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Robson Speech: getting things done for people

Mat Robson Speech: The challenge is to get good things done for people

Seminar organised by the NZ chapter, Australasian Study of Parliament Group The Legislative Process - Perspectives From The Smaller Parties

Beehive theatrette, 6 p.m. Wednesday May 21 2003

“The challenge is to get good things done for people” Hon. Matt Robson, Progressive deputy leader, speech notes

The challenge to politicians and political parties is to get good things done for people. In the ten minutes allotted to me I'd like to outline the perspective of my party, the Progressives, on this central challenge of relevancy to the policy-making process.

In our Parliament we have one major party, called Labour, and six other parties which at the last election attracted varying degrees of support of up to - in National's case - 21% of votes cast.

Under First Past The Post, Social Credit won 21% of votes cast in 1981 – the same proportion as National last year - but secured just 2 seats in Parliament and had no input into government policy making.

Under MMP minor parties in contrast can - if they rise to the challenge - be highly relevant to coalition government policy-making and a very strong input into getting good things done for the New Zealanders they represent.

The Progressive Party is of course the only minor party which has met the challenge after last July's election of making into the Cabinet room. Jim Anderton and I have now been part of a minority center-left coalition government since late 1999.

What does that mean?

In practical terms, it means we are represented on each and every Cabinet policy committee and are there to outline the Progressives' views every time the Cabinet makes a decision.

For example, Labour, Progressive and United agreed on the establishment of the Families Commission because it delivered on the policies of all three parties. And all of us agreed on the detailed implementation of the Families Commission which is now before the Social Services Select Committee.

If we don't agree on a policy position, each party to the coalition is free to seek support in Parliament for their position and campaign publicly for it.

An example of this is four weeks annual leave. Initially, the Progressives were the ones supporting my members’ bill when it was drawn from the ballot in November. There were some very definitive statements at the time from Labour ministers that their party would not support the bill. So we sought support and campaigned publicly for a minimum of four weeks leave for all working New Zealanders. The public groundswell of support for the bill was such that when the first reading debate was held in March, four parties voted to send the bill to Select Committee to be scrutinised - Progressive, Labour, Green and New Zealand First.

Submissions can still be made, the closing date is Friday fortnight, June 6

On any particular issue if the Progressive Party with its two critical votes gained the support of all parties apart from Labour, that issue could be progressed.

Where Labour and United Future are of one mind to advance legislation but are opposed by all other Opposition parties, their 60 votes aren't sufficient without the Progressive Party's support.

There may be scores of other times when the coalition partners disagree on a programme or a timetable for a programme but it never comes to public light.

The reason for that is that is you need good faith working relationships in order for strong coherent government policy making.

While it has come to public light that the Progressives and Labour have a different view about the timetable for introducing a minimum four weeks annual leave entitlement or no fee hikes for any tertiary students, what doesn't come to light is the really interesting stuff.

Let me tell you a little about how the Cabinet decided to give the green light to New Zealand Post Ltd. establishing a retail banking arm, Kiwibank.

In the 1999 election, we went to the public on the establishment of a New Zealand publicly owned bank. Labour, who were to be our coalition partner, were adamantly opposed.

When we first formed the coalition government, our four ministers proceeded with the Kiwibank proposal while the sixteen Labour ministers were totally opposed. Those Ministers made it very clear in Cabinet and in public that they were absolutely opposed to the idea.

We built support for the Kiwibank amongst the public, including of course Labour voters, marshalled the facts of the business case, and eventually convinced our coalition partner of the logic of the case for a New Zealand-owned retail bank. New Zealand Post Ltd now has a retail banking arm, Kiwibank, with over 100,000 customers nationwide.

Let me tell you about how the Cabinet decided to establish the Ministry for Economic Development and Industry New Zealand. We had a clear policy in favour of establishing an intelligent role for the government in promoting the development of the regions of New Zealand.

Labour didn't have such a clear philosophy as us. Once again we marshalled the facts, kept the issue in front of our colleagues and out of that process came the Ministry for Economic Development which has become an important driver for the revitalization of our regions and become an important arm of the country's drive for quality business growth, including export growth.

I'd also like to briefly outline for you some of the background to the establishment of an agency dear to me – NZAID, the new agency responsible for official development assistance, sometimes known as overseas aid.

It was the policy of both my party and Labour to review the delivery of New Zealand's overseas aid programmes. We knew that there was enormous disquiet both with NGOs and recipient countries on the performance of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As the minister responsible, I commissioned an independent review. The findings were clear that there needed to be clear distinction between what was development assistance and what was foreign policy.

We didn't want a Ministry of Bribes. The best solution was a separate ministry focused on development as the British had established under Clair Short. Second best was a semi-autonomous agency reporting directly to ministers to allow for contestable advice.

In Cabinet, the lines were fiercely drawn between those who wanted to leave everything as it was, those like myself who preferred a separate ministry, and those who called for a semi-autonomous agency as a compromise.

We got the compromise because we followed the policy through, we had the support of the NGO community, and because it was untenable to continue the way with the Ancien Regime which the report had shown the old system was inefficient and unable to focus on doing either foreign affairs or foreign aid properly.

If a simple vote at the Cabinet table had been taken, we'd not have achieved any of these things. In coalition, the junior partner can only get its way with rational arguments to advance its case.

These are but three of the many examples that could be given.

In Parliament when it comes to debating and voting on legislation implementing Government policy, MMP proportional representation is working well. Unfortunately bad news is often judged more newsworthy than good news which is perhaps why you don’t see too many media reports about how well MMP is working in Parliament.

While the Labour Progressive government needs the support of one party or seven votes to get the Budget or any law passed, most laws get passed with more than the minimum necessary support.

There have been 30 contested laws passed since the July 2002 election. Of those 25, or 83%, got passed with the support of two or more opposition parties. People can take comfort from the fact that at central government level political parties are acting responsibly and constructively.

For us, coalition government is still evolving and we are helping to write the rules. We believe that coalition government is better government. Policy making is more rigorous because the coalition partners thoroughly examine proposals before agreeing them. The coalition it is more representative and it is more democratic.

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