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Cullen Speech to Labour Party Regional Conference

Michael Cullen Speech to Labour Party Regional Conference Gisborne

Fellow delegates,

This year’s round of regional conferences takes place against the most uncertain and disturbed international environment for many years. In this situation New Zealand is profoundly fortunate to have a Helen Clark led Labour Government in power.

We have much to celebrate after nearly 3 and a half years in government. We continue to implement our key policies and programmes in an exercise of good faith government not seen since the 1970s. The result has been a significant restoration of faith in the process of government itself.

On the economic front we have succeeded in many ways beyond and over our own expectations. We have maintained tight fiscal discipline over those 3 and a half years so that at each stage we have exceeded our fiscal forecasts. Net government debt is below 15 per cent of GDP and we are placed to weather an economic downturn better than nearly all other developed countries, with sufficient fiscal and monetary headroom to be able to respond appropriately and effectively.

Last year, of course, we grew faster than any other OECD country with growth running at 4.4 per cent. Unemployed and employed beneficiary numbers are at their lowest levels for 15 years, in effect since the first effects of the 1987 sharemarket crash. This has meant strong growth in household incomes despite, on the whole, modest non-inflationary wage growth.

At the same time we have changed the framework of economic debate in New Zealand. The right wing mantra of tax cuts, state asset sales, and mindless deregulation no longer carries any great credence outside the increasingly weird pages of the National Business Review.

The debate has shifted on to our ground and is about our issues. It is about the most effective way to provide assistance to businesses, especially small and medium sized businesses, to grow and export. Here we are not resting on our first term laurels.

Legislation to merge Trade New Zealand and Industry New Zealand is now before a select committee. This will create a powerful integrated vehicle for delivering business assistance. Additional resources will be provided in this year’s budget.

In particular, we are now examining the reports of the sector-specific taskforces and making decisions on their recommendations. Money has been set aside in this year’s budget to enable these to be put into effect.

Work is also well-advanced, led by Paul Swain, to simplify the tax system for small businesses. Much has already been done but some bolder moves will be foreshadowed in the budget for public discussion and intended enactment next year.

Equally important for business is the issue of skills development. Steve Maharey now has the Tertiary Education Commission in operation and this will be critical to the task of lifting our skills levels and focusing on a more integrated, cooperative tertiary education sector geared to our future economic and social needs.

Human capital is the most important input in a modern economy and thus our traditional desire to see all our young people develop to their full potential sits well with the nation’s economic imperatives.

Our biggest challenge in that respect lies not in getting our children to the summit but ensuring they can all reach base camp, if I can use such an analogy in the fiftieth anniversary year of the first ascent of Mt Everest. Far too many of our children still fail at that level and it is the one area where we fall below the average of other developed nations.

I emphasise this because it is not the squeakiest wheel in the education system by a long way. It is crucial to support Trevor Mallard’s efforts to ensure it is well-oiled so that we do not bequeath to our successors another generation with too many underachievers. This year’s budget will see major new funding in the area of early childhood education.

Lifting our long-term growth rate requires further alteration to a number of key aspects of policy; from savings, to infrastructure, to trade. Much attention has been paid over recent years to the importance of the so-called new infrastructure such as telecommunications and we have done more to encourage this than any previous government, particularly in terms of equality of access for rural areas.

But it is clear that some of the old “hard” infrastructure also needs improving. In some parts of the country – especially Auckland, but also many others – the poor quality (and quantity) of roads is a major problem. Of course, we must also seek to reduce or, more realistically, limit the growth of traffic by the encouragement of public transport and the use of other modes than roading.

Already we have had great success in Auckland in particular in encouraging the use of public transport through the passenger funding mechanism we put in place. At the same time, we have successfully participated in and facilitated a new approach to passenger rail transport in Auckland.

The role of rail in an integrated and effective land transport system continues to be of concern to the government. Addressing this problem successfully is a very difficult issue, particularly as it is not an appropriate role for the government to end up effectively propping up any particular private sector companies, especially one that was the beneficiary of a very soft privatisation deal.

The second area of infrastructure development which is of substantial concern to the government is that of energy. For long we have talked of the need for further processing of our raw materials, including wood. This cannot be achieved without an increase in energy supply, even given successful demand side management policies. Reasonable security of supply and an absence of excessive price volatility are, therefore, important policy objectives for the government.

In the short term we face a malign combination of circumstances which should be distinguished from the broader framework issues even though they interact to some extent. They include the very real prospect of a dry winter and the lowered estimates of the Maui gas reserves. If the former occurs it will place real stress on our ability to manage our way through the coming winter period with minimal social and economic disruption. Pete Hodgson is already working hard at this and will, I am sure, succeed, as he did in 2001, in minimising any adverse impacts.

