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PM's Speech To Labour Conference


Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister

Address to New Zealand Labour Party Conference

Convention Centre Christchurch

2.15 pm

Saturday 8 November 2003

It’s almost four years since our party was chosen to lead New Zealand’s second MMP government.

And it’s just fifteen months since we entered our second term.

In seeking that new mandate last year, we pledged to continue predictable and progressive government.

That meant no wild policy surprises, no ambushes, and no roller coaster rides into the unknown. Because that’s what 1990s politics were about, and that’s what the electorate rejected decisively four years ago.

Our party in government has offered real differences, in substance and in style, to what had gone before.

Gone are the dead-end economic and social policies which saw New Zealand in a race to the bottom of the living standards ladder, with a few winners at the top and a lot of people struggling on the margins.

By abandoning those policies we have made a real difference to the lives of New Zealanders.

Just ask any of those now at work because there are 148,000 extra jobs in the economy.

Just ask the low-paid worker who now gets an extra sixty dollars a week as a result of our increases to the minimum wage.

Just ask any one of the more than 5000 modern apprentices who are getting a chance to gain good skills and jobs.

Just ask the state tenant who is saving $1800 a year because of income-related rents.

Just ask the working parents who now get paid parental leave and can afford to stay at home with their baby for the first twelve weeks. Just ask any one of the million or so people who are getting access to lower cost health care through their PHO, or even

Just ask any one of New Zealand’s young musicians who now benefit because more of our own music is played on commercial radio.

Labour has made a difference to the lives of those people and many, many more. We’ll go on making that difference as long as we have the privilege of being in government.

This party campaigns up front for what it believes in and it keeps its word. There will be no return to the cynicism and betrayal which characterised government for so long in New Zealand, and lowered confidence in the political system to an unprecedented degree.

Stability and certainty are prerequisites for progress. The people of New Zealand are entitled to know what their leaders stand for and what direction they seek to take the country in. And when that stability and certainty are backed by a popular mandate for the direction which has been set, then this country is unstoppable.

And that’s the way I feel about our country today.

New Zealand and New Zealanders are achieving simply extraordinary things. And it’s being noticed. I’ve lost count of the numbers of international journalists and feature writers who pass through my office wanting to understand more about New Zealand’s revival.

Of course it’s not all the government’s doing. But by building that climate of opportunity and clear direction, backed by certainty, security, and principle, I believe we are adding real value to what this country can achieve.

Governing in the 21st century requires vision, leadership, and attitude – and lots of it.

In an age of globalisation, in many ways the levers and powers of the state are smaller than they ever were.

But for nations to claim that critical niche in this new world and this new century, governments need to be more strategic and smarter than ever.

New ways of governing have to be invented to carry nations forward.

In our long preparation for the responsibility and the privilege of governing, we recognised that the days of heavy handed state intervention were gone.

But we also knew that a strong sense of direction was essential. As the old proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

So Labour has provided a vision which unites mainstream New Zealanders.

As part of that vision we want New Zealand to continue to be known for its old and timeless values of opportunity, security, and fair play. To that we must add tolerance, and respect, within an increasingly diverse and complex society. We place great emphasis on social cohesion, and on working proactively against divisions based on wealth, ethnicity, belief, gender, or sexual orientation.

But we also want the fair and decent society to be a prosperous society.

And so we worked on a vision which could bring together our economic and social aspirations. The New Zealand of our dreams will also be:

a great place to live, learn, work and do business, a birthplace of world changing people and ideas, a place where people invest in the future, a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity, and a land where all New Zealanders have the opportunity to succeed.

Our efforts, these past four years, have gone into realising that vision and building the partnerships which will make it happen.

That’s why you have seen our ministers in forums with local government, with Maori, with business in the regions, with community groups, with industry sectors, with unions, and in regular dialogue with the many other social partners which make up the fabric of our nation.

We seek to govern by working with stakeholders for common goals – not by setting out to create division.

This is a reforming and progressive government, and the fruits of its labour will be far reaching.

But we’ve set out to advance our programme by dialogue and by consultation on both means and ends.

By proceeding in this way, we know that the changes we are making are sustainable and will endure.

Labour is not about revolution .

It is about building majorities for change which will take New Zealand forward.

The strength of purpose our government has shown often leads people to forget that it is a minority government.

Labour has no built-in majority for any policy it promotes.

We govern through a network of relationships – with our partner in government, the Progressive Party; with our confidence and supply partner, United Future; and with the Green Party, with which we have a formal working relationship.

From time to time, other parties also lend a hand. But opposition for opposition’s sake has characterised the parties of the right. That’s partly why they’ve become so marginalised in New Zealand politics. Most New Zealanders are in the market for positive policies which will make a difference for the better, and not for empty rhetoric, contrived anger, nor for the discarded ideology of the 1990s

A strong majority of New Zealanders is giving Labour credit for the stability which is enabling New Zealand to succeed.

While the world economy has been lacklustre these past four years, New Zealand has been doing comparatively well.

In April this year I had the pleasure of chairing the OECD’s Ministerial Council Meeting when New Zealand’s growth rate of 4.4 per cent was at the top of the OECD league.

Now, although growth is off its peak, the economy seems headed for a soft landing, with growth coming in close to the trend rate of about three per cent.

Our challenge, in a nutshell, is to lift that trend rate. But that requires ongoing transformation of the economy – a mission which is at the core of our Growth and Innovation Framework.

Complementing the growth rate has been the fall in unemployment. At 4.7 per cent, it’s at its lowest in sixteen years, and well down from the 6.3 per cent when we came into office.

