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'The mice who roar' - Rod Donald CTU Speech

15 October 2001

'The mice who roar' Speech to CTU Biennial Conference A wider Role for Unions Session Rod Donald MP Green Party Co-Leader

It is an honour to be invited to address the conference of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. I bring you greetings from my co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons and our industrial relations spokesperson Sue Bradford.

We would like to offer our congratulations to all the delegates and the unions you represent. You deserve to celebrate the many achievements of the last two years at the same time as developing strategies to face the challenges ahead. We appreciate the significance of our invitation and hope it will be the first of many as our relationship continues to develop from strength to strength.

Last election the Greens were lumped in with the rats and mice - literally referred to as such in one union publication - as the union movement sought to throw out the National Government and replace it with a Labour / Alliance one. We are looking forward to a more inclusive election strategy from unions next year.

We certainly believe we have established a close working relationship with the CTU and a number of individual unions, both in the House and on the streets. We have certainly worked hard to achieve Green party goals for industrial relations, workers rights and social justice. And while we may be as small as mice, relative to the Labour and National elephants, our seven votes can often a crucial difference. What's more, we can roar just as loudly as the elephants.

When I attended the celebrations in Christchurch to mark the passage of the Employment Relations Act I was grateful for the acknowledgement that without our seven votes there would not be an ERA.

The same of course applies to the two ACC Bills, income related rents for State houses and the Minimum Wage Amendment Bill (to remove the minimum wage exemption for employees who are in an industry training programme).

On the ERA we were successful in persuading the Government to ensure employers could not unreasonably deny union representatives access to the work place and we successfully negotiated down to 24 hours the strike notice period for workers in public transport services.

Unfortunately, we couldn't persuade the Alliance and Labour MPs to protect workers in service contract industries by reintroducing a transfer of undertakings clause. I can't fathom the ongoing conservatism on the part of the Government, especially when we had more than enough examples of real situations, ranging from the farcical to the tragic, to warrant protecting the mainly women workers who live under threat of their jobs, wages and conditions being sold out from under them.

In our opinion, continuity of employment is a basic workers right and needs to be protected. We are continuing to pressure the Government to introduce a sound and sensible minimum code, including a transfer of undertakings component, as soon as possible, to ensure that when a contractor changes those staff working on the same site would be guaranteed continued employment on the same wages and conditions.

We also wanted to place an obligation on employers, with the employees consent, to pass on the names and addresses of new employees to the unions to enable workers to exercise their right to join a union. Again, we were unable to persuade the Government, desperate to appear business friendly, to incorporate this logical amendment.

Last, and certainly not least, the Government refused to support our amendment to uphold the right of workers to strike on significant environmental, social and democratic issues. We believe this is a fundamental democratic right and we were sorry that Alliance and Labour MPs, many of whom have had a history of support for action on such issues as nuclear ships and the Springbok Tour, remained deaf to our pleas that working people should have right to challenge horrors such as nuclear weapons, apartheid and genocide.

On ACC we worked well with the CTU to maintain pressure on the Government to make sure they went as far as possible in meeting the union movements recommendations.

We were successful with a new ministerial advisory panel on work related gradual process, disease or infection injury. We wanted a panel of experts to advise ACC and the Minister on the appropriate criteria for determining what was a work-related disease because we are particularly concerned about workers who are affected by chemical exposure but who are then not recognised by ACC as having a work-related illness.

We were able to insert a clause that allows the corporation to fund advocacy or support services that are assisting claimants but, of course, the corporation is not required to do this. We also inserted a clause to the effect that the billions of dollars of ACC funds must be invested in such a way to 'avoid prejudice to New Zealand's reputation as a responsible member of the world community.'

We would have preferred a much stronger definition of ethical or socially responsible investment but that was as far as the cautious Government would go.

Where they wouldn't go was to increase survivors' grants to reasonable levels. Currently they are $4,700 for spouses and $2,300 for dependents. We wanted $50,000 and $20,000. We also wanted the Government to comply with ILO conventions that state injured workers should not have to contribute to their treatment costs. Currently injured workers are paying $15 to $20 for GP visits, $10 to $20 for physio and $20 to $40 for osteo and other treatments, on top of the Government subsidy.

Despite our support for the ERA, ACC and other employment legislation, the Government wasn't prepared to reciprocate when it came to restoring the emergency unemployment benefit for students. Both Labour and the Alliance opposed Sue Bradford's bill that would have re-introduced the benefit, in the Alliance's case by voting against their own election policy. The Government has also voted down amendments by Sue in two Social Welfare Bills that would have reduced the unemployment benefit stand down period from 13 weeks to four.

