Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Election 2017: What health are the parties in?

Isaac Davison takes the pulse of the parties to reveal who is in good health and who is a dead man walking.
Isaac Davison takes the pulse of the parties to reveal who is in good health and who is a dead man walking.

The countdown to Election 2017 has begun. In seven months' time, New Zealand's appetite for a political change will be revealed.

So what is the prognosis of the parties vying to form a Government after September 23?

After nine years in power, the National Party is still showing all vital signs. It appears to have avoided the third-term blues and remains relatively popular and buoyed by a healthy economy.

National is up against a Labour Party which has stabilised - recent squabbles aside - under Andrew Little and heads into the election with a shred of optimism after a thumping victory in the Mt Roskill by-election.

The Green Party has held onto its support despite former co-leader Russel Norman's departure and it has had a spring in its step since signing an agreement to work alongside Labour until election day.

New Zealand First is almost certain to go into the next election with a formidable leadership team of Winston Peters and ex-Labour MP Shane Jones, and could be the biggest beneficiaries - if any - of political upheaval in the United States and Europe.

Mana Movement's Hone Harawira has returned to the political landscape after signing a deal to work with the Maori Party, which has set its sights on the Labour-dominated Maori seats.

The Internet Party is gone and the Conservatives are in terminal decline, but Gareth Morgan's The Opportunities Party is the latest millionaire-backed venture to try to shake up the mainstream parties.

Deals are being brokered in electorates all over the country, between Maori and Mana, between Labour and the Greens, and between National, Act and United Future.

And parties are preparing a new onslaught of online campaigning as electoral reforms allow them to pour allocated funding into digital advertising rather than barely-watched, traditional party broadcasts.

The Opposition will contest an election uncluttered by 2014's Dirty Politics, Kim Dotcom's Internet Party, and allegations of mass surveillance by whistleblower Edward Snowden and others.

But big questions remain. Have Labour and the Greens shown they are a Government in waiting? And is there a mood for change in the electorate?

National's campaign director Steven Joyce, who is running his fifth campaign, is talking down his party's position. The gap between National and the left-wing bloc is just 5 percentage points, he says.

"Every election is hard. This one will be hard for different reasons than the last one. I don't think anybody's under any illusions that it will be a difficult challenge.

"People say you're well ahead in the polls. But actually it's not about that. It's MMP. It's about coalitions. So our job is we have to perform very well to even get in a position where you might be able to form a Government."

Joyce is distancing New Zealand from the recent political upsets of the last year. New Zealanders were "interested in their own security, their own opportunities, and which candidates will do the best job", he says. "Regardless of what happens overseas, that's what's important."

Labour's Andrew Little says that in the last three years "the problems that people talk to us about have intensified". His party will highlight the strain of a growing population on housing, health and schools and will question whether the growing economy is benefitting everyone.

"There's a few chickens coming home to roost for the Government," Little says.

"The big issue that New Zealanders are increasingly concerned about is that a growing number of people seem to be missing out and others doing very well.

"At the core of that sits the housing issue."

Then there is the factor of a new Prime Minister. Bill English has had a steady start in the top job. But a few flat public performances means the spectre of his heavy election defeat as National leader in 2002 has not been completely erased.

It is not yet clear how the public will respond to English's second campaign as leader, Little says.

"It's wait and see."

HEALTH CHECK:

NATIONAL

National Party leader and Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Greg Bowker
National Party leader and Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / Greg Bowker

Patient status: Recovering well from major surgery.
Biggest strength: Stable governance, growing economy.
Biggest weakness: Housing woes

At a time of global uncertainty, National needs to show why sticking with the status quo is better than a change of Government in New Zealand.

It is up against a more cohesive, confident Labour-Greens bloc, and it will not be as easy to dismiss its opponents as dysfunctional. Labour will jump on the Government's struggle to control house prices - an issue every voter has an interest in.

National needs to show it has a credible plan for big, structural issues like unaffordable housing, inequality and pressures caused by population growth.

After nine years in charge, National also needs to look fresh. English has at least given the impression of rejuvenation by showing the door to underperforming ministers and elevating promising ones, in particular Amy Adams and Simon Bridges. He is also leading a fresh approach to tackling social ills, by using big data to fund only rigorously-tested social services.

