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Laila Harre's Speech to Alliance conference

Leader’s Speech to Alliance conference

Wellington Bridge Club

1 December 2002

Laila Harre


I want to begin by acknowledging Alliance members, our friends and our voters.

It’s been a big year.

Many people here have shouldered a huge and unexpected load, and Alliance activists have risen to the challenge.

In April the Council charged me with the task of leading our election campaign.

Today you have made an honest leader of me. Thank you.

We put down some new foundations for the Alliance in the election campaign.

Throughout the country, whole new groups of activists fired up local campaigns. It is essential that our youth activists are encouraged to take on leadership roles.

By the end of this weekend we will have set some achievable goals for the year ahead and begun planning to achieve them.

We want to build a successful electoral party of the left.

We must be very clear about that objective because while we pursue many other goals in the movement for social justice, the Alliance is where we work for this one.

The work we do as a party must help achieve that objective, step by step.

Whether there is a sufficient left vote in 2005 to regain parliamentary representation will depend on developments outside and inside the Alliance.

I have deliberately talked about the Alliance being the core of a successful independent left party, because the steps we take towards parliamentary representation will transform us.

Right now our biggest strength is our very existence. We are a collective of like minded, left thinking people with a shared and principled programme, and experience of party building, parliament, government and community activism.

We don’t have to debate the benefits of parliamentary representation.

MMP gives us the freedom to work outside a third way party like Labour and still win votes and seats.

These factors give us a huge advantage over people like us in the rest of the English speaking world, who are locked into labour parties by first past the post, or consigned to educate and inform but not actively represent through groups with no serious electoral agenda.

The space is there and is growing for a left party.

The Greens share our views on many issues. Their left was strengthened in the Alliance.

However the Greens will not be able to avoid a debate about their key aims indefinitely, and certainly not if they join a government. Even left Greens throughout Europe are questioning the sense of diffusing the environmental focus and the local party will be closely following this debate.

There should be room for co-operation between a strong Green party and a strong party of the left.

Meanwhile, Labour will not change significantly. It is a successful third way party, and that is good enough for its leaders and activists. Labour no longer seeks to fundamentally redistribute power and resources here or around the world. It does not want to lead or have to deal with a leftward shift in public opinion.

Michael Cullen’s catchcry that you have to make the cake bigger before you can cut it into more pieces, puts Labour fundamentally at odds with the whole culture of the left, including mainstream social democracy.

Not carving the cake more evenly means not taxing the rich more to feed, house, teach or heal the rest.

It means not lowering profits to increase wages.

It means no fourth week’s leave after 25 years of massive social change that has vastly increased the total numbers of hours worked.

It means a Reserve Bank Act and monetary policy that uses unemployment to constrain inflationary wage rises.

It means holding basic benefits at the level set by the 1991 cuts, and family support at up to 40 per cent less than its original value.

The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, despite the official rejection of the new right.

Since raising the minimum wage and restoring income related rents, not a single anti-poverty initiative has been introduced and none appears to be planned. At best we have been promised inflation adjustment for family support so that the payments don’t keep losing their value.

As Matt McCarten said in summing up his presentation yesterday on the losses of the low paid and the gains of the top tier: “everyone’s had their snouts in the trough and low paid workers and beneficiaries have paid for it.”

Even a charitable analysis of the current government’s programme reveals endless opportunities to win support from Labour. Building a left party depends on taking those opportunities, and taking them will help us build.

Without a serious challenge from the left and with National in disarray, Labour is free to cover the spectrum.

That means, exactly as we predicted it would, keeping National’s natural constituency happily voting Labour.

Labour is acting like the fox in National’s chicken coop.

Where is this government’s programme heading?

The early privatisation of Air New Zealand, quite possibly as a monopoly free of direct price regulation.

The exploration of public private partnerships, a move that regardless of the infrastructure they are used to build must add a profitable return to the cost and so must be more expensive for those who use the infrastructure.

A free trade agreement with the United States. We have to assume that agreement will include NAFTA’s free investment provisions which have required the payment of compensation to foreign investors whose profits fall as a result of central and local government policy such as increasing environmental and labour standards.