The question still remains as to whether the current very complex market, and the proposed changes to it, will deliver sufficient security of supply in such a small market as this with its peculiar mix of generating capacity. It is important to maximise where possible the elements of competition within the system to reduce inefficiency and avoid unnecessary costs. The question is whether the existing framework concentrates competition in the right areas – at the generating and retail ends – especially in the light of the emergence of the so-called “gentailers.” It is also questionable whether occasional very high price spikes send the appropriate long term pricing signals to encourage adequate generating capacity investment, including a sufficient dry year margin.

These are not easy issues but are ones which we will approach with a proper mix of principles and pragmatism. This is not a government which is a slave to any dead economist but treats issues on their merits in the light of the best interests of our country.

That is why we favour broad-based trade liberalisation, including in the area of services. Unlike the previous government, which gave away our ability to ensure New Zealand content in our electronic media, we have insisted that our public services, such as health and education, will remain under our control and that nothing will affect the government’s capacity to carry out its Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

Broadbased trade liberalisation - which best marries the concepts of free and fair trade – promises big economic gains for New Zealand but also for many developing countries. It is a thing which is good in itself and should be promoted by all who support it as such, not as a means to some other end.

In that respect let me say that nothing in recent New Zealand politics has been more sickening than the enthusiastic advocacy by Mr Prebble, and the shamefaced one by Mr English, that we should send troops to Iraq in order to buy a free trade deal with the United States.

It was your government’s clear views that we should not be sending New Zealanders to die – or to kill others – in a war we did not support in order to gain some trade advantage. That is where pragmatism ends up being an absence of principle and we will not have a bar of it. This government followed a clear and principled line over Iraq. New Zealand will contribute humanitarian aid and do what we can to help rebuild Iraq. We have already indicated substantial support and more will come later.

New Zealand’s profound and deep interests in the world are in a rules–based system which offers security and justice to all – rich or poor, big or small. That is what Peter Fraser stood for at the United Nations in 1945. That is what Helen Clark and the rest of us stand for in 2003. It is the same approach that we apply to both foreign policy and international trade, which is why we also support matters of labour and environmental standards being part of such international rules-based systems.

For all Mr English’s karma sutra approach to the war in Iraq he, and his rather odd colleagues, have actually made no great effort to attack the Labour government on foreign policy or economic issues. The thrust of most of their attacks in recent months has either been on race matters or has been a dishonest attempt to pretend they could spend vast amounts more on social policy than we do while taxing less.

There is no doubt that National sees the opportunity of winding up racial tensions as the best means of lifting its dismal polling rates. Mr English tries to present his case as a carefully argued one based on the historical facts. Even if that were true, its purpose is far from academic. Its purpose is to arouse antipathy between Maori and Pakeha. He has abandoned his self-proclaimed quest for brown votes and, instead, seeks a coalition of Pakeha fearful as to the impacts of the Treaty of Waitangi and able to be misled on programmes of devolution.

But it is not true. Mr English’s supposed historical case is a tissue of half-truths, bad law, and lack of contextual understanding. For an Otago first class honours graduate it is intellectually sad.

The prime fault with his case is very simple. It is based entirely on the English language version of the Treaty. But, as every well informed New Zealander ought to know the Treaty came in English and Maori versions. The two differ at significant points in their meaning, particularly in relation to what Maori ceded and what the Crown guaranteed.

In fact, strictly speaking, the Treaty proper exists only in its Maori version for that is the only version signed at Waitangi. Various different versions in English exist. And even the Maori version is not written in the language of Maori at the time but in Protestant missionary Maori with key words such as kawanatanga being somewhat clumsy invented ones whose contemporary meaning is unclear.

In this circumstance the question arises as to which version takes precedence. The legal rulings on this are quite clear: in general the version in the indigenous language takes precedence because that is the version those ceding rights can be assumed to have understood clearly. These rulings do not apply only in New Zealand – they exist in similar situations in other common law jurisdictions.

This is very important. It means that what the Crown guaranteed in Article II was not simply a list of possessions – including lands, forests, and fisheries – but the much more open concept of taonga – best translated into English as treasures. And that, of course, leads us into such areas as language. It genuinely makes the Treaty a living document where new applications or implications may arise as circumstances change.

In essence, these can still be regarded very broadly as some form of property rights which, being guaranteed to Maori by the Treaty, do not apply automatically by virtue of the Treaty to other New Zealanders. Thus, for example, the protection and promotion of the Maori language may be regarded as a Treaty right whereas the protection and promotion in New Zealand of English or Samoan or Mandarin is not. Of course, they will be protected and promoted for other reasons; in the case of English as our other official language and the world’s lingua franca. Indeed, whenever I hear Dr Nick Smith talking, I could wish we spent rather more time worrying about the English language and its survival here.

The existence of such a Treaty right is not, therefore modified by Article III, the one article where there is no serious disagreement about its meaning in English or Maori and where the two versions are in close conformity. Article III – the article about common citizenship and common rights – must be read in conjunction with Article II. Mr English may not like it, other people may not like it, but it is what the Crown signed up to in 1840 and which still is our law. If he wants to change that then he must seek to abrogate the Treaty. But then the other signatories would not be bound by it either, something to give even Mr English pause.

