It’s being called another “dirty deal”, but the Green Party decision to help Greg O’Connor win the Wellington seat of Ohariu is a sensible and pragmatic move from a party focused on getting into government.

The Greens aren't too proud of it, but pulling out of the Ohariu electorate race in order to help Labour's Greg O'Connor beat incumbent Peter Dunne was the smart thing to do.

They'll be dogged by embarrassment over it - especially the idea that it's some sort of "dirty deal" supporting a socially conservative ex-cop - but ultimately it could help Labour and the Greens change the government.

Unsurprisingly, Newshub's Patrick Gower has been the biggest critic of the Green decision: "Labour and the Greens have just done the dirtiest electorate deal in New Zealand political history - and it is all about destroying Peter Dunne. The tree-hugging Greens will not stand in Ohariu to help the gun-toting former cop Greg O'Connor win the seat for Labour. This is dirtier than most electorate deals because for the first time a party is totally giving up on a seat and not running rather than standing but giving a 'cup of tea' signal for its voters to go for a minor party candidate" - see: Labour-Greens do double dirty deal in Ōhariu.

But the Greens don't accept that, with co-leader James Shaw insisting it's not a "dirty deal" at all - see Anna Bracewell-Worrall's Done deal: Greens stand aside in Ohariu. Shaw says: "The Green Party's always thought that the 'cup of tea' arrangements where one party pretends to stand in an electorate while instructing their supporters to vote for another party is intellectually dishonest".

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In contrast, Shaw says: "This is a more transparent approach, where we're saying 'Look, if you want to change the Government, then Ohariu matters and we're simply gonna stand out of the way'."

Have the Greens and Labour done a "deal" or not?

Both the Greens and Labour are claiming that the Ohariu withdrawal is actually not a "deal" at all. They prefer to term it an "electoral accommodation". Furthermore, they say there is no quid pro quo from Labour, and that the decision was made by the Greens independently of Labour.

Yet, the parties are also still citing their memorandum of understanding as the basis for the Greens helping Labour in Ohariu - and that is most definitely a "deal". So regardless of whether the Greens have made their decision independent of pressure or formal agreements with Labour on this exact electorate, it's part of that wider deal to help each other electorally.

So is the deal hypocritical? This is arguable. Certainly both the Greens and Labour have strongly criticised other parties for their electoral manouverings in the past, especially when National has encouraged its supporters to vote for other parties, such as Act.

Even Andrew Little has, in the past, criticised the Act party for withdrawing a candidate to help National win New Plymouth, saying "If you're a party and you're fighting in a general election you put your candidates up and you put your people up and we'll be the judge. People don't like being deprived of that choice" - see Jenna Lynch's Andrew Little's u-turn on dirty deals.

A smart move by the Greens

In reality the Greens had no real choice but to pull out of the Ohariu race - it was just too risky to remain. The party would have been very aware of the danger that they could be blamed for preventing a Labour victory in the seat. After all, as Jane Patterson points out, "In 2014, Mr Dunne had a 700 vote majority over the Labour candidate, with the Greens candidate getting about 2700 votes" - see: Labour-Greens deny deal over Ohariu seat.

If that scenario was repeated in 2017, then people would quite rightly point their finger at the Greens to say "It's your fault". And having Peter Dunne win or lose could indeed play a role in determining whether Labour or National lead the next Government. If Dunne wins again, it could be a vital vote for Bill English in putting together his government.

Also, although the deal is being painted as a "dirty deal", increasingly there is an awareness that there is a rational need for such a sensible MMP strategy. After all, there's no great need for an electorate to have all the political parties running candidates - especially those candidates that have no chance of winning.

In fact, this should happen much more often under MMP. The Greens have stood aside in a couple of by-elections lately, too - Northland and Mt Roskill. And, of course, the National Party is currently standing aside in the Mt Albert by-election. And National will, once again, stand aside in the Maori seats, and instead encourage its supporters to vote for the Maori Party.

Certainly it seems more principled for the Greens to stand aside in electorates they can't win than it is to carry out their usual line in these races, which essentially has the Green candidate saying "I know I can't win this electorate - so vote for someone else - but I'd like your party vote". In fact, recently Greens co-leader Metiria Turei has been quite up front in saying that, although she is running in the Maori seat of Te Tai Tonga, she only wants the party vote - see TVNZ's Labour and Greens' strategy could split vote in key Maori seat.

Ohariu MP Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Ohariu MP Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Weasel words" from the embarrassed Greens

There is reason, however, to question how completely honest and principled the Green deal is for voters in Ohariu. What will rankle with many voters is the lack of transparency. After all, James Shaw still can't manage to say that he wants Green supporters in the electorate to vote for the Labour candidate, even though that's exactly what they want.

