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Bill English Address To National Party Conference


Hon Bill English

Opposition Finance Spokesperson


Address to New Zealand National Party

Conference 2000

Aspirations and opportunity


10.40am, Sunday 20 August 2000

Let's get economic policy in proportion. Remember we live in a country and a community first and an economy second. New Zealanders see economic policy as it really is, a tool, for achieving our ends, a platform for aspiration and success and a strong inclusive community.

An opposition conference is a special opportunity to move our thinking ahead. When we come as government, we rehearse the policy. So today I want to talk as much about politics as economic policy – you can read the economic commentary every day.

The Government’s handling of the economy has been the single biggest issue for most New Zealanders since the election because they are playing politics with our livelihoods.

Here’s a number. Three months ago the Reserve Bank said that from June to December the economy would grow 2%. This week they said it would grow 0.5%. What difference does that make ? About $1.5 billion difference – New Zealand will have $1.5 billion less goods and services than we thought we would, and fewer jobs.

Dr Brash said it's been deferred. He should be right. The export sector is thriving on higher prices a low dollar and a good season. I hope he is right because thousands of people will spend six more months on the dole, six months of losing work habits, getting dispirited, waiting for it all to come right.

And they are people we know. Like the young man I met the other day with a polytech building ticket, caught out by the slump in the market, so the job he was promised isn’t there.

There are 10,000 like him – the jobs machine has destroyed 300 jobs a week since the election. Who are the people? Teenagers trying to get a start, mothers trying to return to the workforce, beneficiaries who return to lives of quiet desperation, people made redundant. Their political loyalty to Labour has been rewarded with the door to work slammed shut with bad policies,

It's bad management because it's bad for people. Reluctant as I am, I’ll talk about Labour. We should not allow ourselves though to be drawn into their weird little world. When Michael Cullen said, “We won, you lost, eat that,” we thought he meant us. In fact he was briefly summarizing Labour’s internal management strategy.

Michael Cullen running a charm offensive is like Helen Clark running a loyalty programme.

Labour has had their chance, and they blew it. However long they last, they will fail because their programme has been about scrabbling around to put together a series of political deals that get them into power – too cynical, too sectional, too small.

On Friday my electorate office rang about 60 businesses in one of my small towns. Each one raised the ERB un-prompted. And they complain about ACC. Not many pay the top tax rate, but they hate the idea they might have to. They are uncertain what the government is on about and they feel got at.

They ought to feel good, because today business is good, But they’re looking ahead. Labour is building a tunnel at the end of the light.

The ERB sums it up. It's not a law for new jobs, it’s a law against them.

The Government says they want higher paid full-time jobs. They believe they have legislated for full-time jobs. Why didn’t we think of that? They don’t want part time or casual jobs like teacher aide, vine pruning, waitering, the checkout, child care.

You can call it menial, low skilled, low paid, but there is another name for it – an opportunity.

The Government wants to rip out the first rung on the ladder to full time work.

And they want to put unions into strong mutual relationships in most workplaces and to build walls where there should be open space – people have adapted to the flexibility the new economy requires, and now it's legislated away

We stand with them. We can own this territory, we can get their support. The ERB is bad for business – we all know that, and it will help them vote for us. But it's bad for workers too, especially for those on the margins of the workforce. Get used to the idea that Labour doesn’t really care about them.

We have to take everyone with us for the ride up the technology curve, the growth curve. But a lot of people need a job first.

Good economic policy extends the promise of work and financial security into every corner of our country.

We stand with other people whose aspiration is frustrated. There are the workers who negotiated their own collective contract. Now it's an offence.

There are the teachers who swallowed hard and signed up to bulk funding. They had a larger vision for our children, and they backed themselves.

Let's reach out to them.

They think we stand only for people who have succeeded. You and I can show them we stand for aspiration. Aspiration is for everyone at any level of income or achievement – we represent the reach, the effort, not just the income that goes with success.

Over 600,000 New Zealanders depend directly on the profits of small business for their livelihood, as owners or workers. They aren’t all wealthy – retailers, panelbeaters hairdressers, many just make a living.

The Government doesn’t like them because they make a profit. The Government regards profit as greed and exploitation.

And that’s what lies at the bottom of the confidence problem. The economy is in reasonable shape, but people sense that the Government runs on a different set of values. There is now international and local mistrust of this Government, and it affects everyone.

It's helped lead to a lower dollar. That means we are poorer. The economists will tell you someone has to end up poorer. It's not the exporters who are feeling the pinch this time, it's everyone else. Families costs are going up – filling the car, paying the mortgage, buying the milk.

Another group we can reach out to, with empathy, realism and our willingness.