The party must also overcome the loss of its biggest asset - former Prime Minister John Key.

The transition from Key to English has been relatively smooth, but English does not possess the easy confidence of his predecessor and has occasionally been flat or listless in public and media appearances. More energy and warmth could be needed on the campaign trail or leadership debates.

Nearly nine years after coming into power, National remains stubbornly popular. But it is unlikely to be able to govern alone. In the last two elections, it has been able to depend on United Future, Act, and the Maori Party to get a Parliamentary majority, and has not yet needed to call on New Zealand First. Come September 23, that may no longer be the case.

LABOUR

Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour Party leader Andrew Little. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Patient status: Steady, but with self-inflicted wounds.
Biggest strength: Fresh caucus lineup.
Biggest weakness: Caucus infighting.

Labour must show it is fit for Government. It cannot afford to repeat the caucus scraps of the last month - something which plagued former leader David Cunliffe and strikes at the heart of the unity which leader Andrew Little has worked so hard to get rid of.

It must show what an alternative Labour-Greens Government will look like, by staying focused on its solutions rather than just simply attacking National's failures. It has done so successfully on housing, and now needs to apply that to other key areas - health, education, jobs, incomes.

It needs to dispel fears about a potential coalition with the Greens, while also leaving the door open to New Zealand First. The party aims to reassure voters about its economic management by issuing a joint Labour-Greens statement on the issue next month.

And Little needs to convince New Zealanders he is a future Prime Minister, something he has struggled to do so far - he is polling behind Winston Peters and his predecessor David Cunliffe in the preferred Prime Minister stakes. At least with Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Phil Twyford, and Kelvin Davis on the party's front bench, the party cannot be accused of looking tired. It also has some promising new blood like New Lynn candidate and academic Deborah Russell and new Mt Roskill MP Michael Wood.

From a party perspective, Labour needs be a better-functioning unit than in 2017. It has successfully tested a new campaigning strategy in the Mt Roskill by-election and General Secretary Andrew Kirton says the party has replenished its war chest (it raised and spent less money than the Greens last election, let alone National).

GREEN

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Photo / Dean Purcell
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei. Photo / Dean Purcell

Patient status: In a stable condition.
Biggest strength: Uncompromising stance on social and environmental issues.
Biggest weaknesses: The unknown factor - the party has never been in Govt.

To get into Government for the first time in their 30-year history, the Greens need to overcome two big obstacles. They need to shake the persistent perception that they have no economic credentials. And they need to turn "maybe" voters into certain ones.

The party appears to have made some gains on the first issue. Co-leader James Shaw has given the party a credible, business-friendly face, and his progress was vindicated by his recent anking as second-best Opposition MP by NZ CEOs.

Getting sympathetic voters to turn up at the ballot box is a trickier problem. The Greens are trying to address it by starting its campaign work earlier than ever - 18 months out - and recruiting a volunteer army of more than 10,000 people. The Greens are also the most digitally savvy party, and will benefit from reforms which allow more spending on online campaigning.

The party has a group of promising young women on its list, including mayoral candidate Chloe Swarbrick. It should ensure at least a few of them are ranked highly enough to get into Parliament.

The party has had a steady three years in which it has neither lost nor gained significant ground. That could be marked as a success given it lost co-leader Russel Norman, one of the architects of the party's rise to the political mainstream.

NEW ZEALAND FIRST

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Andrew Warner
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Andrew Warner

Patient status: New lease of life, but elixir of youth needed.
Biggest strength: The likely leadership team: Winston Peters and Shane Jones.
Biggest weakness: No depth in its caucus.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is in his 36th year of Parliament. He remains one of the most effective Opposition MPs, but the rest of his caucus are yet to distinguish themselves. As Peters he enters his 70s, NZ First needs to become less dependent on its talisman.

The likely recruitment of former Labour MP Shane Jones will at least give the party a succession plan.

The party could also tap into the political upheaval in the United States and Europe.
However, the conditions which fuelled Brexit and Donald Trump's US election win - anti-immigration sentiment and working class discontent - are not as prevalent in New Zealand.

