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Speech at Brigham Young Uni. Utah - Peter Dunne

Hon Peter Dunne, MP

Leader, United Future New Zealand

Speech at Brigham Young University

1pm, Wednesday, October 1 (= 8am, Thursday, October 2, NZ time)

Salt Lake City Utah, USA

The family and policy making in New Zealand

Ladies and gentlemen, greetings from Middle Earth and thank you for the opportunity to address you on an issue of intense interest to the whole world – the role of the family in society and the proper function of government in relation to the family.

Before I turn to that topic, please bear with me as I tell you briefly about the makeup of politics in New Zealand today so that you can have some context within which to place my remarks.

New Zealand has a single House of Representatives, commonly called Parliament, with 120 Members of Parliament.

The Government is formed by that party, or group of parties, that can command a minimum of 61 votes in the House.

Currently seven parties are represented in the New Zealand Parliament.

They range from the far-left Greens with 9 MP’s; the leftist Progressive Coalition Party with 2 MP’s; the centre-left Labour Party with 52 MP’s; my centrist United Future party with 8 MP’s; the centre-right National Party with 27 MP’s; the populist issue of the day New Zealand First Party with 13 MPs, and the far-right Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, ACT, with 9 MP’s.

After the last election, Labour entered into a formal coalition agreement with the Progressive Coalition giving it 54 votes and then a supply and confidence agreement with United Future, giving it 62 votes and the ability to form a Government.

For us the supply and confidence agreement means we bring stability to government over its full three-year term; we retain the ability to disagree with Labour on major policy matters; and we achieve some moderating influence over the government’s policies, even though we are only 8 votes in a 120-vote Parliament.

Although we work closely with the government, we are not formally part of it, and we reserve the right to oppose it on various issues, as we frequently do.

Our influence arises not because we have a power of veto, but because to put it bluntly the government needs our numbers to survive.

We operate, therefore, on the basis of making incremental gains on the issues that are of importance to us, in return for the support we give to the government.

United Future has an unashamed and uncompromising policy of doing everything we can to bring the family back to the centre of New Zealand society.

Our reasons for this focus are simple.

Family breakdown is costing New Zealand billions of dollars a year.

We have the world’s second highest rate of single parent families.

Divorces have doubled in the last 30 years, while marriages have fallen 60%.

321,000 children – a third of all children – are raised on a social welfare benefit, twice what it was 15 years ago.

Child assaults are up almost 200% in the last decade and 40% of New Zealand’s criminals are aged between 14 and 18.

These are shocking numbers and they are by no means confined to New Zealand.

We know there are similar statistics in Britain and Ireland and, while I don’t have the relevant numbers for the USA, I’d be surprised if they were greatly different.

Naturally, this has led to a great deal of soul-searching and some efforts at research into why the family in modern society is under such great stress and what we can do about it.

At the same time, however, family seems to have become everyone’s non-cause.

But that attitude simply defies logic.

We all spring from a family; we are all part of a family.

We all have a group whom we regard as our family to whom we repair for celebration at times of great enjoyment or for consolation at times of great sadness.

They are our strength and our moral foundation.

But because everyone’s family is different, although the majority will be founded around Mum, Dad and the kids, and because of the insidious march of political correctness, people in New Zealand stopped talking about the notion of family in recent years, because of a fear of offending the next person whose family structure might be different.

In the pursuit of some perceived form of genuine tolerance, we actually succumbed to apathy.

Thus family became a non-cause, which politicians literally stopped focusing upon, until United Future came along.

We take the simple view that the family, however configured, is at the cornerstone of a successful society and that when families are strong and vibrant, so too will be wider communities and societies.

We say the strength of any country can be measured fundamentally on the strength of its families and communities.

So, given the political constraints I outlined a moment or two ago, how does a small party with a bent towards families influence the national agenda and make the changes I am advocating?

We developed the notion of a Families Commission to be a national body to stand for and promote the interests of families and to be the filter through which all government policy proposals of relevance to families were passed.

