Cue to voters: Key takes 'tacit nod' to extreme-sport level

So begins the new season of that political sport known as "the tacit nod" - the hints of varying hues of subtlety which political leaders give their followers to vote a certain way to either decrease their opponents' chances or increase those of their allies.

National's leader, John Key, is at risk of whiplash, so severe has he been going at the game.

For those who missed his hints, so far National voters in Epsom voters have been told to vote for Act New Zealand's John Banks, Ohariu voters for United Future's Peter Dunne and all voters have been told not to bother casting their vote for New Zealand First or the Mana Party if they expect to see them in coalition with National.

The Epsom and Ohariu deals alone are barely noteworthy, despite cries of "stitch up" from the Opposition. The head-nodding is almost superfluous now, simply another ritual scheduled into Mr Key's election year diary. It would be far more newsworthy if it didn't happen.

But there is an intriguing twist this time round.

This is the first time National has extracted a price in return. Deals have been made under which Act will not stand candidates in at least two marginal seats to maximise National's chances - Waimakiri, currently held by Labour's Clayton Cosgrove, and New Plymouth, which National's Jonathan Young holds with a tiny majority. Up to eight others are under negotiation.

Some - such as Auckland Central - should be unpalatable to Act, which will want candidates in as many seats as possible to increase its own party vote.

National's contra deal shows two things: it emphasises the weak position Act is in and shows National is thinking in the longer term.

In the previous election, the only "price" National put on the seat was the expectation of support in a coalition government. Requesting Act not stand candidates at all in some seats is a big step further than the usual practice of asking it simply to nudge the electorate vote towards National. It effectively asks Act - a party for which every single party vote is important - to forgo chances to build that.

The small parties rely on local candidates to build their party vote in the seats, and any seat where National is reasonably strong will also prove good hunting ground for Act. That National is in a position to make such a demand and Act is willing to agree indicates Act does not wield as much influence as it once did.

Don Brash may have promised his leadership would result in a poll boost, but it is yet to happen and National clearly does not expect it to. It does not bode well for post-election coalition talks for Act.

The second notable aspect of the deal is that it shows National's eye is not completely on 2011 - it is effectively already fighting the 2014 election.

National's popularity is such that it does not really need the help this election. But come 2014, National is unlikely to be as popular. Some of its more controversial reforms will have taken effect and more will be on the table; it is likely to be up against a new leader in Labour; and voters may be more sceptical of John Key.

In a reversal of the adage, National is making use of its jam today so that it might at least have butter in 2014.

For although it is the party vote that determines how many MPs a party has, there is a certain moral authority and higher profile attached to the electorate seats that helps maximise that party vote.

There is scope for similar deals on the left.

In 2008, Labour could well have held on to at least two of its seats - Auckland Central and West Coast Tasman - and won a third - Ohariu - if a portion of the Greens' votes had instead gone to Labour's candidates.

Despite its derision of the Epsom deal, Labour would undoubtedly dearly love to cut some of its own. A retaliatory deal to help Andrew Little in New Plymouth, for example, would be nice especially given the Greens did not stand a candidate there in the last election but are this time round.

Similarly for Waimakariri and Rimutaka, where New Zealand First's Ron Mark caused a significant vote split in 2008 from which National could benefit, now Mr Mark is not standing.

Alas, Labour does not have the luxury of being able to do so.

While the Greens usually leave about five or six seats uncontested, those seats are largely safe National seats where the cost of standing a candidate would outweigh the potential to reap party votes. The Green Party is is far too reliant on the party vote to risk sacrificing any of it by standing down in some of the marginal seats, most in which it polls relatively well. The furthest it goes to helping Labour is making it clear - with varying degrees of effectiveness - that their candidates are there only to reap party votes.

Another hallmark of this election is that the usual quiet hints have morphed to loud-hailer volume. In the past it wasn't done to openly admit you were working the system, even though most parties did it to some extent.

In 2008, National's head-nod came simply by standing the previously defeated Richard Worth in the seat again. This time, National has openly said it will campaign for the party vote in the two seats, not the seat itself.

The reason could be to prevent mixed messages - to make it obvious a new candidate does not necessarily mean a change in what is expected of Epsom.

The other explanation is that such deals are now so self-evident there is no point being subtle about it.

Voters can now see such deals from a mile away and do not seem to mind them, provided they can see a good reason for it. They appear to have accepted such are the realities of MMP - and can in fact figure out the advantages of tactical voting themselves without any nod from on high. It was, after all, the Epsom voters - not National, which fought to hold the seat initially - who agreed Rodney Hide's argument in 2005 was convincing enough to vote him in.

There is some consolation for Epsom.

In return for its obedience, there is the expectation National's candidate, Paul Goldsmith, gets a high list placing so there is an Epsom-based National MP.

If not, many will no doubt consider John Banks - a long serving National Party member who still unconsciously refers to Act as "them" - is almost as good.

 - Clair Trevett



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