The preparation for joining a war on Iraq. A year ago we were assured that New Zealand’s participation in Operation Enduring Freedom would stop at the Afghan border. The Prime Minister seemed to be genuinely concerned by the risk of escalation.

War in Iraq will kill millions and cost billions. There has been absolutely no new development in the last year which would warrant a principled change in the policy of the New Zealand Government, and yet we are clearly headed in that direction.

War, free trade and privatisation.

Not a great start for a second term centre left government.

Sadly it all begins to look like a corporate, and not a community agenda.

The most hopeful point of engagement with the government comes with Michael Cullen’s talk of a more participatory policy making process that could engage the unions and the community sector as well as business and bureaucracy.

Cynical as we all might be of such an approach, it is well worth examining. In Ireland such a process has driven national planning and directed resources into things like tertiary education and childcare.

With the left outside the door of government, we need to examine how other advocates for social justice, like unions and community groups can get in there.

As long as the voices of social investment and people-centred economic development are not heard, disillusionment brought about by the impact of inequality will continue to feed the racism of Winston Peters. We applaud the growing resistance of Asian communities themselves, and endorse Liz Gordon’s petition which calls on parliament to affirm our welcome to Asian residents and visitors, whether they are here for a week or for a lifetime.

And while there is still so much work that needs to be done to repair the pillage of the 80s and 90s, it is tragic that any time or money is being wasted investigating Neanderthal ideas like Peter Dunne’s income splitting policy.

Such a policy gives the highest benefits to the highest paid, nothing to those who must have two low incomes to survive and acts as a huge disincentive to women seeking even part-time work, reinforcing the disadvantage women already experience in the paid workforce.

If we are going to pay for people to care for their partners and children we should do it directly and at the same rate for everyone.

And while silly ideas like that are under investigation, good progress we made in many areas in government has been set back. Headlines yesterday informed us that the government has shelved the repeal of s 59 of the Crimes Act. Parents and guardians will continue to be protected from prosecution for even serious assaults on children. Yet I am sure that a majority of the Cabinet believe that this parental right should go, and they know full well that repeal will not result in prosecutions for smacking, as many fear.

Let’s hope that other initiatives we breathed life into are not similarly quashed.

Pay equity, at least in the state sector, could be achieved in this term of government.

A non-commercial youth radio network could go to air.

Amendments to the Employment Relations Act should provide more opportunities for arbitration and protection for jobs and wages when a business changes hands or is contracted out.

Paid parental leave should be extended to 14 weeks, provided to more people and paid at a higher rate with the improvements funded by an employer levy.

And Labour should drop its ridiculous opposition to four weeks annual leave.

While none of these things will rock the foundations of inequality, they will all make a difference and signal that some of the change we unleashed continues during our temporary absence from parliament.

And now a word about our recent past.

I have wrestled with whether I should focus any attention on it here. It has not preoccupied the conference. On the other hand there is an unreality in the Alliance moving forward without a comment on events since our last conference.

After all, they led to an early election, a right wing friend for Labour and thus a less promising future for New Zealand.

Most importantly, an honest look at what happened reveals, I think, that the fault does not lie in the failure of our principles or our policies, but the failure of our former leadership to fight for them.

There is no reason to conclude from our experience that the left must move further right to be popular. Our principles are still shared by a large proportion of New Zealanders.

What isn’t shared is a belief that it is possible to put in place policies as a government that are true to them.

We don’t have to convince people that we should live in a more equal, more just and more peaceful world.

Our challenge is to convince people that we can.

What happened to the Alliance was not our fault. The willingness to destroy the party for defending the very things it had been built to defend was something we could not have predicted.

In the end our loyalty to the cause prevented us from taking the action that in any normal party under the sort of internal attack we faced would be a natural response - a leadership challenge. The Alliance was far too fragile for this and the best we could do was hope that reason would prevail and that a new leadership would be allowed to emerge during the next three years.

