English punts talk of electoral deals, Maori seat strategy, into the stands
OPINION: Prime Minister Bill English may make a decent fist of shearing, but when it comes to kicking for touch his style is more hack-it-and-see.
Faced with queries about the impact of the Maori-Mana non-aggression pact, announced on Monday, he punted them all into the distant future.
Would National continue its long-standing policy of not fielding candidates in the Maori seats?
"There is likely to be some discussion about that. We haven't come to a conclusion but we didn't stand last time."
Every election was a bit different. He hadn't thought about it in great detail.
Well then, what about abolishing the Maori seats?
Hmm. If it was "on the books" it was not a policy National was pursuing, and he would need to check.
(Yes the policy is still on the books, prime minister, but pursuing it would likely end the Maori Party's support.)
It all sounded as clear as mud and as weak as dishwater compared to John Key's unequivocal answer before the 2014 election.
Even if he had the numbers in the House, Key said, he would not go there. Because if he did there would be "hikois from hell".
It would be a mistake to assume there is a change of policy in the wind on either score. More likely it is English's instinctive default to caution.
It is the same caution that has him refusing to discuss steering National supporters towards the Maori Party in those seats ("if we were going to do that we wouldn't be looking at that till later in the year") or any other deal, accommodation or prime ministerial nod and wink.
Unless, that is, you count explicitly ruling out English job-sharing with NZ First leader Winston Peters. (Interestingly while Labour's Andrew Little has reserved finance for Grant Robertson, English would not rule out Peters even in that role.)
So, silly to ask if Mana leader Hone Harawira would have a place in his Government if the Mana-Maori Party deal delivered him the Te Tai Tokerau seat?
You guessed it, English wouldn't want to speculate on that, and it was not clear if the deal would make any difference ... but it was (drum roll) "unlikely".
Yet these are all questions English will have to confront between now and September 23.
As he himself said, "one or two seats will matter quite a bit in our MMP elections" and stripping from Labour one or two of its six Maori electorates could be crucial.
Sunday's One News-Colmar Brunton poll sent a reminder to National - if one was needed - how tight the race is despite National's strong polling ... and how crucial English's "one or two seats" could be.
Even on 46 per cent, and with three or even four viable allies, there was still a majority out against the current Government.
Together Labour, Green and NZ First totalled 52 per cent support. And they will all be in the next Parliament.
So it is inconceivable that National - even under a cautious new leader - would undermine that by dropping its cup-of-tea deals with allies, running candidates in the Maori seats, or actively seeking to abolish them.