We support, as of right, women in the paid work force being entitled to paid parental leave and will support Government legislation to bring this into practice. We don't yet know exactly what the Government will be proposing as we understand the coalition partners are still in discussions, but we would be seeking a minimum of 14 weeks paid leave.

On the streets we remain true to our activist roots. Sue and Keith Locke picketed in support of port workers in Nelson and I visited striking fish processors in Bluff and spoke at their Timaru rally. Sue and Nandor went further afield to represent us at the September 11 protests in Melbourne last year in solidarity with working people throughout the world.

The invitations we have had to speak to meetings of individual unions such as seafarers and distribution workers indicates to me that we have earned some credibility with the union movement or, on areas where we disagree, at least some respect for our position. I hope the movement regards us as accessible and I would like to acknowledge in this regard not only our MPs but also the work that our researcher Deb Moran has done with for example the CTU, the Service Workers, the PPTA and the PSA in particular.

How our relationship develops in future depends a lot on what happens at the next election. Without wishing to labour the point we clearly need to win seats before we can play an effective role in supporting the wages, conditions and rights of working people in New Zealand, and throughout the world. We also need a good relationship with the Government of the day to achieve that.

I would like to place on record our current thinking on who should be the next Government and what our relationship with it should be. Despite National's coup last week we are no more likely to support an English-led National Party than a Shipley-led one. We are therefore committed to seeing the return of a Labour-led Government and will support it, either on confidence or supply or in a formal partnership.

We are still debating the merits of being in coalition and obviously pay close attention to what is happening with the Alliance, as well as the experiences of Green Parties overseas. We hope to learn from both.

In the case of the Alliance we believe they got it half right by establishing a good relationship with Labour in the lead up to the election. They also achieved a significant change to the Cabinet manual rule on collective responsibility. However we don't believe the change goes far enough to recognise the multi-party nature of parliament because, as the Alliance has found out over the Singapore Free Trade Agreement and more recently on the SAS troops to Afghanistan and, if we don't stop it in its tracks, the Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement, they are locked into supporting whatever the majority of Cabinet, i.e. Labour, decide.

We would certainly want to reserve the right to vote against the Government's Communications Security Bureau, as we did earlier this year, and lost seven votes to 113, and against the resolution on sending SAS troops to Afghanistan, which we lost by the same margin.

We also believe the Alliance didn't get it right with their coalition agreement. While it was an antidote to the NZ First tome, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. The big message we get from successful Green coalitions in Europe, such as in Belgium and Finland, as well as the not so successful ones in Germany and France, is that the junior coalition partner needs to tie down the dominant party in Government by extracting definite commitments from them to implement Green policies. As part of that commitment there must be an acknowledgement of where the recognition for those initiatives belong.

Therefore any coalition agreement we would negotiate would need to be somewhere between the last two. (It is interesting to note that the Labour-Alliance one is the shortest in the world while the National-NZ First one was the longest there has ever been, with the usual length somewhere in the middle.)

We have set ourselves a target of at least 10 per cent of the Party vote at the next election. I see that as another pre-condition for participation in a coalition. That doesn't make it inevitable either way. We simply know that if we are too small we would get squashed and if we are sufficiently large there would be inevitable pressure to join up. Compared to three years ago, where we were polling under one per cent, we are well placed in the run up to the campaign.

I am confident we will have both the quantity and the quality to contribute to government. We already have high calibre MPs who have performed well in parliament and are capable of undertaking Ministerial responsibility.

In saying that I don't want to sound cocky about or indeed committed to a coalition. Any decision on that will be made by a delegated party conference convened post election to approve or decline a coalition agreement. I just want to make it clear that we have not ruled out the opportunity should we be asked.

So what would we do if we are in a position of influence with a Labour-led Government after the next election? Campaigns we are running and stands we take on a wide range of issues give a clear indication of our direction. We are implacably opposed to the new right corporate globalisation agenda, but we are much more than that.

We want to build and are building the Green alternative. The communitarian and cooperative movements were calling for a third way long before the New Zealand Labour Party started parroting their mushy version of a progressive society shackled by a corporate economy.

Our third way is community driven rather than controlled by capital or the State. As a party we have four principles: ecological wisdom, social justice, non-violence and appropriate decision making. These are interwoven rather than layered and they provide the pillars on which we build our economy, strengthen our social fabric and enhance our environment.

Today I would like to focus on the economy, particularly our campaign for a Green economy. It is based on our principles and is designed to achieve sustainability, sovereignty and self-reliance. Some aspects are well under way such as our commitment to New Zealand becoming an organic nation by 2020. Progress with the Government is slow but promising with a number of organic initiatives being incorporated in the last two green budget packages. Meanwhile the organics industry is demonstrating its potential with export sales now topping $70 million and expected to reach $500 million in the next four years.

