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Rich Speech to National Party Conference

Katherine Rich Speech to National Party Conference Hotel Grand Chancellor, Christchurch

Madam President, Leader, Party, Members, Friends

The past week has been a sad one for my city.

We said goodbye to Howard Paterson, an entrepreneur and humanitarian.

His brother's eulogy reminded mourners of one of Howard's core beliefs and reminded me as Welfare Spokeswoman, about some of the key beliefs of our Party.

Greg Paterson said that despite Howard's business success, the biggest kick, the most satisfaction he got from his successful ventures, was from seeing the jobs he created as a result.

Howard Paterson understood that the secret to creating a better society for all was through job creation.

He believed that giving a man a job gives him dignity. And he was right.

Despite being the wealthiest man in the South Island, a description he loathed by the way, he recognised the importance of economic growth, wealth creation and understood the way that jobs glued communities together.

Wealth creation was not a negative pursuit.

His aim was not to be personally wealthy; it was for our country, for every one of us, to be wealthy.

For over 60 years National has understood this.

When it comes to welfare policy development our Party has always held certain historic truths dear.

We understand that the only true tickets out of poverty are work and education.

We believe that there is great dignity in work. All work. Work is how we provide for ourselves. Work is how we provide for others.

We know that the cheap option of giving people the dole and forgetting about them just pretends to meet their needs.

There must be more than cash and a pat on the head.

Give people jobs, on the other hand, and you will boost their self-esteem, their spirit, the quality of their whole life and the lives of their children.

With jobs, people provide for themselves and for others.

Their children will learn what it is to be productive and to contribute.

Because it's our children who are the big losers from welfare dependency.

New Zealand currently has over 250,000 children supported by welfare. It's tough enough being a parent. It's tougher doing it on welfare. I believe that all mothers when they hold their babies for the first time have the same dreams for their children.

But I am also convinced that welfare dependency mixed with being alone, the inability to buy quality food, pay for extras like music lessons, sports subs, rugby boots or holidays - things many middle class parents dream for their kids - means that much of this country's potential is lost.

Kids like Bailey Kurariki are not born evil. They are created by a society, that like it or not, we are all part of.

This country has a growing underclass and a welfare culture is a huge part of it.

This is my fourth year of constituency work and I haven't met a lifestyler yet. But I have met a lot of trapped people. People in debt to WINZ. People whose self-esteem and feelings of self worth are so sapped that the thought of a job interview sends them into a tailspin.

I don't agree with the Ministry's bizarre comments that it's not welfare that is the issue, it's poverty. Yeah right and the difference is?

For the able-bodied New Zealander, a long-term life on welfare is a subsistence life and that's why we are obligated to do all we can to get those able to contribute back into active lives.

Perhaps the Ministry should explain why its own research shows that people who derive their income from work but receive the same as a welfare benefit have a higher standard of living.

It's commonsense that even when income is only marginally better than welfare, it is better for the soul to be in some kind of work, some kind of activity, than staring at a wall.

If you are in work, if you are active, if you have regular contact with other people, you will have a better life.

Plain and simple.

That's not just party rhetoric.

That's backed by research from New Zealand and around the world.

Some weeks ago I launched my welfare paper "Saving the Next Generation from Welfare Dependency."

It sparked a nationwide debate on how New Zealand could better support those in need.

Much to the Minister's annoyance, he was forced to debate National's ideas for welfare. In the paper we pointed out the Government's failure that despite excellent economic conditions, there had not been a sustained and dramatic drop in welfare numbers.

Quite the opposite had occurred for some benefits. The numbers on the Invalids and Sickness benefits are increasing at a rate that cannot be explained by expected rates of disability and sickness. We have a sickness and disability epidemic with a further 30 thousand people predicted to be on the invalids and sickness register within the next five years.

In my research I looked at recent developments in countries that we have something in common with: Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.

The paper raises ideas such as introducing time limits and work requirements for some benefits, changing the approach to training, implementing work schemes and making changes to childcare availability as just a few examples.

It proposed that New Zealand has a real problem with welfare but that a rising welfare register was not inevitable.

I know that sounds incredibly simple, but we must continue to challenge the notion that welfare growth is inevitable and that the present numbers on welfare is OK.

It isn't OK. There are 400,000 people per year supported on welfare. That's more than the city of Christchurch not participating, not earning their income.

Many of course use welfare for what it was intended - a temporary backstop while they prepare themselves for independence.

But a lot get trapped. It is indeed a sad statistic that more than 6000 New Zealanders have been on a benefit for more than 10 years.

It's clear that the numbers on welfare have grown far beyond what was ever intended by the architects of the welfare state.

When the DPB was brought in, it was expected that there'd never be more than 20,000 women including widows. There are now over 100,000 not including widows.

In 1950, there were 12 people on the unemployment benefit. There are now more than 100,000.

Population growth does not explain the rapid rise. The numbers on the sickness and invalids benefit are predicted to continue increasing dramatically. Are we really getting so much sicker as a nation?

It seems beyond belief.

Like New Zealand, the United States has experienced excellent economic times but unlike New Zealand, the United States took the opportunity to reduce welfare numbers by 60%.

We proposed strengthening the obligations of both the state and the beneficiary - particularly those beneficiaries who are fit and able to work.

While the Government cannot say the words reciprocal obligations without leftist guilt, National understands that obligations to one another are part of life.

National proposes to bring back a "work first" approach within the Ministry of Social Development. At the moment only a fraction of time is spent trying to get people back into work. That has to change.

The path to work is work.

We are considering implementing work schemes as well as reintroducing and enhancing work test requirements for certain benefits.

The thoughtful responses from the public and the welfare sector on National's paper have been encouraging.