That is ever more important because of the growing recognition that we could coast through prosperity and it's slowly going wrong again. How many people have you met lately from all walks of life who want to get the country back on the rails? They are looking to us – as yet unpersuaded.

It's scary isn’t it ? We find ourselves so soon in opposition charged with a huge task – reignite the fire of enterprise and take everyone for the ride. Take from that first a sense of urgency. It's only 16 months till election year. Those same people will punish us at the ballot box if we do not rise to the challenge.

Can we do it? Lets not be weighed down by pessimism about our country or our economy. I don’t like the give-up theory – join Australia for their currency, citizenship, political union.

Some of our supporters are the worst, and we the National Party should not fall in. The Government deserves every bit of criticism it gets, but the country is the rest of us, not them. Sometimes it feels the way Maori must feel, endless litanies about our sliding standard of living.

I feel like the person who asked a local how they find an address across town, and he says, “If I were you I wouldn’t start from here”

Some New Zealanders have decided not to start from here, to begin again somewhere else. We must heed their message, get their advice. We should be reassured that however hard we are on our education system, some of our people can go anywhere in the world and do well.

That's one reason to be optimistic.

Here’s another. A recent study shows we are the youngest open economy among Western developed nations, starting about 1986, some 20 years after Australia.

That means we have come a long way in a short time. Our numbers haven’t caught up with our neighbours, but our attitudes have. Some of our big industries have only in the last decade become commercial – in a decade forestry has moved form old style government department to the e-commerce and fishing from mining the sea to ecological management.

The debate in the wool and dairy industries we have now, just couldn’t have happened five years ago. Attitudes in the rural community would have been much more defensive, much more concerned about putting up with the familiar, rather than getting ahead with new ideas.

Aren’t these examples all old fashioned? Politicians still talk endlessly about how we are locked into commodity production. And so we are -- we have billions of dollars of investment tied up in it and whole communities built around it. Some of our national character is built on the culture that makes it work, and it's poor economics to write it off and walk away. Sure commodity prices are dropping – but so is Internet access, by 40% this month. That's faster than 3% a year.

We are learning in primary production to do what the communications industry does – bundle services, build alliances, sort out someone else’s industry, beat the price curve. I’ve visited hundreds of businesses in recent years, and I’ve decided the knowledge economy isn’t software or the Internet, it’s a way of thinking – fast, lateral, original, risky.

We have people like that. That’s why I’m optimistic. We aren’t Finland or Ireland, we could have done better. But I have met New Zealanders in the most unlikely places who think that way. They’re business innovators, social innovators. Outside the arts and culture sector, very few of them think this Government represents the values that drive their achievement. We do.

So our task now is to reach out. The economy is about people and politics is about the same people. Labour won 38% of the vote and they’re a minority government. We need to do 4 or 5 % better. That’s hard. Make no mistake, our appeal to voters has to be broad and inclusive. That’s a message you heard on Friday and Saturday and it deserves repeating today.

What does it mean in reality? It means people who voted Labour last election need to vote for us next time, but not for Labour policies. I have told you today about voters who are worse off because of Labour policy, shut out of jobs, with a rising cost of living, with a Government hostile to achievement and success. Don’t underestimate voters ability to understand that. It's costing them their opportunities, their jobs.

There are people and issues we feel comfortable with, and some we don’t. Go and find them. Reach out.

Reaching out isn’t just about votes. Think of our party and its supporters like the Internet – if we can connect many minds we multiply the power of our solutions.

Next year we will bring together the wisdom of many into an economic policy which will be realistic – building on what we know works, adding a focus on development of our people and ideas. Some of the ideas will be plain old common sense. Some will be small but smart – some will be idealistic and challenging. In our third year we will face the test of our integrity. Do we really believe in our country – can we win their hearts as well as their minds?

New Zealand can become a mismanaged peripheral economy, where people are disappointed by a government that underrates their aspirations, where our higher income earners simply take their skills where they are valued.

Our policy and our spirit can be dominated by our disadvantages. By next year we ought to be as pro New Zealand as we are anti Labour now. They are punishing their own – but if we don’t talk to them, they can’t know us well enough to change their vote.

We can be a strong economy which extends the promise of prosperity and opportunity to every New Zealander, where we understand our strengths more than the strengths of other countries, and build on them.

I want to leave you with a sense of the responsibility we bear. The issues of this new decade areour issues, not Labour’s. We are the political movement who now have the job of fitting New Zealand for the next 20 years, from treaty issues to globalisation.

As you recruit new people, raise funds, go to meetings deal with the tensions of change in our organisation, do all the things we must do to lay a foundation, remember to reach out. There’s only us to persuade them.


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