As election day creeps closer, the coalition planning is starting to gather pace. National’s preferences are no surprise but hint at the complex arithmetic lying ahead after September 23, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

If anyone doubts the oddness of politics, consider: an MP pledging to vote for his opponent in a nail-biting electorate race, and saying he must work harder to win fewer votes – all with the backing of his boss.

Yet that’s precisely the situation Ohariu candidate Brett Hudson finds himself in, following confirmation by his leader, Prime Minister Bill English, of the party’s coalition preferences to media.

English confirmed National would focus on “maximising the party vote” in both electorates, encouraging the party’s supporters to back UnitedFuture’s Peter Dunne and ACT’s David Seymour in their Ohariu and Epsom electorate contests respectively, while also backing another deal with the Maori Party.

“The arrangements we’ve had in place have provided stable, consistent government for nine years. It works well, there are some tensions around it which we I think do a pretty good job of managing.”

It’s no surprise: the PM confirmed his preferences back in February when announcing the election date, while National has offered either tacit or explicit support to their coalition partners since assuming power in 2008.

Election deals tough to swallow

The “cup of tea” moments have never been subtle, but not all voters drink it up.

In 2014, National’s electorate candidates Paul Goldsmith and Brett Hudson received 11,716 and 6,120 votes in Epsom and Ohariu respectively.

Those votes could make all the difference, particularly in Ohariu: Dunne’s slender 710-vote majority could easily be overturned if Labour’s Greg O’Connor reaps the benefits of a tactical decision by the Greens to pull their candidate (they accounted for 2,764 electorate votes in 2014).

However, English appeared to rule out National pulling either Goldsmith or Hudson – although the door was left ever so slightly ajar.

“We don’t think that’s necessary: the candidates both have the experience from last election of essentially campaigning for the party vote and that was successful last time and we would expect it would be again.”

That reluctance may be in part due to the fear of alienating party loyalists disgruntled with being unable to back their man, coupled with the potential flow-on effect when it comes to the more crucial party vote.

Instead, the pair are expected to ram home the message, emphasising the party vote and making it clear voters should support Dunne or Seymour.

So, as one journalist put it: “They’ll be door knocking and saying, ‘Hi, I’m your National candidate, please don’t vote for me, vote for the other guy?’”

“That’s basically the message, yes.”

Ever a party man, Hudson said he “wouldn’t ask the voters of Ohariu to do anything I wouldn’t”, later confirming on Twitter that Dunne would have his vote.

Maori Party open to National or Labour

No such accommodations can be made to the Maori Party, as National has not stood candidates in the Maori electorates since 2002.

However, English called on voters on the Maori roll to back National’s junior partner in the Maori electorates, citing the work done by the two parties on issues like freshwater, Treaty settlements and the family incomes package.

“They’ve been at the table, making gains week after week now for a number of years, and that’s a much more useful vote than voting for, say, Labour candidates or the Labour Party who have played no part in the progress of Maori over the last decade.”

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said she appreciated National’s backing and described English as a good friend to Maori, but confirmed the party could yet decide to throw in its lot with Labour post-election.

“Look, any coalition arrangement is an option with us – we’re prepared to go in with anybody who wants to ensure that they uphold the Maori Party policies, it’s as simple as that.”

Winston’s ‘colourful history’

As expected, English would not rule out working with NZ First, and he wasn’t keen to bag the man who could decide whether he clings onto power after September 23.

Could Winston Peters be trusted in government? “Well, look, it’s up to the voters – they will decide essentially who we need to work with or any party needs to work with, and of course we would follow the will of the electorate.”

Peters “does have history in government which is colourful”, he said; more specifically, blue in 1996 and red in 2005, with the palette for each eventually transforming into a sludge with sackings, scandals and slips from power.

English dead-batted questions about whether a coalition with NZ First was more likely than ever before, eventually conceding: “Of course it’s possible, and again that’s up to the will of the voters, but we want voters to be clear what our preference is.”

Labour has previously condemned National’s electorate arrangements as “dirty deals”, but is in no position to do the same this time given their own understanding with the Greens in Ohariu.

Instead, Labour leader Andrew Little professed disinterest, saying National had “been propped up by these tiddlers before” and voters were not fussed.

“In the end, this election isn’t going to be fought and won on whether Peter Dunne survives in Ohariu – I don’t think he will – or whether David Seymour survives in Epsom – who knows; but this is about getting voters to say we want something different.”

Peters did what he always does, decrying “political jack-ups” while also attacking the media for asking questions about other parties, rather than his own creation.

In the end, English is right in saying that he and others will have to play with the cards they’re dealt by voters – and there may be some jokers yet to come out of the pack before election day.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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