This is a bit silly and Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper therefore labels it as "politician's weasel words" - see: Opposition perfectly entitled to Dunne deal. Soper says: "James Shaw was equally sensitive when it came to advising who his party's devotees should cast their electorate ballot for, repeatedly telling us the voters should decide but their priority is to change the Government. When it was put to him that a vote for O'Connor is the best strategy to change the Government, he told us if voters do want to change the Government they'll know what to do."

It's clear that, although the party has taken the big decision to withdraw from Ohariu, the Greens are still frightened of being too clear that they are endorsing another party. Mostly because they don't like how that sounds - it makes it sound like a "dirty deal", and opens them up to accusations of hypocrisy, given their previous criticisms of other deals.

But also, the Greens are particularly uncomfortable with the candidate that Labour is running in Ohariu - Greg O'Connor. The former cop and Police Association president is seen as having very socially conservative views, especially in terms of law and order. And the Greens are worried about how they'll look endorsing such a conservative politician.

Patrick Gower elaborates on this, saying "what makes it doubly dirty is the Greens helping O'Connor. It goes without saying that the Greens don't like O'Connor and his pro-Police ways one little bit - he wants the community cops in Johnsonville to have guns on their hips and reckons police were hard done by in the likes of Roast Busters and the Tuhoe raids."

James Shaw has been at pains to dance around this embarrassing problem, saying "Greg has said things in the past that progressive voters would take issue with", and "I would suggest that people question him about those statements. They've got to decide for themselves whether they're satisfied with the answers to those questions" - see the Herald's Greens step aside in Ohariu to give Labour clear run against United Future leader Peter Dunne.

Writing today, Gordon Campbell is aghast at the decision by the Greens to help Labour: "if they roll over this readily now, what treatment can the Greens expect to receive from Labour if and when Labour finally gets its hands on the levers of power? Is it possible now to conceive of anyone that Labour could put up as a candidate in a marginal electorate that the Greens could reject, on principle? Evidently not. Somehow, its hard to imagine the likes of Rod Donald going out of his way to assist Greg O'Connor into a position where he could hope to wield ministerial power on law and order issues" - see: On Labour's candidacy troubles.

Campbell also outlines a number of problems with O'Connor he suggests that Green voters should have a problem with.

Will the Green tactic work in Ohariu?

So will the Greens in Ohariu obey the party leadership's vague instructions to support O'Connor? Green-friendly blogger, No Right Turn, suggests they shouldn't, and he explains why: "Obviously, the Greens can't control who Labour selects as candidates. But they can control whether they approve of them. And faced with a candidate like O'Connor, their response should be to say "not on my watch". This is a man who should not be in Parliament, and the Greens should do their bit to keeping him out. Instead, they've rolled over in the name of good relations with Labour under the spurious guise of "changing the government"." - see: Cowardice from the Greens.

Similarly, local Green blogger Danyl Mclauchlan, writing before his party's announcement, said: "I don't know if there's going to be a Green candidate contesting it this time around, but I'm starting to think that electorate voting the National candidate is the strategic move? If the Nats win the seat it knocks out Dunne and his overhang. Not much chance of it, admittedly - Dunne got ~7000 votes more than the Nat last time. But there's no f*cking way I'm voting for Greg O'Connor" - see: Ohariu. (Protected blog)

And Gordon Campbell suggests that "social liberals left in Ohariu face something of a dilemma. Do they vote against Dunne in order to change this government's dismal policies on health, education, the environment, welfare and the economy - or do they vote tactically for Dunne, to try and prevent O'Connor from becoming this country's next Minister of Police? Ultimately, they'll probably vote for O'Connor, but with gritted teeth."

Therefore, some - such as Patrick Gower - believe this "could be the end of Dunne." David Farrar's not so sure - see Dunne to stand again. And Dunne, himself, thinks that the Greens ploy could backfire, therefore helping him hold his seat.

Partly, the result will depend on how the National Party orientates itself to Dunne in the electorate. Because although the transfer of the Green electorate votes to Greg O'Connor makes it look like Labour could win it off Dunne, there's also the National candidate Brett Hudson's 6120 votes at the 2014 election to consider. If National signals more strongly for its supporters to vote for the incumbent, then Dunne might easily romp home.

Finally, Martyn Bradbury has blogged about these numbers, and how Labour's O'Connor is going to have trouble winning over both left and right voters: "the 6120 votes that went to National's Brett Hudson still swamps the 2764 of the Greens' Tane Woodley. So Dunne plus the National Party candidate totals still beats Labour + Greens. Standing down their candidate, while symbolic and beneficial to beating Dunne still doesn't mean they've done enough if English pulls the same trick and stands down his National Party candidate as well. O'Connor still has to win over National and United votes while bringing the Labour + Green base with him. It's going to take a herculean effort to beat Peter Dunne, but this way with this candidate is the only roll of the dice in town" - see: Sanity & MoU prevails - Greens won't stand candidate in Ohariu.