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Eighth Women’s Conference of the ICFTU - PM

11.30am NZ time
Tuesday 18 February 2003

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Keynote Address


Eighth Women’s Conference of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions

Carlton Crest Hotel

9.30 am (East Coast Australia time)
11.30 am (New Zealand time)

Tuesday 18 February 2003

Thank you for the invitation to address the opening session of your conference today.

First, let me acknowledge the significance of this conference.

More than three hundred women unionists from more than ninety countries are meeting here in Sydney to develop strategies to advance the position of women and the work of unions.

As a woman, as the Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, and as Prime Minister of New Zealand, I welcome the convening of the conference in this part of the world.

Perhaps one day you might also consider meeting in New Zealand.

The ICFTU is a huge international organisation, with more than 231 affiliated union centres in 150 countries, representing a total membership of 158 million union members.

By any standard, that is a major organisation. And it is to the ICFTU that the world’s organised workers look for a lead on the issues affecting them their families, their communities, and their countries.

Similarly the world’s women workers look to the ICFTU’s women’s leadership to give voice to their specific concerns and represent their interests.

The issues concerning and affecting the world’s working people range across and beyond national borders. They demand a transnational response and action, and that is what the ICFTU can provide.

I have prioritised attendance at this conference for a number of reasons.

First, the political party I lead, the New Zealand Labour Party, was established primarily by trade unions in 1916 to give working people a political organisation to complement their industrial organisations.

To this day unions continue to affiliate to our party, and we continue a positive relationship with the union movement in general.

Second, I am a woman leader of a social democratic party which leads a government. That combination of factors is hard to find anywhere else in the world at this time. So I come to offer you my personal encouragement.

Third, the issues the conference will discuss are important to me and my government. We share your concern about the need to globalise equality and justice; to build inclusive societies; to fight all forms of discrimination; and to work for a more peaceful world. In my speech today I will talk about how our government tackles some of these issues.

Fourth, I wish to affirm the critical role which unions play in bringing about economic, social, and political change.

Unions are an essential part of democratic societies. Those governments which repress unions are generally authoritarian in nature and resistant to allowing any opposition voices to be heard. In this sense free unionism and democratisation go hand in hand.

My country is one of the world’s oldest democracies, and in 1893 was the first nation in the world where women gained the right to vote. We are one of a tiny number of nations which was able to maintain democratic government throughout the entire twentieth century.

As early as the 1890s, New Zealand had progressive labour legislation, with an Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act passed in 1894.

The first Labour Government came to power in 1935 and ruled for fourteen years, creating a strong base for workers’ rights and for social and economic security.

But the twentieth century in New Zealand also saw many difficult years for unions and for the living standards of working people. Armed police were called out to suppress a strike in 1912, and a worker was killed. The depressions of the 1920s and 1930s were tough. In 1951 there was an extended lock out of waterfront workers, and the state assumed extraordinary powers to stop the locked out workers publicising their cause.

The next four decades saw little significant change in the industrial relations framework, and unions largely got on with their business. But then the new right struck. Just as Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Government had set out to constrain unions in Britain, so did her soul mates in New Zealand.

New labour legislation was passed in 1991 which impacted severely on collective organisation and bargaining and on the right to strike. Union density fell from thirty five per cent of the work force in 1991 to seventeen per cent by 1999.

Labour market deregulation did not occur in isolation. It was part of a radical right menu of change which also slashed welfare spending and public housing subsidies, leaving the poorest New Zealanders an estimated twenty to twenty five per cent off worse off. In 1991, the unemployment rate rose to double figures, and a significant level of poverty reappeared for the first time since the great depression of the 1930s. The public health system was rearranged on a commercial model and the costs of gaining tertiary education rose steeply. The overall effect was a sharp increase in inequality.

What happened in New Zealand in the 1990s was very hard on ordinary working people. It followed on from the tumultuous years of economic deregulation and restructuring in the 1980s. The public became cynical about and distrustful of the whole political process, and especially resentful of the Westminster-style electoral system which gave single party governments tremendous power, even if elected with a low vote on a split poll. A referendum to change to proportional representation was carried in 1993, and the introduction of the new voting system has had profound effects on the political system.

My party was elected to government in 1999 as voters in New Zealand turned against neo-liberal policies and voted for parties which could bring about change. We emphasised the values of fairness, opportunity, and security; and also in our multi-ethnic society the importance of tolerance, respect, and inclusion across all cultures, ethnicities, and beliefs. We have a strong commitment to partnership with Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people.

What we have been able to do in government reinforces my belief in the power of the democratic process to bring about positive change to benefit working people and their families.

We rejected the neo-liberal agenda of carrying on deregulating, privatising, and slashing taxes. Rather, we increased taxes on top earners to give room for sorely needed social spending across health, education, housing, pensions, and essential services. We stopped the newly implemented private provision of workers’ accident compensation and restored the public social insurance scheme with its strong no fault basis. We moved to regulate the labour market to the extent necessary to create a more level playing field between employers and employees.