Earlier this year we made a comprehensive submission on ecological tax reform to the Government's tax review. We want to see our tax system structured in a way that reinforces rather than penalises sustainable activities and which creates incentives to move away from environmentally and socially damaging activities.

We refer to this as shifting tax off the 'goods' and on to 'bads'. This goes beyond the usual maxim that a tax system ought to raise a given amount of money as efficiently as possible and instead applies a triple bottom line approach to ensure that it also promotes sustainable development. In other words, we want to right the imbalance that currently rewards those who maximise and privatise profits and, at the same time, externalise costs on to the community and the environment.

The eco-taxes we have in mind include a tax on carbon - coal, oil and gas; a tax on solid waste and/or packaging; toxic chemicals and hazardous waste taxes and fisheries and mineral resource rental taxes. In return we would cut income tax to zero for the first $5000 to $10,000 or introduce a tax credit up to this amount.

We believe New Zealand should also seriously examine a capital gains tax and an international financial transactions or Tobin Tax as well as border tariffs on imports.

Our stand against Free Trade is well known and sets us apart from Labour, National and ACT. It is unclear where the Alliance currently stands. We opposed the Singapore Free Trade and Investment Agreement, we are fighting to stop the Government signing a free trade agreement with Hong Kong / China and we challenge the claims made about Closer Economic Relations with Australia.

What's more if the WTO can't be reformed into a democratic institution which recognises that trade is subservient to human rights, labour and environmental standards, then we would campaign for New Zealand to withdraw from it.

Free trade is not only bad for workers in New Zealand. It adds to impoverishment and environmental exploitation in developing countries and exacerbates the depletion of scare resources, particularly non-renewable fuels. Global trade has grown faster than economic activity in recent years simply because more and more goods are shipped back and forth between countries. Often identical products are transported on the return journeys of the same ships or planes.

Why is this the case? As nation-states take less and less direct responsibility for their national economies by removing border controls, transnational corporations increase their stranglehold on international trade. Under the competitive advantage model corporations practice 'global sourcing' of raw materials, plant, labour and services on the basis of cheapness and ease of supply.

Sometimes these advantages are due to a genuine inherent national or social factor but more often than not they are created by the political regime prevailing in the country concerned. For example, so called 'export processing zones' in the likes of Northern Mexico and Southern China provide cheap labour, low or no protective working conditions and environmental standards and even tax incentives.

Contrast that with economic development strategies which used to promote the development of import substitution industries, control on capital flows and foreign investment, acknowledgement of the benefits of self reliance in basic food stuffs and support for sunrise industries. While this radical change has led to increased economic growth the question which no Government is willing to answer is 'at what cost'?

For New Zealand the consequences have been growing trade and balance of payments deficits, escalating national debt, increasing foreign ownership, increasing unemployment, a deterioration in the standard of living and a growing gap between the rich and poor. Our experience is mirrored internationally with the increasing impoverishment of working people in developing countries eclipsing the suffering in New Zealand.

There is a real contradiction between this Government's support for economic development and its fixation with free trade agreements. Let's start with CER with Australia. We let them walk all over us when it comes to blocking the single aviation market which would have allowed Air New Zealand to pick up and set down Australian passengers and would have avoided the purchase of Ansett.

On the other hand we're not prepared to even match the Australian Government's support for their businesses or put up barriers to protect our industries. The consequences have been horrific. New Zealand has had a trade deficit with Australia for 17 out of the 19 years since CER was signed and a trade deficit of $5.5b in the last seven years. What's more, that deficit is growing.

The news from Singapore is not good either. The Government tried to claim that exports were up in the six months following the signing of the Singapore-New Zealand free trade agreement but had to back down when we highlighted the truth.

Now they are trying to say that it is good news that non traditional exports have increased. Never mind that traditional agricultural exports have dropped significantly. The facts are that exports for the six months to June were down 20 per cent compared to the previous year while our imports from Singapore were up 27 per cent. The net effect was a trade deficit of $107m compared with a trade surplus of $11m in the first six months of last year, before the free trade agreement was signed.

Now Customs tell us that when they ran a compliance test on 32 of the entries claiming a zero tariff preference 15 were unable to provide evidence that they met the rules of origin requirements. In other words almost half tried to cheat. And that is only the sample. What about the other 114 entries they didn't check?

Potentially 88 per cent of the tariff free imports from Singapore in the first six months of this year could have been illegal.

Compliance with rules of origin is a big challenge facing the Government in its pursuit of a Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement. When US customs were first allowed to inspect Hong Kong factories in 1999 to assess the extent of illegal activity, they suspected 51 out of 106 businesses of passing off Chinese and other imported goods as 'made in Hong Kong'. The New Zealand Government wants to give Hong Kong free access to our market yet we don't have a single Customs officer based there to police our rules of origin requirements.

