And we're off! Policy & polls to start 2016

A look at the polls and strategies as the parliamentary year gets under way...

What a limp start to the parliamentary year. John Key went for the jocular shopping list approach, seemingly in the belief that a few one liners implied confidence and rapidly listing a policies already in train suggested good governance.

On the other side of the House, Andrew Little fumbled for his lines like a man who had lost his car keys, having earlier in the day declared on radio that the 2017 election campaign was going to be defined by... sovereignty issues. And James Shaw tried a few jokes that fell as flat as wholemeal pancake.

It was an uninspiring start, and not much better today, but the year promises much more than these efforts imply.

As you can see in our updated Poll of Polls, National and the Greens start the year much where they were last year. Labour is up a couple of points on a year ago, but over the summer have slumped back below 30 percent.

New Zealand First and the Maori Party are both potential kingmakers, while ACT, United Future and the Conservatives barely register.

At a party level, it's a picture that's been largely unchanged for years now; a slight move up in the mouth, a droopy eye or a raised eyebrow, but much the same face.

Obviously it's a face National likes, so the blues kick-off happily enough, boosted by Labour's TPP flapping and John Key's choice to skip Waitangi. It risked making the Prime Minister look weak and complacent, but it was ultimately a reasonable choice (given the undignified conditions Waitangi Maori were trying to impose) and a little dog whistle at the same time. So no skin off National's nose.

National has also announced it'll fund Auckland's Central Rail Loop two years earlier than it had planned (because of stalling by the party's road obsessives). It ignores the government's own pre-conditions for starting building and is only now looked upon favourably because by mall developer Precinct Properties (and presumably Sky City) needed some decisions to enable them to start building.

Or as Transport Minister Simon Bridges put it in parliament today, "we want to provide certainty for other planned CBD developments".

Oh, and it signals to Auckland voters that National cares and is "doing something" about congestion.

But every twist and turn that National makes is about maintaining the status quo; every change about avoiding change. It wants voters just where they are for as long as possible.

Labour, of course, wants the opposite. It's new moves don't have the luxury of being anything other than vote-movers. Being clever or noble or stabilising is no longer enough. Maintaining internal disciple (while seemingly still a challenge, given David Shearer's TPP outburst) is now the least its MPs can do.

This is the year Labour has announced it will start rolling out policy. It began with a big-spending, middle-class enticing promise of three years free tertiary education for all. While it raises questions (how much more will tertiary institutions get?) and has room for criticism (most of the $1.2b allocated will end up back in the pockets of the middle classes), it's a policy with plenty of public good attached. Spread out over three electoral cycles, it's also affordable.

While it's hardly been a huge talking point it has the potential to be a slow burner and one that sparks more as we get closer to an election.

It ticks the boxes as being both a policy consistent with Labour values and one that can take voters off National. And it will need to be the first of several in those categories. Labour won't want the grass to grow under its policy feet; this year building some momentum will be crucial and it needs to keep bringing out its new ideas month after month. If it can do that in a stable and measured way, it can start to look ready for government. Achieving that is no guarantee of a win in 2017, but it at least puts it back in the game.

The Greens have started quietly. Its plan for an independent unit in Treasury to cost parties' election promises fits with its brand as parliament's honest brokers (or goody-goods, if you prefer). The Congressional Budget Office does a similar job in the US and it is God's work. It would be good for democracy, good for informed debate.

But it's not much of a vote changer. While it can be seen as part of the Greens' efforts to convince voters the party can be trusted with power, it's not a hip-pocket, 'hit 'em where they live' button pusher. In fact the most interesting thing about the Greens so far this year is just how quiet they've been. They've let Labour take the lead on the TPP and Shaw's speech yesterday acknowledged both "winners and losers" from the deal.

This was not the rhetoric of anti-corporate opposition to 'the man'. Saying "it's just not that great" a deal is very temperate language, to say the least. In fact, Shaw used it as a platform from which to say National isn't doing enough for exporters.

Perhaps the most important thing for Labour and the Greens in this TPP debate is to not alienate Winston. But that's for another day and another post.