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Acknowledging the centrality of employment

Hon Steve Maharey
13 September 2000 Speech Notes

Acknowledging the centrality of employment

Address to the National Conference of the Community Employment Group. Ellerslie Convention Centre, Auckland.

Introduction

Thank you for the invitation to join you at your National Conference. The Community Employment Group is now back in the Department of Labour. For some of you this a returning home, for others it is a new home, perhaps the second home that you have had in a short while.

I think the decision to place the Community Employment Group back in the Department of Labour is a good one, and I very much hope that the Group will, in a very short space of time, demonstrate to a range of stakeholders that you are now better placed to assist in generating the kinds of outcomes we are after. I want to return to the issue of those outcomes in a moment.

The latest issue of Labour Link includes a number of pieces welcoming the Community Employment Group to the Department, and I won't traverse that ground tonight.

If I can use a metaphor that is often applied to new governments and to new leaders – we have had the honeymoon, it's now time to get on with things. I'm not suggesting that the romance is over of course, but I am suggesting that a number of those who welcomed the marriage with messages of good will are now waiting to see if the union is going to work.

So I want to direct my comments tonight largely to looking forward.

The centrality of employment

And I want to start with what is at the core of the mission for this Group. I want to suggest that the key word is employment. That perhaps is short-hand for the role that the Department of Labour as a whole has embraced – building human capability.

But let me start with the absence of that – with unemployment.

I sense that I am seen as a politician driven more by intellect than by passion. But I have to say that for me the two qualities sustain each other.

I find unemployment offensive – deeply offensive. I am a member of a political party and of a movement that was founded out of a desire to ensure that people were in work – well paid, decent work.

And whatever the embellishments of modernity – third way this, or new age that – the centrality of work remains a defining feature of the mission of social democratic parties and governments.

Moreover I believe that the centrality of work is an enduring value in this society more generally. The actions of governments of a variety of persuasions have testified to that fact.

That said, I think that there is a real risk of our society becoming desensitised to the realities of unemployment.

It's not all that apparent on Queen Street, or Lambton Quay. It doesn't surface in the mainstream media.

Unemployment isn't a particularly democratic phenomenon – in this country, as in others, it tends to pick out particular regions, and in this country, in those regions we find high levels of Mâori unemployment, and we find pockets of extremely high youth unemployment.

And we need to keep in front of us the consequences of that unemployment – leaving aside the tortuous academic debate around causality and association, I think it is clear that unemployment kills people. The literature is clear – unemployed people have higher rates of physical and mental illness. And I am convinced that there is a causal relationship between unemployment and crime.

The fact, indeed even the threat of unemployment – which in turn says something about insecure work – has a corrosive effect on well being.

And at the level of the economy, unemployment is simply wasteful. Expressed in terms of the Department of Labour's mission, it represents a depreciation of our human capital. In aggregate we know that a given level of unemployment represents GDP foregone – the only debate is what the ratio is. But even at the lower bounds, what are now accepted as modest levels of unemployment are incredibly wasteful.

So, what to do about this?

I am not interested in the politics of outrage – being outraged may make you feel better, but it doesn't do anything to address the problem on the ground.

Nor am I interested in what are known in political circles as 'tiny symbolic gestures'. You can't simply 'spin' unemployment away.

I am interested in being part of a Government that places employment squarely at the centre of its programme.

That is the case with this Government:

We want macroeconomic policy to make its contribution to sustainable, job-rich, and non-inflationary growth.

We want to play a partnership role in the development of industries and in regional development

We want to address skill shortages – and we want to do that at both ends of the spectrum, with responsive tertiary institutions producing graduates and scientific research that meet the needs of industry, and with an education system (and a second chance education system) ensuring that our people have a well-rounded education, and that they can read, and write and count. Let me clear on that issue – our record on literacy and numeracy is appalling.

In short, as a Government we want to work at both the capacity and the opportunity end of the equation.

And we want to ensure that what we do coheres around a strategy – that we have what my colleague Jim Anderton refers to as a 'whole of government' approach to the issue.

The Government has an employment strategy, and at the officials level we have an Employment Strategy Senior Officials Group. The Labour Market Policy Group took the lead on the development of the strategy, and the Department of Labour, through its Chief Executive, convenes the Senior Officials Group.

We have the basis for a whole of government approach, and given the fact that we still operate largely in an environment dominated by policy silos, building the means for some horizontal integration is no mean feat.

But there is some impatience when one mentions the word strategy – and I can understand that. There is a risk of strategy becoming an end in itself, not a means by which real and tangible outcomes are produced. Without action, a strategy is at risk of becoming simply another tiny symbolic gesture.