With New Zealand currently importing $462m worth of clothing from China and only $15m worth from Hong Kong you can bet that as soon as Hong Kong becomes tariff free Chinese exporters will trans-ship through Hong Kong to avoid the $83m in taxes they are currently paying.

That would be a disaster for the 20,000 New Zealanders who are still working in the textile clothing and footwear sector. And it's going to do nothing to help the 13 million children under the age of 14 who work in the 50,000 Hong Kong owned sweatshops in Southern China.

So what do we do instead? Obviously bring as much pressure to bear on the Government as possible. Unions have a pivotal role in this regard because your stand on behalf of New Zealand workers and workers overseas will have as much if not more influence than the Green Party's seven votes, especially as trade deals are not subject to legislation.

We all have do our best to strengthen labour, human rights and environmental standards and we collectively need to decide how best to protect and advance working conditions and quality of life in New Zealand while at the same time helping to improve the livelihoods and living conditions of people in developing countries.

Looking beyond influencing the Government, we both have a role to play through our international networks. We can also do much in our own country to shift the prevailing attitude of selfishness towards a communitarian approach.

One of our key campaigns for the last year has been the promotion of 'buy local' and 'buy NZ made'. We have taken it to the streets as well as lobbied in parliament. In small towns around New Zealand we have been supplying retailers with signs highlighting the fact that they are locally owned and operated businesses.

Pushing buy NZ made is not an excuse for accepting poor quality products or service or endorsing exploitative relationships with staff but, as a principle, we are saying that if we buy locally made goods we are helping to create jobs for our family, friends and neighbours and in so doing we are strengthening not just our local economy but also our social fabric.

We have recently extended the buy local campaign by urging local councils to adopt pro-active purchasing policies which support local businesses and their staff. We have awarded bouquets to the good ones and brick bats to the bad ones and are now working to encourage sympathetic councils to adopt definite policies which commit them to awarding tenders to local businesses within a small price premium.

Individually we also have the opportunity to make choices. I maintain shopping is a political act and I do my best to look at the label before I buy. Today I am proud to be 100 per cent New Zealand made and would encourage you to be the same. I am lucky in that I do have the discretionary income to buy goods which are often dearer up front and therefore I acknowledge that many people do not have the luxury to make all the choices I do. But where there is no price differential it makes sense to buy for example, Griffins biscuits instead of Arnotts from Australia or Tip Top icecream instead of Streets, also from across the Tasman.

But let's not stop at 'buy local'. My biggest challenge to you today is to lead the charge to buy back New Zealand. It's not enough to oppose foreign ownership of our land and our businesses, as we do. We have to take the next step and reclaim ownership of our productive sector.

That means taking an equity stake in the businesses where we work, it means setting up or taking over businesses and turning them into worker cooperatives and it means ensuring our superannuation savings are invested in the New Zealand economy.

There is work to be done on the detail but what I am looking for now is the political commitment to say 'yes', we do want to be in charge of our economic destiny and that only by owning our economy will we succeed.

One vehicle for achieving ownership is superannuation and I am very disappointed the Government has so far refused to extend the six cent tax rebate employers get when the subsidise the superannuation contributions of high paid staff. What about the workers? What is stopping the Government from cutting the 33 per cent superannuation withholding tax to six per cent below the marginal 'pay as you go' tax rate for all staff.

Surely the low paid need more support than the well off? Only 17 per cent of New Zealand workers are members of employer subsidised superannuation schemes - it's not good enough.

Neither is the Government's superannuation fund. I won't bore you with the details now but suffice to say in our view the Cullen Super Fund is risky and represents an enormous opportunity cost. With the global sharemarket the way it is the last place you would invest our retirement savings, or indeed borrowings as it happens, is on the casino economy.

Any spare money we do have should be used to repay net crown debt, create full employment, improve health and housing, and generally future proof our economy, our society and our environment. We certainly shouldn't be sending our savings off shore to strengthen other economies so they can compete more effectively against us.

How we achieve full employment is another challenge facing us. What's needed first is the political will. We have it but we are not yet in power. In the meantime it is important we have the widest possible debate on the meaning of work and the related debate on income adequacy.

Work is one of the ways we add meaning to our lives, be it the work we do for money or the work we do raising children, caring for others and contributing to our communities. Work is about dignity, about being valued and valuing each other. The Greens recognise the human need to work and to participate in society. We honour all forms of work - paid, unpaid, voluntary and in the 'informal' sector of the household and the community. We are committed to shifting our economy to one that uses resources sparingly and is rich in meaningful work.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to address you today. We look forward to a close future together.

ends

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