers all the fees… I guess it’s my accountant’s brain which takes advantage of every opportunity. I’m really good with money.”

 

He was conforming to a stereotype. But there was something else going on with him — flair, inventiveness, the mind of an artist. At school, he wrote short stories and poetry. His brother Andrew remembered a poem in the Macleans College magazine. “It wasn’t too bad. It was about the atom bomb and the idea that it was best not to detonate one because it would be reasonably terminal for the world.”

Their mother wrote her own stories, and read them to the kids at bedtime. “Genuine originals!” said Colin. “I’m a big fan of doing that. I’m the uncle in the family who tells the stories. All the kids gather around and shout, ‘Come on Uncle Colin, give us a story!’”

Andrew Craig said, “Oh yeah, he’s always got a good story or two. He had lots of stories when we were kids, too. One I remember quite fondly was he was probably about seven and I’d have been five and he said to me, ‘Let’s go down to the garage and build a helicopter and we’ll fly over to Africa.’”

In person, he has a sensitivity about him, a softness and vulnerability.

He’s a lifelong fantasist. He was big on The Lord of the Rings, and read sci-fi novels Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns over summer. Other worlds, vivid happenings. In person, he has a sensitivity about him, a softness and vulnerability. Ballad of a thin man: he said he learned to play guitar “not to join a band or anything like that, but so I could write songs”. At university, he studied commerce, but went against his parents’ advice and insisted on an arts degree: “I couldn’t help myself.”

Craig described his creative writing when he was a teenager as “an outlet”. He felt compelled to express himself. There was a need to invent, an impulse to make something new. It never went away: while listening to him, and observing his alertness, his moods, the way his mind worked, I came to think of the Conservative Party as his masterpiece, the work of a visionary artist.

It’s an original idea that has taken hold of him, possessed him. “I couldn’t help myself…” He’s poured his wealth into it. It’s his legacy, his shining monument. He made it all up — “Uncle Colin, give us a story!” People have gathered around to listen to it. It’s a story with the power to move and inspire an audience.

I asked Andrew Craig whether he regarded Colin as creative, and he said, “Absolutely. Yeah. He’s got that mind on him that’s that way wired, and he’s great at getting people to believe in the vision and dream that he has, and get you willingly helping him out.”

A “vision”, a “dream” — the Conservative Party was the helicopter flying to Africa. This time, it might get off the ground.

 

Craig is a fan of the classic board game Diplomacy. He once entered a world championship. It’s set in Europe in the years leading to World War I; players take on the role of nations such as England, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Negotiation is key. The game requires honesty and trust, secrets and betrayals. There is no dice in Diplomacy, no random throw of fate — nothing is left to chance.

“I love playing strategy games,” Craig said. “I’m strategic. I like planning, I like assessing. I deliberately don’t play computer games because I don’t want to waste time but I could spend hours playing those games if I could. I enjoy the strategy of business.

“So all this,” he said, meaning his commitment to the Conservative Party, “has been a calculation. This isn’t casual. This is very deliberate. This is what I want my life to be about from this point on.”

His friends talk about him as focused, a good thinker, a man of his word. Property valuer Tony McKeown has known Craig for about 10 years. Was he surprised to see his old mate become such a public figure in New Zealand politics? “I didn’t expect it, but I’m not surprised,” he said.

“It’s like I went to a Takapuna Grammar prizegiving about three years ago, and Lorde was there singing on stage. I thought, ‘My God, there are some talented New Zealanders! That girl should be in show business!’ Well, there you go. You never know who’s actually going to do it, though, do you?”

Lorde and Colin Craig, together in one sentence at last. Let him live that fantasy — the leader of a political party in Parliament, in government. He’ll put in the work. He had a plaque on his office wall which read, “Leadership is action, not position.” Actually, it’s both; Craig only knows his way around a workplace when he’s in charge.

Leadership comes naturally to him. As the eldest in his family, he took the role seriously. “He was always the leader,” his younger brother Andrew said, twice. He rose to the top quickly in business, and has stayed there ever since.

Craig talked about Centurion being like a family. I said, “With you as head of the household.”

He said, “I guess so.”

I said, “But someone like you is better placed to do that in charge.”

He said, “I understand that. And I guess that I often end up in charge of things in my life because I get involved, and I end up floating to the top.”

And so once again I asked him about his chances of becoming Prime Minister, and once again he was happy to play along with it. “Most things I’ve done in my life people said I couldn’t do. ‘You can’t have an accountancy practice, you’re not old enough. You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’ll never manage to pull that off.’ But I always do. So who knows? Anything could happen.”

Again with the vanity — “I always do.” But he was just stating a fact. He’s very good at studying the angles, getting what he wants.

 

One of his best friends, Neil Evans, hosted a Diplomacy session at his house last year. The players included Craig, a couple of lawyers, an IT specialist, a businessman, the former Solicitor-General for the Republic of Kiribati — guys of middle age and no small acumen, who place a high value on the importance of maintaining relationships, plan ahead, remain alert. “It’s a matter of tactics and timing, and how well you plan that double-cross,” said Evans. “It’s a really good game for political aspirants.”

Craig took the role of the Austria-Hungary Empire, which Evans said was “one of the countries that’s normally quite difficult to win from”. Craig wasn’t worried. He loves the parable of David and Goliath, of fighting against the odds. “The minnow can take on the shark,” he said. “There’s something noble about that. I’m someone who thinks there are things like honour and nobility. These things are real.”

They ordered in pizza, and played from 6pm to about midnight. I asked Evans how Craig got on, and he said, “Well, I’d liken Colin to John Key in a sense. I don’t follow politics, so I’m not sure about this one, but have I got it right that John Key used to be known as the smiling assassin? I have? Okay. Well, then, with Colin, you wouldn’t know you’ve been stabbed in the back and had your country decimated by invading troops until it practically happens.”

“Oh,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Evans. “Colin cleaned me and my friends up. He won the game.”

 

First published in Metro, March 2014. Photos by Alistair Guthrie.

Politics