It was a central part of our campaign at last year’s general election.

We now take great pride in the imminent establishment of the Families Commission.

This organisation, the establishment of which was part of the confidence and supply deal we did with the Labour Party, will open its doors next year and is intended to lead the way in developing research on the New Zealand family and identifying those areas where public policy helps or hinders the family.

It builds on similar work in other countries, most notably Ireland, the state of Oregon here in the United States; the state of Victoria in Australia, and South Africa where similar types of bodies are being promoted or are already operating.

It is a first for New Zealand and has been widely welcomed by the various voluntary and charitable organisations that work with families.

It will be established by an Act of Parliament, to be passed later this year, to give it permanence, and the government has already set aside a generous budget for its operations.

Yet you will be interested to hear that even before the Commission begins its work, the first real political row has flared over the definition of a family.

Fundamentalists insist that the only possible definition of a family is “Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids” while the liberal extremists would define a family as virtually any living organism on the planet living within 2.4 kilometres of another living organism.

All have overlooked the fact that the establishment of the Commission is actually happening at all – and would not have even been on the agenda had we not promoted it and pushed for it.

The reality of New Zealand is that we have a population of about 4 million people with a vast range of cultural and racial backgrounds, leading to a very diverse range of social groupings that function as a family.

For example, the Maori concept of a family is markedly different from that of New Zealanders from a European background, and that in turn is different from Pacific Island or Asian New Zealanders.

In drafting the Families Commission legislation, we have been mindful of the need to be inclusive, not exclusive, if we are to achieve our long-term goal of a New Zealand made up of strong, vibrant communities which in turn rely on strong, healthy families.

Did we really want to be setting up a new organisation to elevate the status and relevance of the concept of family and family-related issues in our society that began its work by immediately excluding large numbers of parents and children from its ambit?

What credibility is there in establishing a body on the premise that family life is at the heart of a healthy and vibrant society, while at the same time telling a significant number of New Zealand families that in effect their family structure no longer has a place in our national tapestry?

The key point is that taking a broad approach to the concept of family does not mean that anything goes as far as family structure is concerned.

Recognition of diversity has never meant automatic approval of every situation.

I look at it this way.

I may not like days which are cold, wet and windy, but that does not mean I do not recognise them when they occur.

The reality is that for the vast majority of people, the traditional structure of Mum, Dad and the kids is what works best and will remain the case long into the future, as it should.

I guess we all know about the problem – what are the solutions?

My party, as you might suspect, has a multi-pronged approach.

First, we are trying to change the nation’s mode of thinking about the family.

Instead of just taking this fundamental unit of our society for granted, we want to move it to the forefront of our policymakers’ minds.

And there are initial signs that we are succeeding.

Just a small example – in our government’s annual budget presented to Parliament last year, there were zero references to the family.

This year – more than 15 references.

Even the fact that our party now gets criticised when its opponents perceive we are supporting family-unfriendly policies demonstrates that the family is becoming a social criterion.

>From a position of being everyone’s non-cause, parties are now bending over backwards to promote their allegedly family-friendly credentials.

While the cynic in me sees most of this for the shallow political posturing that it is, I also appreciate that within it is a grudging recognition that family issues are becoming increasingly important to New Zealanders, as they are worldwide in the wake of ghastly tragedies like September 11th and people’s consequent yearning to re-focus on the things they regard as basic to their lives.

To that extent, I claim some credit for the political change of heart in our country.

But a genuine family centred policy approach has to go far beyond that.

Family issues are all encompassing.

That is why United Future is pushing for other fundamental changes, for example, through the education system.

We are very interested in character education in our schools, for which we believe there is a clear and urgent need.

It seems to us that even in a pluralist society, there are common ethical grounds.

New Zealanders are divided on such moral issues as abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia and prostitution, which lead some to the conclusion that there are no longer any common ethics, and that it is wrong to even try and consider an ethical basis to society.

It is precisely the same mistake that we made with the way we have approached family issues over the last 20 years or so, and I am amazed that we seem determined to go down the same path all over again.

