Knowledge Wave Conference Reads Like ACT Manifesto
Tuesday, August 7 2001
Richard Prebble Speech
Speech to ACT Party Meeting of Upper South Branch
Cotswold Hotel, Christchurch
5.30pm Monday, 6 August 2001
Historians often look back and identify turning points which weren't noticed as being significant at the time.
It's also said you can track back every political movement to something a person wrote. In ACT's case, it would be Sir Roger Douglas's Unfinished Business.
I think last week may qualify on both counts as a turning point. The media have presented the Catching the Knowledge Wave conference as the government surfing on a new path. In reality, the conference was a challenge to the direction the coalition is taking the country.
Not one speaker from New Zealand or overseas got up and said - "New Zealand's policy framework is just right. The country is riding the knowledge wave to success. You are attracting talented people and businesses. Here is where you need to be."
Speaker after speaker said, "New Zealand is missing the knowledge wave." We New Zealanders are polite, so speakers didn't attack the government directly. The overseas speakers were polite about their host.
But the messages were still strong. How can New Zealand, with the highest corporate tax rate in Asia, hope to keep New Zealanders and firms from migrating, let alone attract the new knowledge companies to come here?
Helen Clark took every opportunity to rule out tax cuts, but she can't answer the question.
Dr Michael Porter's speech was particularly significant. Dr Porter has had more influence on New Zealand business opinion than any other business thinker. Prior to Porter, it was the objective of every large New Zealand company to eliminate domestic competition, and then, from a secure base, start exporting. Porter pointed out the advantages of strong competition and many competitors ' for example, Japan has five domestic car companies and Silicon Valley has hundreds of companies.
Porter pointed out that New Zealand, since 1984, has improved its performance significantly. The last 10 years have been better than the 20 years before.
Jim Anderton campaigned that Rogernomics was 15 years of failure. Helen Clark and Michael Cullen like to pretend they were not ministers in the Lange government. Michael Porter's speech was not what they wanted to hear.
The Reserve Bank Governor, Don Brash, gave a speech that clearly set out the issues. The media largely ignored the first part of Dr Brash's speech.
He pointed out that New Zealanders want a first world health system - we won't accept third world medical services.
We want a first world education system - we want our children to have as good an education as Australian, English and American school children ' well, better actually!
We want a superannuation and welfare system that provides dignity. Polls also show that we would like more leisure time. Nothing that unusual. It's our wish for more that drives human beings to achieve.
What 's wrong, and is implicit in Dr Brash's speech, is that our leaders don't have the courage to point out we can't have higher living standards if we also want more leisure - we must choose.
Very few New Zealanders choose to have a third world health system, but plenty of time off to go fishing. Yet that's what Labour and Alliance politicians promise.
Parental leave is not free - someone must pay. Four weeks annual leave is not free. The new super fund is not free - every dollar is borrowed. When the fund loses money - as it's government run it's guaranteed to - we will pay.
Dr Brash pointed out where the real money is going - welfare. How is it, he asked, at a time of high employment, that there are 60,000 more able-bodied New Zealanders on welfare, than at the height of the economic restructuring?
The average cost of welfare is $10,500 per beneficiary. So 60,000 extra able-bodied people on welfare costs $634 million a year - or $12.2 million a week.
Dr Brash asked a good question - why does an able-bodied adult get welfare anyway? Why not just give such adults a job? Any job. There are now over 100,000 adults who claim not to have been able to find a job for a year. I have met employers from Northland to Invercargill who have told me they will give a job to anyone who is willing to work.
Do we have an obligation to pay benefits to able-bodied adults who are not willing to work? Dr Brash raises a further question - can we afford to?
Why does any able-bodied person qualify for 100 percent leisure time at the taxpayer's expense?
Imagine what we could do for teachers pay, if our welfare rolls were lower.
ACT is the only party that has had the courage to raise welfare reform as an election issue. With one adult in three on welfare there's no way New Zealand can ride the knowledge wave - we are too heavy for the surfboard.
If the economic arguments do not appeal - then what of the social. The welfare benefit does not lead to a good life. People on benefits do not have high self esteem. Dependency is an awful existence.
Where countries have decided not to pay long term benefits to able-bodied adults, they have found that crime reduces, child abuse decreases and family breakups are down. Children do better at school.
If we won't do welfare reform for the money, let's do it for the people. Which brings me back to where I began.
How can the Labour/Alliance coalition respond to this conference? In fact, Labour has been given a golden opportunity to change direction. The success of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in Britain is that the Left seized the opportunity to reform welfare.
If Helen Clark embraced last week's conference as a mandate to go in a new direction, the government could be re-elected easily. But Clark won't do that. Already she has ruled out the conference's first priority - lower taxes.
The government's new challenge is last week's other event, the report of the Royal Commission on genetic modification. The Royal Commission reported that keeping New Zealand's GE free is not a practical option.
We had an example given in Parliament. The Minister of Bio-Security, Marian Hobbs, had to admit that while the so-called voluntary moratorium on GE was on, she approved the use of an anti cholera drug that is a GE modified medicine.
How could the government send troops to East Timor with out giving them the best drugs? "Will the GE modified genes escape?" she asked. The Minister observed that she could not prevent the soldiers from going to the toilet.
The Greens are now saying that they have never been opposed to GE in medicine. Not true, but let's ask the question - are the Greens going to lock up every diabetic who receives GE modified insulin? If not, why is it OK to inject GE modified substances, but not to eat them?
The arguments are illogical. The ban on GE research is damaging New Zealand. Labour has a major problem. The party wants to project itself as the party of the knowledge economy, yet it is the government that is banning new knowledge.
The cynics say that image is everything. My experience in politics leads me to believe that in the end reality shines through. So I am confident about ACT's prospects.
ACT is the party of the future. ACT has been the party of new ideas. ACT is a truly liberal party that seeks to promote the individual as being the most important.
Societies that are worth living in are ones where people take personal responsibility for their own decisions.
The values we need to take advantage of the new knowledge economy are the values of ACT - freedom, choice and personal responsibility. The 142 recommendations of the knowledge wave conference read like ACT's manifesto.