On current polling, New Zealand First is poised to decide whether National or Labour can form a Government in 2017. As usual, Peters will reveal nothing about the party's preferences before election day. He has also said little about his party's election plans except for a three-word press statement on the day that the election date was announced: "We are ready."

MAORI PARTY

Maori Party Co-leader Marama Fox. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Maori Party Co-leader Marama Fox. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Patient status: In a serious condition.
Biggest strength: Gains made for Maori by working with Govt.
Biggest weakness: Survival hinges on a single seat, Waiariki.

The Maori Party's test in 2017 is to show voters that it is better for Maori than the Labour Party, which holds six of the seven Maori seats. It must overcome the perennial problems of a small, Maori-focused party - lack of funding to cover the enormous Maori electorates, and the woefully low turnout in those seats, which make it hard to build up its party vote and bring in more MPs.

Co-leaders Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox are tackling the turnout problem by casting a wider net, to non-Maori, and promoting policies such as stopping some land sales to foreigners.

Unlike Labour, it can point to gains it has made by being "at the table" with National in Government - an estimated $1 billion for Maori programmes in nine years. It has also stalled changes which go against iwi values - the Kermadec Sanctuary and major resource management reforms.

The party has some momentum, having signed a deal to work with Hone Harawira's Mana Movement. It has also received an important endorsement from the Kingitanga movement, which previously backed Labour.

ACT

Act Party leader David Seymour. Photo / Andrew Warner
Act Party leader David Seymour. Photo / Andrew Warner

Patient status: On life support (National)
Biggest strength: Young, energetic leader.
Biggest weakness: Dependent on National for survival.

Act will need a presence in more electorates than Epsom if it is to grow its party beyond a single MP.

The party is too heavily dependent on National's support in the electorate for it political survival.

Leader David Seymour has re-energised the Act Party brand in his first term as an MP.

But he needs to spend more time on Act's core policies, rather than lobbying for assisted dying. He needs to clearly show how Act can influence national policy.

Act has, at least, avoided the controversies of the last term, when leader John Banks quit Parliament after being found guilty of filing false donations (He was later acquitted).

Seymour has not shied away from attacking his support partner National on its failure to tackle the housing crisis and deliver on tax cuts.

UNITED FUTURE

United Future Party leader Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell
United Future Party leader Peter Dunne. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Patient status: Terminal.
Biggest strength: Holds deciding vote on some key legislation.
Biggest weakness: One-man party which barely registers in the polls.

Leader Peter Dunne will have to overcome his biggest test yet in Ohariu if he is to preserve his party and extend his 32-year political career. After just scraping in 2014, he is now up against a higher-profile Labour candidate, Greg O'Connor. The Greens have withdrawn their candidate, giving O'Connor a clearer run in the seat.

Dunne needs to convince voters that he is not on borrowed time, and still has a role to play in Parliament. In the last three years, he has continued to use his single vote to temper or stall National bills, most notably contentious resource management reforms.

Others:

MANA MOVEMENT

Patient status: May pull through.

Mana's return to Parliament hinges on Hone Harawira winning back Te Tai Tokerau. His chances of victory have been boosted the Maori Party's decision not to run a candidate and the Greens' decision to run one, possibly taking votes off Labour. However, he is up against one of Labour's better performers in Kelvin Davis, who has raised his profile over the last three years.

THE OPPORTUNITIES PARTY

Patient status: In need of a miracle cure.

Founder and leader Gareth Morgan has a public profile, money and ideas, but history has shown it is a gigantic challenge for new, small parties to break into Parliament. The contest among left-wing parties is crowded, so Morgan needs to appeal to Blue-Green voters who care about the environment but can't stomach the Greens. He may need some recognised candidates if he is to get anywhere near his goal of 5 per cent of the party vote.

CONSERVATIVE

Patient status: Comatose, seven months to live.

The Conservatives need a time machine. They have never recovered from founder, leader and main funder Colin Craig's departure in 2015 over allegations he harassed his former press secretary. It took 18 months to replace Craig with builder Leighton Baker and higher-profile candidates like law and order hardliner Garth McVicar have since left. The party says it is lining up candidates and developing new policy, but is almost certain to never return to its peak of 3.97 per cent of the party vote in 2014.

- NZ Herald

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