POLITICAL parties have conferences every year, but those of election year are especially worth watching.
One important function is to rally the political footsoldiers, so important for getting out a party's vote in the always close MMP elections, and party leaders will always announce new and, they hope, vote-winning policies.
National's conference last week was a heady mixture of adulation for leader John Key, warnings that whatever the polls say the party could lose the September general election, and some extra spending on new or upgraded roads and bridges.
The locations of this largesse amounted to National's marginal seat strategy and Labour Party candidate Stuart Nash can be well pleased that Napier was on the list with cash for improved port access.
This amounts to a clear indication that National thinks it may lose the seat as does National candidate Wayne Walford's decision to get rid of his ponytail.
I'm personally surprised that Wayne's hair style didn't go the way of his designer stubble much earlier. Years ago when I arrived back in the Bay from university with just such an affectation, my dad fell about laughing and reminded me just what was under a real ponytail. I went straight down to the barber's shop beside Popplewell's in Russell St.
The Labour Party congress in Wellington this weekend will be a critical step in the party's election campaign and will offer a rare opportunity to showcase Leader David Cunliffe and an even more rare chance to influence the political agenda with less than three months to the general election.
There is no doubt that the Labour Party has undergone a process of renewal since its defeat in 2008. This became obvious to me when the party published its list of candidates. There were many names and faces I didn't recognise. Many of these candidates are high achievers with the potential to make a valuable contribution to public life.
The party has nearly doubled its membership over the past five years and updated its constitution with reforms like the wider participation in selecting its leader.
It will take a higher party vote than the 27 per cent Labour scored in 2011 to get more than a couple of these new faces into parliament, but if Labour manages a decent party vote campaign, clearly missing in 2011, then this should follow.
It will be interesting to see what theme Labour chooses for its 2014 bun-fight. I have no inside information these days, but my guess is that the focus will be on education.
This has long been New Zealand's strong suit and it can be argued that reforms in this area in the past have proven transformational. In 1877 New Zealand led the world by passing an education act, which made primary schooling free and compulsory. We became the first mostly literate society in history.
By 1900, almost exactly one generation later, we boasted the highest standard of living in the world, though it's fair to acknowledge the fact that Maori were probably underrepresented in the statistics of the times. The same occurred 50 years later, soon after the first Labour Government greatly widened access to secondary education.
Labour has a good story to tell in education policy, while National is vulnerable.
The OECD runs regular surveys of educational attainment called the Programme for International Student Assessment or Pisa, extending to more than seventy countries.
After nine years of a Labour Government, New Zealand was at number seven in reading and science. The latest PISA report now has us at number 18 in science and 13 in reading. In maths we have dropped from 13th place to 22nd.
In all of the indexes, Australia has pulled ahead of New Zealand.
National's wrong-headed attempt to boost class sizes a few budgets ago was quickly abandoned after school principals in solidly National voting electorates ganged up on the Minister Hekia Parata, but to many in the education sector National's policy direction seems ill-conceived.
The recent announcement of increased salaries for selected teachers and principals, though obviously welcomed by the teaching profession, is almost certainly not the answer to our major education problem which is the "tail" of about 20 per cent of kids who under achieve.
I spent six years of my life as a secondary school teacher, including a year at Karamu High School. I have absolutely no recollection of what I was paid. Money's not why I did it.
Extra expenditure on core pupil-focussed problems, such as truancy, would have been a better use of the money.
Even the most inspirational teacher on earth won't do a lot of good if the kid's not in the room.
If Labour is to break out of its polling doldrums, Cunliffe will need to make an impact and some good policy ideas will need to be unleashed.
#Mike Williams is a former Labour Party president who grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is a director of Auckland Transport and CEO of the NZ Howard League.