But then, as Karl Marx said, the thing to learn from history is that people do not.

I believe profoundly that despite the divisions in our society, we can identify basic, shared values that allow us to engage in public moral education in a pluralistic society.

I regard pluralism and diversity as healthy and a necessary element of the free and open democratic society we all stand for.

But pluralism itself is not possible without agreement on core values such as justice, honesty, civility, democratic process and a respect for truth.

These are universal human values which transcend all societies, and which flourish wherever the human spirit is strong.

Transmitting character is and always has been the work of a civil society.

Every society needs character education to survive and to thrive – to keep itself intact, and to keep itself growing towards conditions that support the full human development of all its members.

Historically, three institutions have shared the work of character education: the home, the church and the school.

In taking up character education, schools are returning to their time-honoured role, abandoned briefly in the middle decades of the past century.

In New Zealand the school curriculum has since 1993 provided for character education, but there has been no really concerted effort outside of the attempts by individual schools and determined principals to promote it further.

This disappoints me greatly because I regard character formation as being at the heart of allowing civil society to develop and individuals to grow and prosper in wider society.

Democracies have a special need for character education because democracy is government by the people themselves.

The people must care for the rights of others and the common good and be willing to assume the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

In line with that, there is no such thing as values free education.

Everything a school does teaches values – including the way teachers and other adults treat students, the way the principal treats teachers, the way the school treats parents, and the way students are allowed to treat school staff and each other.

If questions of right and wrong are never discussed in classrooms, that, too, teaches about how much morality matters.

In short the relevant issue is never “Should schools teach values?” but rather “Which values will they teach?” and “How will they teach them?”

For each of us as individuals, a question of the utmost importance is: “How shall I live my life?”

For all humanity, two of the most important questions are: “How will we live with each other?” and “How shall we live with the environment?”

An unabashed commitment to character education is essential if schools are to attract and retain good teachers.

Teaching has become a difficult and demanding task.

In New Zealand, just over a third of teachers leave within two years of joining the profession because the stresses and strains are too great.

One of the best ways to improve the lives of teachers is to make character education – including the creation of a civil, humane community in the school – the centre of school life.

Failure to educate for character imposes enormous economic costs.

The cost of failure to practise such values as honesty and truthfulness imposes enormous social costs that are met by individual citizens.

For example: without honesty, we see tax evasion, shop lifting, stolen cars, insurance fraud etc – all of it being a cost to the community.

Economics is a significant driver in the development of family-friendly policies today.

As always, there is a variety of ways of promoting family friendly economic policy.

>From the perspective of the left, the government and the welfare state is the answer.

New Zealand has had a long history of this approach.

We recovered from the worst effects of the Depression of the 1930’s through developing a comprehensive welfare state that created jobs, subsidised food, housing, health and education and virtually followed you to the grave.

The welfare state effectively collapsed under the weight of its own costs in the mid 1980s, and since that time we have struggled to find a new equilibrium.

Today, there remains a minority committed to full welfarism, while elements of the political right want to do away with virtually any form of state assistance or intervention.

United Future does not accept either scenario.

We emphasize personal responsibility and the dignity of human beings.

Fundamentally, that means work for all and the recognition that child-rearing and the duties associated with that are economically valuable to the nation as a whole.

Therefore, we advocate significant tax reform so that income-earning families are not penalised unnecessarily by the tax system.

We are currently working on policies that involve the concept of household income, rather than individual income, and allowing couples to assign that combined income between to the maximum beneficial tax effect.

New Zealand has a four-step personal tax system that reaches a 39% rate at the top end of the pay scale.

Our plan would reduce the impact of taxes at the top end and leave more money in the hands of the couple that earn it to be spent at their own discretion.

Indeed, we estimate that our proposals could see the average household benefit by up to $75 a week.

There is no doubt that reducing the economic pressures on families, and on parents who may wish to spend time at home with young children but who feel economically constrained from doing so, has to be a critical element of a family friendly approach to policy making.

