Key Points:

The National Party heads into the opening of its annual conference tonight fending off claims that it has little in the way of policy to support its healthy poll ratings.

The party's 71st annual conference will stretch throughout the weekend but it is not expected to offer much in the way of fresh policy announcements, apart from some hints about tougher measures to deal with gangs.

Instead, much of the focus will be on John Key's first appearance at an annual conference as leader and on moving the party closer to a series of policy proposals expected to be made public in coming months.

National's leadership team and its senior MPs are well aware of Labour's efforts to highlight what it claims is a lack of policy - on everything from superannuation to KiwiSaver, interest-free student loans, to cuts to government spending.

Mr Key is not concerned by the attacks and said National would continue to set its own agenda, rather than have someone else do it for the party.

"We've got somewhere between 14 and 15 months to run [until the election]," Mr Key said.

"There's an element of fatigue that would take place if we announced too much stuff and too much detail now."

Mr Key defended his stance on policy and said there was actually a lot more in the public domain than people realised.

"We gave the Burnside speech and people stood up and said 'hey, there's no policy in here'," Mr Key said.

"We went on and delivered quite a lot of things against that, our educational standards, trades training, charitable donations, the way we're going to contract with the voluntary sector and the private sector."

But the bigger policies are still being developed behind the scenes with discussion documents and forums being used to float proposals.

The timetable for releasing some documents is later than under former leader Don Brash, and it is clear National under Mr Key is treading carefully to avoid frightening voters.

A 'blue-green' discussion document setting out the party's thinking on environment and climate change policy has been available for public feedback, and a key plank of National's election policy package could be revealed in a law and order paper expected to be unveiled in November.

Justice and Corrections spokesman Simon Power yesterday said he had been on the road for 18 months talking to organisations from the Howard League for Penal Reform to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, getting ideas.

He had talked with prisoners and visited restorative justice groups.

Mr Power's discussion document will encompass crime, police, courts, corrections, rehabilitation and re-entry to society. "There are some things we have to make clear we're not going to tolerate and we will be very straightforward on what you would consider to be major issues, like gangs, parole and the like," he said.

But he also saw potential in areas such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation and work programmes in prisons.

Mr Power said he had three or four legislative proposals to tackle gangs, and say more in his speech at the conference tomorrow.

Health spokesman Tony Ryall is also working on a policy discussion document and a private draft has been used to consult with groups and individuals in the sector. National has been looking to Australian clinical networks for inspiration, but Mr Ryall played down any talk of radical change in the health system under his party.

Asked if National would commit to keeping Labour's future funding of an extra $750 million for health each year, Mr Ryall said that was a question for finance spokesman Bill English.

But he added "I can't see us wanting to make any changes to that".

Another policy starting to take shape is some form of work for the dole, although it will likely be known as "activity in the community".

National's welfare spokeswoman, Judith Collins, plans to pilot a work for the dole scheme in South Auckland if National leads the next government. She said people who did not take part might have their payments suspended.

She also suggested that under National there would be a hard look at sickness beneficiaries to see if they should be on the unemployment benefit instead.