Overall the change in workplace-related legislation has been substantial. The 1991 labour law was replaced with new law promoting collective bargaining and organisation and good faith in the employment relationship. A strong mediation service is central to the success of the new law.

We also strengthened health and safety laws and the provisions of the accident compensation scheme. Minimum wages are being regularly adjusted, and there have been dramatic rises in the youth minimum wage.

Last year the government established a paid parental leave scheme through legislation. Previously workers had had rights only to unpaid parental leave, and few had had the bargaining strength to negotiate paid leave in their employment agreements.

The new scheme gives parents an entitlement to twelve weeks of paid leave after the birth of their child at a maximum payment equivalent to more than fifty per cent of the average weekly wage. The scheme is financed out of general taxation. We have promoted it as a social justice measure, recognising the financial pressures which a new baby, and time off work, place on families. Over time we believe employers will also appreciate the value of having parents return to work having benefited from time out with their baby.

Our government was re-elected in July last year, and has again prioritised improvements to workplace law. New legislation on holidays is being introduced, and we are grappling with how to safeguard agreed employment conditions when companies change hands. The paid parental leave scheme will be extended, and we are promoting a better balance between work and life outside working hours. A new position for an Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner has been established in the Human Rights Commission, to give advice and leadership on EEO and promote best practice.

The social and labour policy changes we have introduced have been accompanied by a new direction in economic policy. There is a sense of urgency in New Zealand about restoring living standards relative to those of other OECD countries. New Zealand’s place on the economic rankings slipped from third place in 1950 to around twentieth on GDP per capita by 1999. The impact of that on working people was exacerbated by the growing inequality which characterised New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s.

In today’s global economy, relative economic decline leads to an exodus of skilled people to other countries offering more opportunity. New Zealand has suffered a brain drain off and on for years.

Our task in government has been to play a leadership and strategic role in steering the economy, and to use the state’s ability to facilitate, co-ordinate, broker, and fund to promote the development of a stronger economy.

We promote a shared vision and consensus about our country’s economic goals. We promote innovation, enterprise, and participation, and we emphasise the importance of the social dividend which economic growth makes possible. We promote the concept of sustainability across economic, social, and environmental policy. We know the importance of maintaining business confidence and of promoting partnerships for growth which are inclusive of industry, unions, regions and communities. In our quest to build a sustainable higher value economy capable of paying a higher social dividend, we have prioritised policies and spending on education and skills training; science, research, and development; the acceleration of business and regional growth, and developing sector strategies to lift whole industries.

What we have achieved is a social democratic government which not only has considerable social and environmental achievements to its credit, but also is regarded as a sound economic manager.

New Zealand is currently one of the OECD’s star performers with annual average growth coming in at 3.9 per cent. Unemployment is at a fifteen year low of 4.9 per cent; lower than that of either the United States or Australia, and significantly lower than that of the Euro area.

For now, the brain drain has been turned into a brain gain with strong inward net migration. More New Zealanders are coming home to live and many fewer are leaving. Consumer confidence is solid and business confidence has held up relatively well given the uncertain international climate.

As a government we set out to create a fair and just society with opportunity and security for all our people. In a fast changing and complex world, we have to work hard to maintain and improve the living standards of our people. The pace of globalisation throws up new risks, but also new opportunities for countries like New Zealand. We used to suffer the tyranny of distance, but modern communications have largely overcome that. Now our relative isolation seems like a bonus in today’s insecure world.

This week more than most, the world’s attention is focused on a single critical issue; will there be a war over Iraq? The Security Council held what has been called its most extraordinary meeting ever, and some six million people took to the streets to demonstrate their opposition to a war.

The past seventeen months since September 11 2001 have been, to my mind, the most destabilising period the world has known since World War Two. At the end of that catastrophe, the United Nations was founded, on the ashes of the old League of Nations, to promote international order, human rights and development.

Since then we have lived through some difficult periods as the Cold War settled in; as East and West battled on the Korean Peninsula; during the Cuban missile crisis; and through the heightened awareness of the possibility of nuclear war in the 1980s.

But nothing really prepared us for the shock of September 11, when low technology, suicidal hijackers launched unprecedented attacks on the world’s only super power.

The international community is now transfixed by the problem of terrorism; and rightly so. Terrorists have struck again since, with particularly deadly results in Bali, and in Mombassa, Kenya. Much military might has been devoted to tracking down the perpetrators, but that can only be part of the answer.

I believe that our security is now imperiled not because of any inevitable clash of civilizations - a theory I utterly reject; but rather because huge gaps have been allowed to develop between regions and nations, leading to bitterness, frustration, envy, and hate.

It has not helped that crises like that affecting Israel and Palestine have been left to fester for so long, and have created a climate for extremism in the Middle East, directed at the West which is held responsible for the stalemate.

A series of remarkable international summits over the past two and a half years have endeavoured to address some of the fundamental problems. The Millennium Goals of the United Nations; the Monterrey International Conference on Financing Development; the FAO’s Food Summit; the New Partnership for Africa’s Development supported by the G8, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development have all set objectives for reducing poverty and hunger and increasing access to the basics of life like water and energy. There is a huge agenda to base international action on.