And so it is action that I now want to direct my comments to. But before I do that let me say that I think that it is quite appropriate to set one's sights high.

Setting goals and targets

While I am a great believer in accountability – who isn't – there is a real risk of the contractualist mind-set dominating to the point where setting goals or targets becomes simply a scientific exercise.

Let me give you an example.

Last night I hosted a function at the Beehive to mark the launch of a Memorandum of Understanding between central government and the Mayors Task Force for Jobs. Garry Moore has been the driving force behind the Mayors Task Force and because of his connection with CEG I feel quite comfortable citing this as an example.

The Memorandum of Understanding sets out the goals of central government, and of the Mayors Task Force. It states that the Mayors Task Force is committed to two goals:

"Goal one: By 2005, no young person under 25 years will be out of work or training in our communities

Goal two: By 2009, all people in our communities will have the opportunity to be in work or training"

Now one response to goals of this kind - the risk averse response - would have it that, for central and local government, these goals are heroic, but irresponsible – there are too many variables that can't be controlled, the influence of exogenous factors unknown etc etc.

This response would have it that any progress towards meeting these goals, however significant, would constitute a failure if the goal had not been fully realised.

This response would have it that it would be somehow dishonest to invite the community to participate in a project of this kind if there was any risk of the goal not being achieved. It might also have it that setting a goal that is not credible risks alienating those that you are seeking to work in partnership with.

I disagree. I think that these are good goals.

Let me use a sporting analogy – there is nothing wrong with a team of rugby players or netballers going out in search of playing the perfect game. I don't know of any player of note that has come off the field or the court claiming to have played the perfect game, or of any team (perhaps with the exception of the Manawatu Rugby team in its heady days).

I'm not suggesting that we debase politics and public policy to the point where everything is couched in sports marketing terms, but I am suggesting that there is nothing wrong in setting the sights high. There is nothing wrong with building in some stretch.

There is most certainly nothing wrong with seeking to advance a goal or a mission that has the power to excite, and indeed the power to empower.

I want you to set your sights high. I want you to test the limits. I don't want you to engage with communities in an equivocal way. I doubt that your engagements with those communities presently are.

The contribution of the CEG

Let me focus on your contribution.

The last 15 years have demonstrated that what is good for New Zealand is not necessarily good for Kaitaia or Bluff, but what is good for Kaitaia or Bluff is good for New Zealand as a whole.

The Coalition Government is seeking to bring about a mind shift in the relationship between government, the public service and communities.

The new emphasis that we seeking to bring is on partnership between government and communities, recognising that communities can play an active part in building their own well-being and that of NZ as a whole.

The Community Employment Group has nine years experience of working in partnership with communities, and Government wants to see community projects that have developed beyond the kick start stage supported into maturity either as part of regional development programmes or in partnership with mainstream public service agencies or with the private sector.

You have a key role to play in helping community projects make the transition into partnerships.

You will be leaders in this. Much of the rest of the public service will need to adapt to the mind shift rapidly. There is as much need for capacity building in the public service as in communities – capacity to think and act in a partnership framework.

One specific way in which I would like to see you developing the partnership is through regular engagement at the national level with key stakeholders on policy and operational matters.

I fully appreciate that you are not a crown entity and that you have established governance and accountability arrangements as one part of a government department. But there is no reason why, particularly given that you are the new CEG, that you shouldn't look to establish an advisory board which meets on a regular basis with your senior management team and the Chief Executive of your department.

Conclusion

The entry of other players into the area will enable CEG to focus on its original mission: working with the most disadvantaged, particularly helping to Close the Gaps for Mâori and Pacific groups; and developing and kick starting new initiatives.

Assisting the development of new social enterprises through the Community Employment Organisations strategy and Artworks as a way of promoting employment and self-sufficiency through arts, crafts and culture are two exciting new initiatives the Government wants CEG to work on. Indeed I understand that we have decided to forego a meal tonight and to work on implementation plans instead!

I want to encourage you to see the increased Government interest in regional development and community partnerships as an opportunity not a threat. Your experience will be vital in bringing about the change in approach that government wants.

The trials and battles of nine years have made CEG people resilient. That resilience has enabled the Group to survive a very unsettling two years of continual relocation and restructuring.

But I don't want you to confuse resilience with rigidity. I want this organisation to be highly adaptive. These are new and changing times, with the creation of a policy environment that is much more consistent with the mission of CEG.

Build on the opportunity but don’t lose your resilience. Set your sights high.

Kia kaha!

ENDS

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