There is consensus that work is the key.

It doesn't matter whether commentators are from the left or the right of the political spectrum, everyone who has read National's paper seems to agree on one thing:

That welfare as presently practiced in this country is not working - literally and metaphorically.

There were the predictable claims that we were beneficiary bashing and uncaring. That doesn't ring true. If we were, then it would be a cheaper and easier option just to pay a benefit, fund nothing else, and forget about the needy. We understand the terrible waste of lost potential and so make no apologies for thinking that there are better ways to live.

I received a clear message from over 300 responses that welfare dependence is a growing concern and that there is major support for the kind of initiatives National has proposed.

A recent Colmar Brunton poll found that 91% of respondents agreed that there should be some kind of community work for those on the dole. A further 75% said that they supported some kind of time limit for welfare benefits.

Interestingly it is not the wealthy that are the most annoyed at growing welfare dependency within New Zealand.

A recent story about beneficiaries receiving more than $40,000 per annum rubbed salt in the wounds of the working poor who earned a lot less but kept going to work each day.

When Dunedin worker David Thomson said, "We're working our butts off and earning this sort of money, then somebody doing nothing gets $41,000. What I'm earning now, I was practically earning 20 years ago. But I still work. It really does annoy me. Why bother to work? It doesn't make any sense."

He reflected the feelings of many New Zealanders.

There is a growing belief that welfare is out of control and the Government has done little to reduce the problem.

It's no wonder given that the Government has failed to explain why, after the best economic conditions this country has seen in a generation, we now have more people supported by the state than ever, while Treasury is still predicting significant increases.

The Government failed to explain why, in its December Economic Update projections, all benefits were expected to increase significantly and the invalids and sickness benefit numbers were expected to increase dramatically.

I am not surprised that the major decreases expected from good economic times have been minimised.

Changes made by Labour have made it easier, not harder, to get on and stay on a benefit

It is now harder, not easier, to get off.

Work testing was removed for key benefits and the expectation that work was part of the deal was removed. Work is now optional rather than expected.

Sanctions were watered down to the point that they are totally ineffective and caseworkers now tell me that they have fewer tools to encourage people back into work.

Labour campaigned during the 1999 election on simplifying the benefit system. During the 2000/2001 estimates process, the Minister told our Select Committee that work on this was progressing and was expected to be implemented by mid-2002.

That plan is now missing in action.

For Minister Maharey, who prides himself on living a life of blameless excellence, I'll be generous and say that the report card ran a C minus average.

If we are to save further generations from becoming trapped on welfare, things have to change.

Work has to become an expectation.

Work has to remain part of an everyday life.

We cannot continue to have young people shrugging their shoulders and telling their school careers advisers that they are just going to go on the dole like everyone else in their family.

I think our party should embrace the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs Project.

There is merit in debating the idea of a job guarantee for the under 25s.

Wouldn't it be a bold move to reduce unemployment for the under 25s to zero?

And let's challenge the Government to cut the bull about what constitutes a real job. Any job is a job.

The Government talks incessantly about "real jobs". Well, I challenge the Government to define what a real job is.

When I first became a Member of Parliament I spent a day's job experience at Workbridge - a government-funded organisation that places disabled people in work. That day I met Marcus. He had been placed in a part-time job sweeping floors and cleaning cages at a pet store. Now in the eyes of some people, that may not be a real job but to Marcus it was a lifeline and something that gave him real pride.

Howard Paterson's first job was chopping and selling firewood. Chances are the present Government would not think that was a "real" job either. The first time I earned money it was plucking wool from dead sheep - a job I didn't like much. Chances are the present Government would think that was too lowly to be called a job.

Well, I can certainly say that the money was real and the feeling of satisfaction from earning it myself was real. It's the same satisfaction that long-term unemployed tell me they feel when receiving their first pay packet in many years.

I have met plenty of working people from all walks of life proud of their work. I have never met anyone proud to be on the dole.

Welfare makes people feel differently about themselves.

Welfare is a complex area, which unfortunately can be the collection point for failings of other portfolios - be it health, education, justice, housing or finance.

But sometimes there can be some wins.

I'll finish with a story which hit home for me how the right motivation in welfare can sometimes save a person from a waste of a life.

I spent the last recess doing a tour of political meetings.

Cold halls, public meetings. The bread and butter interaction that traditional political support was built on.

After one of the meetings I spoke to a reporter. After the interview he said, "Katherine, I have a story to tell that I haven't told before, I'm here today because of National." Intrigued, I asked him to explain.

Turns out that despite being a bright kid, he flunked school, got into trouble and finally ended up being high up in one of the gangs. He was super smart but unfortunately his brains were being directed into crime. At the height of his criminal career, National's changes to welfare eligibility, increased obligations and work schemes got him thinking that being on a benefit wasn't a future for either him or his family. It was a big step to get out of the gang structure, leave his friends and start a new life. It was a big step to go back to high school as an adult and finally train to become a journalist.

But he did it and he is thankful for the work that National did. His life was transformed by a lot of choices that eventually he had to make on his own, but as far as he's concerned the extra nudge given to him by National gave him a better life which did not eventually lead to prison.

When we become Government we will inherit a welfare system that is not a safety net but a trap, a system that encourages dependency rather than reduces it.

We will have to turn it around. There will be the knockers. These are the people that make a living out of other people's misery and dependency. They are opposed to our vision of a strong and vibrant New Zealand. They are the people who like to see themselves as the carers but how can it ever be caring to trap people into state dependency?

We can't afford the burgeoning welfare state. It is sapping our nation. It is robbing our children of their future. It's National and only National that can turn the welfare tide around. It's a big job. But let's commit to it today, and every day, to once again have a nation of which we can be justly proud.


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