The other bald claim that Mr English makes is that Maori ceded sovereignty in the Treaty. It is noteworthy that that is not what the Maori version says, however one tries to translate into English the Maori version.

Part of the reason for that is both simple and complex. As the very good Te Puni Kokiri discussion of the Treaty itself points out, it is very doubtful that the concept of sovereignty as understood by the British in 1840 could have had meaning for the great majority of Maori at the same time. The notion of the untrammelled power of the Queen in Parliament to pass laws binding all her subjects is quite foreign to the nature of Maori polities in 1840. And that is why there has been argument about what was ceded ever since. That is particularly so since a reference to mana does not exist in Article I despite the fact that whatever notion of sovereignty existed for Maori in 1840 it must have included mana.

The British Crown in fact assumed sovereignty some months later. Without sufficient sign up to the Treaty it is doubtful it would have done so. That sovereignty has been exercised, unbroken and largely unchallenged, ever since. It is scarcely valuable to question it now, especially as it now clearly resides in our own Parliament and will soon be subject to judicial interpretation entirely by New Zealanders, thanks to Margaret Wilson.

There is nothing in all of this for Pakeha New Zealanders to be afraid of. There is much to understand. There are processes to work though. And there are also limits to be explored where people will claim certain obligations flow and government will disagree. This has already happened, for example, over the issue of ownership of the airwaves.

This means that the government has to approach the issue of Treaty clauses in legislation on a case by case basis, doing what is appropriate in each case according to its circumstances. That sometimes means incorporating a reference to taking into account the principles of the Treaty in the application of the Act. It is doubtful in most cases if this does more than the courts would rule would be the obligations of government and its subsidiary agencies.

What is even sadder about the sad Mr English is that he has so far abandoned any pretence at intellectual honesty that he joins too readily every passing bandwagon of anti-Maori prejudice no matter how false the facts propelling that bandwagon. We saw that a little while ago in relation to the wahi tapu issue and the workings of the Resource Management Act. Mr English must have known that the claims made by some were false and no more than a beat up. But he chose to play to and on Pakeha fears in a way contrary to his fundamental duty as a parliamentarian to advance the welfare of all New Zealanders.

The National Party has found itself under his weak and morally infirm leadership being dragged further and further to the right. More and more the rabid remnants of Rogernomics known as the Act Party are working hand in glove with Dr Brash and others in National to move it further away from the centre.

This has led to increasingly shrill noises emerging from National which sound like a caricature of right wing views. Dr Brash is notably silent in Parliament, a silent lamb to the occasional slaughter I might say, but a lion in front of the odd sympathetic audience. There we see him parading a set of prejudices of a kind which belies his apparently thoughtful demeanour. And the applause from such captive audiences has led to him to delusions of leadership having previously failed to win any democratic election.

Unemployment is to be ended by denying the benefit and lining people outside the long defunct post offices at 8.00 in the morning to accept any job at any price, with the local authorities being the employers of last resort. All we need to do to lift our skills levels is to teach phonics and, presumably, sit up straight. People will work harder and better if there is no minimum wage. Our schools should be sold to the private sector.

It is like a series of cartoons, poorly conceived and badly drawn, which it would be flattering to call out of date, impractical, and ill-informed.

Given the air of stale flatulence that surrounds National and Act, and given the poll ratings we enjoy as a party, it is tempting for us to go into cruise mode or to become complacent.

That would be potentially fatal. To retain the privilege of governing we must continue to demonstrate our capacity to do so, our willingness to listen, and our determination to follow policies that deliver real social and economic benefits to New Zealand.

That does not mean turning the world upside down every few months and frightening people with ill thought-through major restructuring. One of the very reasons for our success has been that we have not done that, that we have in many ways been a small ‘c’ conservative government.

That has led to a much greater feeling of stability and certainty so that people, individually and collectively, are better able to make decisions about their own futures.

Even where we have made changes they have been in the direction that most people are comfortable with. Reducing the cost of student loans, rebalancing industrial relations, focusing on the priority of improving primary health care, laying the base for secure long term public superannuation are policies that appeal to New Zealanders’ hearts and New Zealand’s heartland.

We must not confuse that small ‘c’ conservative with doing nothing. We are a highly active government.

We believe deeply in a fully independent New Zealand taking its place in a world of ever closer collaboration and connection, proud of its past and confident of its future. A country which finds its identity as a southwest Pacific home to many cultures, founded in an understanding between its indigenous people and those who have come later, seeking prosperity and peace for itself and for others.

A nation which welcomes its new members and values the diversity they add, which cares for its senior citizens and those who face misfortune, a nation which seeks to develop all its young people to their full potential and provide opportunities for them in a socially and environmentally sustainable way; which values and treasures its material beauty and heritage; whose people can stand proud in any company, knowing that it is a good thing to be a New Zealander, to represent notions of justice, the rule of law, the affirmation of every individual’s worth, and respect for each other.

I believe in 3 and a half years we have made great strides towards realising that vision for our nation. But we still have much more to do.

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