But the crisis over Iraq is now so serious and so polarising that it could jeopardise progress on that broadly based international agenda to promote development and greater understanding between peoples and regions.

The New Zealand Government has sought to uphold the principles of multilateralism, the international rule of law, and the authority of the Security Council throughout this crisis. We do not support unilateral action against Iraq, whether it is taken by one country or a number of countries. We place considerable weight on the inspection and disarmament process which has been established. We have a strong preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. We recognise that the Security Council can authorise the use of force as a last resort to uphold its resolutions. We do not believe such authorisation would be justified while the weapons inspectors are still engaged usefully in their work, and we support them continuing that work. It is clear from their reports to the Security Council on Friday that they believe they should carry on.

At the same time, we urge Iraq to comply immediately and in full with all the United Nations requirements to prevent the catastrophe which war would bring to its people. Iraq should not mistake the strong desire, which governments like New Zealand’s have, for a diplomatic outcome for tolerance of their failure to answer the questions about their weapons programmes which they have refused to answer for many years.

Should there be war in Iraq, my government fears for the widespread resentment that would provoke in the Middle East against Western nations, for the likely stimulus terrorist organisations would gain from that resentment, and for the high human costs a war would have. All diplomatic means to contain Iraq have to be preferable to that.

My government’s support for a strong rules based international order also extends to the areas of the environment, disarmament, and trade.

We have ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, believing it is important to be part of the solution to the major international problem of global warming, and we urge all nations to ratify and meet their commitments under the Protocol.

We work hard with like minded countries on nuclear and other forms of disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. The problem of nuclear weapons did not disappear with the end of the Cold War, but rather has re-emerged in new forms. Proliferation of nuclear weapons among nations which do not accept the disciplines of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty is one problem. Another is the potential of proliferation to non-state actors in the form of transnational terrorist organisations. The potential proliferation of chemical and biological weapons technology to such groups is also a concern.

Economic globalisation is an area crying out for fair rules to be applied to it. Many believe globalisation has developed in an unbalanced way to meet the demands of first world corporate agendas. The interests of developing countries and the protection of labour rights and the environment are perceived to take second place. In developed countries where sufficient care has not been taken in becoming a signatory to GATS, national policy options can be severely limited in areas like culture which are critical to national identity. For example, in my country we are unable to legislate for local content quotas on radio and television as `no reservation was entered to GATS at an earlier stage.

Now discussion is under way at the WTO negotiations on services. Nations which value, for example, their unique public services, like health and education, will need to take care to ensure they are not adversely affected by a broad brush approach to opening up service sectors.

I take the view that globalisation is a long standing and on going process and that the key challenge is to put rules around it. As national borders around economies fall, we need to ensure that the result is an increase in opportunity overall, not an increase in human misery. Current world trade rules do discriminate against developing countries, and even against New Zealand with its large primary sectors, and these rules need to be changed. We are working hard to achieve that through the Doha Round of negotiations.

Our government has been prepared to raise labour and environmental issues in the context of trade negotiations. We have backed the call for a labour forum associated with APEC, and we have included union representation in the New Zealand delegation at WTO at Doha, and also will at Cancun. We look forward to the report of the ILO on the Social Dimensions of Globalisation, which is due next year.

Not withstanding the size and influence of the ICFTU, delegates at this conference will be well aware of the challenges that confront modern unionism. In countries like mine, union organisation has found it hard to penetrate the growing ranks of technology workers, and marginalised groups like migrants and young workers which feature disproportionately in the secondary labour market are also hard to reach.

This conference will debate concrete and innovative strategies to make trade unions relevant to working women today. That is timely. Representation and strength require organisation well above what all but the most highly placed employees and managers can achieve. And without collective worker organisation there is an inherent inequality in the employment relationship.

The conference will also highlight the need to enhance the role of women in trade unions. Achieving that requires unions to be responsive to women’s needs and concerns and to help to create strong women leaders in the movement at every level. A strong female membership base is needed too.

In my country, women have been able to conquer most of the commanding heights in society. We currently have our second woman Governor General and our second woman Prime Minister. About 30 per cent of our Cabinet and Parliament are female. The head of the largest private sector company is female, as is the Chief Justice. Women have occupied positions at the top of professional organisations in the law, medicine, and accounting. Many women have headed local and regional government organisations.

The generation of women which first came to the top was that of the post war baby boomers who benefited from access to educational opportunities in a benign social environment. In a small society social change can spread quickly. Once some heads broke through the glass ceiling, the way was clear for others to follow.

Women’s representation at the top of governmental, economic, and social structures is a matter of social justice. Unions must be a positive force in promoting gender equality, in your own ranks, in the workforce, and in the society at large. Unions also have a vital role in promoting a fair and just society. I wish you well at this conference as you debate what is needed to strengthen women’s participation in unions and to build a world which protects and promotes the rights of women to equality and justice.


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