By last year’s conference we were in a hopeless situation. The catalyst for open opposition – the parliamentary Alliance’s unqualified support for the US war in Afghanistan – set in place a process within the party that mimicked the crisis internationally. We became, as one friend of all sides labelled it “the terrorists in his head”.

But the catastrophic attack on the twin towers only revealed the differences that had begun to develop during the 1996 election campaign and had become far more serious in their implications in the lead up to the 1999 election and our entry into government.

Despite attempts to soften it, many of us who were candidates in 1996 knew that our belligerent stance towards Labour was costing us votes, and wanted to unambiguously state a preference for a Labour minority government.

When the caucus met in the aftermath of the 1996 result we rejected a proposal to refuse Labour support on confidence and supply votes unless a number of our core policies were agreed to. Instead we agreed to support Labour on confidence and supply provided it did not declare legislation with which we fundamentally disagreed a confidence matter.

This was MMP. Let parliament, and not horse trading, determine the outcome.

In our first MMP term in Parliament our campaigns were incredible.

We were alone in Parliament in our successful opposition to the MAI, won public support for paid parental leave, exposed Max Bradford’s plans to sell holidays and remove a number of personal grievance rights, took the political leadership of the campaigns against casinos and genetic engineering, for new hospitals and against the closure of old ones. We opposed the privatisation of ACC and the deregulation of NZ Post, supported self determination for East Timor, stood by the firefighters, and stopped the sale of the Ports of Auckland for the third time. All these built our links with others, and provided about an equal number of opportunities to distinguish ourselves from Labour and co-operate with them.

All made the most of our parliamentary advocacy and our street level campaigning.

All kept the Alliance at the political heart of effective campaigns.

Our very presence in the MMP environment and our advocacy of a credible position from Labour’s left, forced change in Labour too.

But this real and effective political work, which set the agenda for wins in government, struggled to compete in voters’ minds with corrosive internal problems. By 1999 we were a caucus of 8, not the 13 who had been elected and our election result reflected that decline.

Going into government with Labour became an alternative to, rather than a function of, building the base for an independent party of the left.

The commitment to coalition was controversial within our membership, but even more controversial was the beginning of a fundamental policy revision which in 1999 would lead to a proposal to have a higher starting point for tax increases than even Labour’s $60,000, and this year culminated in the departing MPs’ description of core Alliance policies as “unelectable”.

That was, in my view, the underlying cause of the defections we experienced this year. A desire to be part of the mainstream brought with it unwillingness to front a programme that called for a clear shift in power.

We weren’t and aren’t a boutique left party.

Our objectives and our policies remain very much in the international mainstream.

Free health and education, public control of public infrastructure, a planned approach to economic development, progressive taxation, the highest standard of working conditions and fair pay, equality for women, children’s rights, fair trade and an independent foreign policy.

In the months ahead we need to organise around these ideas, and debate our solutions.

Leading discussion around these solutions will itself help us build. The Red and Green journal that we have agreed to support will allow some rigour to be developed around our programme. A conference next year that brings together left people and ideas will also be an opportunity to develop policy and strategy for the Alliance as an independent party of the left.

Renewing and strengthening our links with social movements and unions is vital.

Continuing to raise funds, campaign around our ideas, and interact with parliament through select committees and community action is also essential.

The Alliance does not want to lead the campaign to keep the moratorium on the conditional or commercial release of genetically modified organisms. But we are working with others in it. Most New Zealanders oppose release, and there are thousands of activists prepared to stop it. We have discussed the possibility of a Citizens Initiated Referendum on the issue, and I would urge the groups leading the charge to give more consideration to it. Those who oppose GE need a simple way of expressing their opposition, and a such a referendum would provide a clear focus to the campaign leading up to October next year.

…….

Finally, friends, we must not let the real responsibility we have as the only real chance of sustaining a left electoral alternative become a burden. History has put us in this place. We should be grateful that it has put us here with each other. We are smart. We are experienced and we have time on our side.

Let’s move forward with reasonable expectations of each other, and high expectations of ourselves.

We can do it.

ENDS

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