Former Prime Minister John Key was back - and in the back row to watch political leaders take their election year buzzwords for a test run on the opening day of Parliament.

It was a debate in which the attacks were not only from the opposition - but sometimes amounted to friendly fire.

‚ÄčOne was courtesy of Act leader David Seymour, who got in one dig at National in between the praise - noting he hoped to do more work with Bill English on challenges John Key had ignored, such as housing affordability.

On that matter Seymour was in concert with Labour's Andrew Little who accused National of being in the slow lane on housing - along with every other portfolio under the sun. He said New Zealand deserved better and, boy, did he have news for them for the Age of Labour could be upon them by year's end.

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Little's speech also reprised his theme that Bill English was not a real leader compared to Key.

"Ever since the 'sales and marketing division' [John Key] resigned in December last year and has been replaced by the chief financial officer, it has all gone downhill. We have had no vision and New Zealanders are fast running out of hope."

Little's main evidence for this was English's refusal to go to Te Tii Marae or to Waitangi on Waitangi Day.

"What we had was a leader who ran away - scared, afraid. He was afraid of a little bit of controversy, afraid of a little bit of argument."

English had anticipated this line and dealt it with it by way of a joke in his own speech before Little stood.

That joke consisted of an imaginary book "Lessons on Leadership" by Little and NZ First leader Winston Peters.

"Chapter One was written by Andrew Little: 'How I went all the way to Waitangi to tell them I wasn't coming'. " - a reference to Little saying he would not return if Te Tii Marae persisted with its media policy.

English went on to have a dig a Little's poaching of Willie Jackson and the public concerns some in Labour had voiced: "Chapter Two is 'How ... I picked a star political candidate and united the Labour Party'."

Beyond that, English's speech was unremarkable and consisted of boasting of his recent announcement of extra Police and the words "strong economy," "growth" "jobs" and "incomes" on repeat cycle. He strung them together with messages about the need for predictability and stability at a time of "distraction and negativity" in the wider world.

Former Prime Minister John Key watches Bill English's Prime Minister's Statement to Parliament from his new seat. PHOTO/ Mark Mitchell
Former Prime Minister John Key watches Bill English's Prime Minister's Statement to Parliament from his new seat. PHOTO/ Mark Mitchell

He deployed one of Key's techniques of getting his caucus chanting along with him. English's theme centred on painting Labour as in a permanent state of melancholy. "You would think the first benefit increase in 40 years would make them happy," he said. "NO!" the caucus replied and on and on it went, through new job statistics and police numbers.

The only Labour MP he praised was the one who was no longer there - former leader David Shearer, whom English said was "the man Labour members now know they should have stuck with as a leader."

Meanwhile the man National may find they should have stuck with as leader - former Prime Minister John Key - was back in Parliament for the first time since his resignation from the top job.

Seated back in the third row, Key managed to resist the automatic instinct of standing up when the Prime Minister was called.

Instead he took on the role of a dutiful backbencher, nodding as English set out what was once Key's agenda, laughing at English's joke, and leaping to his feet at the end with the agility of a man who has spent two months on a golf course. He had left long before Seymour got his chip in at Key.

Key left during Green Party co-leader James Shaw's speech. Shaw had picked up on English boasting about 'growth' and identified other areas English could claim growth in: greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution. endangered species lists and a house price bubble. "You have got the kind of growth that, if it was growing on your body, your doctor would pack you off to a specialist pretty darn quick."

Nor was Key there to enjoy Peters, who reserved much of his speech to threats National would not be in Government post-2017. He described National's backbench as "nervous Nellies" and the front bench as so old, it made Peters look young. He warned the new ministers not to get too used to their ministerial cars.

This all seeded false hope in Labour and the Greens that Peters was signalling it would they who won his hand after the election.

Alas, it emerged Peters had other ideas. He was more ambitious. He told English his fate in 2017 would be the same as it was in 2002, when English led National to a dismal 21 per cent vote. No prizes for guessing who he predicted would rise rampant instead.