Craig v Slater: Please make it stop

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By Steve Braunias

What to make of the shabby and often excruciating slow-motion train wreck smashing into tiny pieces every day at courtroom 14 in the High Court at Auckland, where former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig and Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater are talking about sex while going at each other in a defamation counterclaim?

Craig claims Slater wrote libellous things about his conduct with his former press secretary Rachel MacGregor and "other victims". Slater claims Craig wrote libellous things in response. Yeah, whatever. It's all so unseemly. And kind of pathetic. Not even titillating. "Please," emailed one of our most cherished broadcasters this week, when I mentioned to her how I was spending my days, "make it stop".

Will it ever end? This is merely Craig's latest appearance in court, except this time he's representing himself. A good defamation lawyer costs money. And so there he was upstairs in courtroom 14, an accountant turned politician turned (worst of all) defamation lawyer, as thin as a stick, rattling around somewhere inside the same blue suit from The Italian Shop and long winter coat from Rodd & Gunn that MacGregor advised he buy several years ago to smarten up his image.

He called his wife to the stand on Tuesday. "You are Helen Craig," he said to her, "and you are married to Colin Craig?" Pretty much the only thing they talked about was MacGregor. She worked for Craig for three years and the exact nature of their relationship is the central subject of the court case. How did a private matter become so public? MacGregor accused Craig of sexual harassment, and took him to the Human Rights Commission; it led to the least confidential settlement in legal history. Craig's repeated version of events - in press conferences, in interviews, even in saunas - is that it was a tortured love story.

He did not have sexual relations with that woman. No one disputes it. Everything else is a sprawling, untidy mess, the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, tipped out daily in courtroom 14 - the poems, the cards, the letters, the backrubs, a gift of jewellery, a loan, a sext.

A sext! What sext? At best, the case resembles a low farce. Conservative Party board member Laurence Day appeared on the stand this week and spoke about a conversation he had with former party member Jordan Williams, who claimed to have documents confirming the sordid nature of Craig's feelings towards MacGregor. "He had a file an inch thick," said Day. They included his notes of a sext Craig had sent to his press secretary: "I wish I was lying between your naked legs." But Williams later told Day he got that wrong, and it actually read something like, "I wish I was lying on your naked legs."

What? Who does that? Is it a Kama Sutra thing? Isn't the preferred position between, not on? What purpose does that serve?

The poems - definitely, unfortunately - existed. "You are beautiful because you are fearfully and wonderfully made..." The author hung his head in court, and said: "Inappropriate." He held on to that word like a blanket. He said it many, many times. It was as far as he was prepared to describe his behaviour.

Forget Slater. He doesn't give a stuff what Craig says about him, couldn't care less. He's heard a lot worse, he's a tough cookie. The real damage is to MacGregor. She took her boss to the Human Rights Commission on sexual harassment allegations, and this is what happens?

Her side of the story will be heard in full when she appears in court next week. She'll probably read a brief of evidence. Slater's lawyer, Brian Henry, might run through a few questions. And then she'll be cross-examined by Craig.

Make it stop.

An accountant turned politician turned defamation lawyer, Colin Craig is representing himself in court. Photo / Michael Craig
An accountant turned politician turned defamation lawyer, Colin Craig is representing himself in court. Photo / Michael Craig

I like court. I like the routine. I have the same breakfast every morning at McDonald's in Britomart, and always say hello to the Jehovah's Witness couple who stand in a nearby doorway. I see the same people in court. There's Brian Henry, taking notes with his beautiful Staedtler fine-nibbed pens in green and brown, and there's his glamorous assistant, Charlotte Foster, making her trial debut.

Continued below.

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There's Cameron Slater, who was very chummy those first few days; I've always liked his company and his antic wit, and there was a time when I considered working for him.

He didn't talk to me on Thursday. I wrote a court report which perhaps rather mocked his performance on the witness stand. Slater is of the Christian faith. There was a strange moment in his cross-examination when Slater and Craig compared notes on their prayers.

When I interviewed Craig during the 2014 election campaign, I asked him whether he was the new Brian Tamaki - but before he got the chance to answer, the question was shot down by...Rachel MacGregor. She sat close by and interrupted quite a few times. Once, she said, "Colin's a good employer. He cares for his people." But she abruptly and tearfully quit two days before the vote; Day told the court he thought it was a factor in the Conservative Party's failed bid to get into Parliament.

I interviewed Craig quite a few times that year. I warmed to him immediately. He seemed such an appealing eccentric. The last time I saw him was at dawn on Oteha Valley Rd in Albany, where he stood on the side of the road and waved at motorists. Three days to go till election day, and the Conservatives had recorded an amazing result in the opinion polls: 4.9 per cent.

One more decimal point and they would cross the MMP threshold.

When they heard the good news, Craig and MacGregor discussed it in private, sitting together in a beat-up Honda Edex: "There were coathangers in the back seat, an open packet of Vocalzone throat lozenges in the glovebox. They put their heads together and talked in low voices..."

The passage is from my book Madmen: Inside the Weirdest Election Campaign Ever. It's a kind of souvenir of the 2014 campaign. Slater's in there, too. And that's the thing about the trial at courtroom 14: it's 2014 all over again, two of the madmen from that ancient campaign reliving the bad old days.

Slater's lines are the same: "Politics is the best game in town. There are no rules", etc. At one point he said, "Most MPs I know use the same cab driver all the time because they know they can trust them." Everybody's got something to hide. Yeah, whatever.

Court as an antiques roadshow. (On Monday, there was another echo of 2014: the courtroom next door featured an appeal by Matthias Ortmann, an ex-employee of Kim Dotcom).

And so there's Craig, the politician manque (everybody's got something to hide, including a manque), with his soft-faced McKenzie friend Tom Cleary beside him, much of the time going it alone, bashing through the jungles of his personal life. As a skilled defamation lawyer performing the art of cross-examination, he makes a good accountant. "You can't ask questions he can't answer," Justice Kit Toogood admonished him, during his lengthy cross-exam of Slater. On another occasion, he said: "This is not appropriate, Mr Craig."

So much inappropriate behaviour. One of Henry's legal folders contains photocopies of old photos of Craig. There he is giving his absurd interview in a sauna to David Farrier on TV3, there he is in lying in long grass, all dreamy and wanton, in the famous Listener photo by David White. It's one thing to humiliate yourself in public and quite another when people in your life get dragged down, too.

Craig's argument with Slater is all mano a mano but the people who have to suffer it the most are two women. MacGregor is due to appear in court on Monday or Tuesday. This week, it was Helen Craig's turn.

"Horrible...Deeply upsetting...Stressful...Horrible....A nightmare....Horrible," she said in court. She was describing the trauma of reading Slater's blog posts on Whaleoil. What about her husband's long, secret history of "inappropriate" poems and all the rest of it? "I was not happy with Colin...I was hurt and annoyed." Annoyed? Is that all? Improper to ask and even to wonder.

Private lives, private distresses. But there it is, in an open court of law, Colin Graeme Craig vs Cameron John Slater, one more week to go. At least it's a judge-alone trial. A jury of 12 innocent men and women have been spared.

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