We have not yet been able to convince the government of the merits of this proposal but that does not mean we will give up.

We are continuing our own policy development work on this plan and will promote it vigorously to New Zealanders.

This desire to see families regain the ability to control their own destiny is why my party is unashamedly pro-business.

More than 95% of businesses in New Zealand are small, employing fewer than 5 people.

These are the significant wealth and job creators in our society and that is why we campaign relentlessly to reduce their compliance costs and other barriers to growth and success, because we believe that is the path to lasting success for the New Zealand family.

There are other, more negative, aspects to trying to keep the family at the forefront of policy making.

These take the form of trying to beat back the more extreme approaches to what constitutes a family.

For example, the New Zealand Parliament is currently debating a Care of Children Bill, the aim of which is to update our guardianship legislation, a perfectly laudable objective.

However, it was captured by some of the more ‘pink think’ members of the government and at one stage, attempted to make it possible for lesbians to be defined as fathers.

We said this was going too far and was extremely silly.

The excuse that was proffered was that it was merely a drafting technique, but that did not wash.

The notion that a woman’s lesbian partner could be defined as a child’s Dad defied logic and common sense, however it was presented, and frankly it says something very worrying about the attitude of policy makers that it could ever have been thought otherwise.

I think we’ve fought off that idea, but it shows what can sneak through, if we don’t keep up a careful watch.

The same legislation seemed to make it easier and take much less time to gain custody of a child than it does to gain ownership of the microwave in the event of a marriage break-up.

Again, a silly situation that we’ve managed to have overturned.

More brutal is the horrific scourge of child abuse.

We have just witnessed another shocking murder of a young child, and are in the midst of the national outpouring of both understandable grief and the inevitable “what must we do now to prevent another case like this” syndrome.

If history is our guide, this national tut-tutting will continue for a little while yet, and then slowly but surely life will return to where it was – until the next time.

It is time to break the cycle of violence and disadvantage.

It is time that the deaths of innocent children like Coral, and James, and Lillybing, and Delcelia, and Teresa, and Louisa and all the other tragic cases that have pricked our national conscience over the last few years counted for something more than pious talk.

But for that to happen, bold and potentially uncomfortable actions have to be taken.

There are longitudinal studies in New Zealand clearly identifying the profile of at risk families and making the chilling observation that unless the children in such families are assisted early in their lives, they most assuredly will be damaged by their teenage years when they become either victims or offenders.

Yet, because of a fear of scapegoating, or our helping hand being interpreted as a pointing finger, we do nothing.

It is that old apathy thing I referred to earlier – we do not want to get involved, because it might appear we are targeting people unfairly.

So nothing happens – until the next brutal murder of a small child.

And then we will get ourselves into a national lather all over again.

The cycle we have to break is that of our own apathy.

If we as a society really believe in families and really care about our children, we will not shy away from the activist early intervention programmes needed to assist those our disadvantaged families and children.

And if that means some uncomfortable realities have to be faced up to, and issues about stereotyping confronted, so be it.

So long as, according to United Nations’ statistics we remain the country with the third worst rate of child abuse in the world, we can hardly hold our head up and proclaim we are fulfilling the Kiwi dream of being a great place to raise your kids.

Yet I believe that is at the core of the Kiwi vision – and I want to reclaim that dream.

We will only do so when it stops being the sick joke it is for so many of our disadvantaged children today.

United Future’s fundamental premise has been and remains that the basic purpose of society is to create an environment in which families can prosper, and that all aspects of government policy – from economics to national defence, from health to education, to law and order and outdoor recreation – are about advancing the environment within which that can happen.

There is no real point in doing otherwise.

The reason the world opposes oppression and tyranny is because these strike at the heart of every family and at the potential of every family to develop and thrive.

If we lose that focus, or ever try to rationalise the big events of the day in any other way, then in my view we begin the inexorable sacrifice of one of the most precious elements of our humanity – the unique concept and bond of family that is and must remain the primary focus of our existence.

ENDS

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