Ohariu & Epsom: Is it different this time?

It must be just about campaign time, because the dirty deals to game MMP are back in the news. But are they as dirty as they used to be? And do they still matter?

This time there's no cup of new and sod all intrigue. Bill English has simply and directly told National Party supporters to vote for someone else. Or rather, to give their electorate vote to United Future in Ohariu and ACT in Epsom. Even though he seemed to almost forget the name of Peter Dunne's party, the message was clear. More of the same, please.

National is running this 'pre-campaign' campaign very quietly, letting the minor parties make the running and headlines, trying to look above it all and, well, governmental. Its goal will be to minimise its almost inevitable loss of vote at the end of a third term and to defy the nine year rule (that says it's almost impossible for New Zealand governments to win a fourth term) by making as little fuss as possible.

One of the potential road bumps along that path was announcing what have often been called its "dirty deals" with coalition partners. But yesterday, simply standing in the lobby at parliament, English frankly said he'd like to keep governing with the same parties that have been part of the National-led government since 2008: ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. 

To help that long, he said, National Party supporters should back another party, in their electorate vote. In previous years that has opened the party to ridicule. It seems dodgy for a party not to back itself and endorse its own MPs wherever possible. If they aren't trying to maximise their own vote, there must be something up.

And of course there is. They are gaming the system, trying to add what could be a couple of crucial bolt on parties to create a majority in parliament and keep Winston Peters out of government. Again. The code word here is: stability. English, perhaps with worrying echoes of Theresa May, is pushing a message of 'strong and stable' government and this announcement was consistent with that. 

There was no media event at a cafe, no joint statement with United Future's Peter Dunne or ACT's David Seymour. It was all played down. But let's not pretend, this could be significant. A couple of seats bolted onto National (Dunne and Seymour have both ruled out Labour) could yet be crucial, depending on results.

Yes it is gaming the system. National is effectively using these two parties as vassals to prop up their governmental estate. ACT and United Future only exist now because they serve National's interest and can reasonably be treated with scorn as a result. They are not proper parties. They are perhaps more like independent candidates, standing alone. At least Dunne is. And with a mere 710 vote majority, he's utterly National's man. And the extra seat United Future supplies looks increasingly dodgy.

At the 2014 election, National's Brett Hudson got 6,120 votes and the Greens' Tane Woodley. The Greens are not standing a candidate in Ohariu to help Labour's Greg O'Connor, so just which of those two parties is best at urging their voters to vote for someone else could be critical. Mad, but true.

Seymour has been much more successful at earning the support of his electorate. If National stood a strong candidate against him and wanted to win the seat, I could imagine it being a close run thing. Although ultimately,even with all his efforts, he'd likely lose.

Voters have never been fond of these coat-tail deals. In 2012 the Electoral Commission's review of MMP suggested they be ditched but - exactly for the sake of these sorts of deals - National chose to ignore them. So it's all a jack-up.

But you know what? There's less heat in the issue this election precisely because those parties are so weak. 

On Morning Report today, Seymour said he wanted to repeat ACT's glory days of 2008, when it got 3.65 percent and brought in five MPs. Thing is, that's exactly the sort of result that drives voters' nuts about this MMP rule. So Seymour may wish for the influence that comes with such a result, but he could also unwittingly be wishing for a backlash. ACT was back to a single seat in 2011.

The benefit for voters out of all this is that they know at least with National and its minions what they might get. Winston Peters predictably calls all this a "jack-up", but these three can rightly claim they are being more transparent with voters.

That makes the dirty deals seem somewhat cleaner. If Peters was prepared to pull back the curtain on his own coalition thinking, he might have more moral high ground to preach from.