That means there are close to 150,000 more people in work now than there were when we first took office. For the first time in around fourteen years, unemployment has fallen below 100,000. That is the sort of difference to real people’s lives that a sound, growing economy can make.

The government’s fiscal position is strong; inflation is low; and net migration is high. Many more Kiwis want to stay home and come home.

The construction sector is booming, and tourism has performed well despite SARS and terrorism.

Consumer confidence is at its highest since March 1996, and business confidence has been rising steadily.

These are all indicators which instil a lot of confidence in the economy, and mean that the prospects for all New Zealanders can be positive.

Our recovery was initially export led, with a very competitive exchange rate and exceptionally high dairy prices. Now the domestic economy is leading the growth. Export earnings have come down as our currency has appreciated and dairy prices came off their peak. The forestry sector has been facing considerable pressures. These factors have adversely affected the balance of payments.

But the products and services most affected by these trends are those at the lower end of the value chain. That reinforces the central importance of our mission to move all sectors upmarket. That gives the economy better insulation from the effects of currency appreciation and commodity price fluctuation. And that is exactly what the policies which flow from the Growth and Innovation Framework are all about.

So what have we achieved, and where are we going with these policies?

By and large they’ve picked up a lot of momentum, and the more we do, the more we know we have to do !

We emphasised the need to develop skills and talent. That means more emphasis on effective education and workplace training, and more targeted immigration.

Underachievement in education is not only a failure for individuals; it’s also a brake on the whole country’s development.

Appropriate immigration policies are essential. In a global market where skills are in high demand, we have to be prepared to recruit off shore for the skills we need to drive our progress. Our recent economic success has brought more skilled Kiwis home and kept more home – and that’s to be welcomed too.

The new immigration system will link new migrants far more closely to the opportunities available. That will help the migrants settle; and it will help New Zealand.

Education is a top priority for investment, and is benefiting from many new initiatives from early childhood to tertiary. A taskforce on the future of secondary education has just been set up.

We’re investing as fast as we can in the technologies of the future, in fast internet access and in all the learning possibilities which flow from that.

Three weeks ago I launched the government’s provincial broadband rollout, Project PROBE, in Tuatapere, Southland. The enthusiasm of students and teachers about being linked to other parts of New Zealand and the rest of the world is infectious, and fills me with confidence for the future for our regions and for education

Literacy, numeracy, suspensions, and underachievement are all being targeted, along with effective transitions from school to work. Already programmes like the early numeracy one have shown that dramatic improvements in results can be made in a relatively short time.

At the tertiary level the new Tertiary Education Strategy is being implemented, targeting quality, access and relevance in the system.

And, make no mistake, our government has done a lot for access. In the first term it was done through freezing fees and improving the fairness of the loan system.

This term we’ve gone on to set maximum fees to give students ongoing protection against unacceptable fee increases.

At the last election we talked about the need for a scholarship and bonding scheme to help students meet the costs of expensive courses, and encourage them to stay in New Zealand after graduation. We have delivered on that promise, with new bonded scholarships for students in health and animal sciences. Their courses are expensive, and we are short of graduates staying in New Zealand. We will evaluate this scheme to see if it should be extended to other areas in the future.

There’s been great success with the apprenticeship programme, with already over 5000 trainees enrolled, and a target of 7,500 in 2006. Money has poured into work-based training overall, as we work with industry and unions to overcome skills shortages.

Research and Development, a key part in the Growth and Innovation Framework has also taken off.

Government spending is up substantially. A lot of the money has gone to the private sector through grants and collaborative projects. That backing and the improved tax treatment have seen private sector R & D rise by over thirty per cent from 2000 – 2002 ! This increased commitment to innovation is fundamental to New Zealand’s success.

Business, industry and regional growth initiatives continue to be central to the government’s growth strategy.

Now the new agency Trade and Enterprise New Zealand is working with industry clusters and whole sectors, and funding major regional initiatives. It is driving the programmes, from nurturing new export companies to supporting accelerated growth by medium-sized companies;

Getting higher value goods and services out to world markets is our priority – along with getting the best possible terms for access into those markets.

As a primary sector exporter New Zealand faces significant export barriers. That’s why we are putting such an effort into the World Trade Organisation Round, and into regional and other trade initiatives.

We are also making good progress on developing what we identified as our enabling sectors.

Effective use of information, communications, and other technologies is critical to driving the performance of the modern economy.

Broadband networks are a key part of modern infrastructure. That’s why the government has got involved in making them happen.

Advanced biotechnology is important in lifting the performance of the primary sectors, at the production and processing levels, and to the development of new products. It will also drive the growth of smart research-based companies in the health sciences.

The third sector identified was in the creative industries. Our two taskforces, on design and screen production, did a good job in highlighting the potential to lift the New Zealand brand in quality and visibility.

The phenomenal success of Lord of the Rings and Whale Rider shows how powerful film can be in profiling and branding a country. With more domestic film successes likely from the Film Fund, and more foreign films attracted by the new big film grant scheme, these benefits should continue to flow.

But there are also other things which are important in building a strong economy, like decent employment law and conditions. The Employment Relations Act with its good faith emphasis, the new health and safety law, and a raft of other measures are all part of building healthier, more settled workplaces, and these are a key part of our economic programme. Support for collective organisation and bargaining enables unions and workers to play a role in driving higher productivity and skills levels in industry. Further improvements to the ERA to reinforce these objectives are in the pipeline

Unions, Labour Party conferences, and our partner the Progressive Party have led the call for all workers to have the right to four weeks annual leave. Most professionals and managers already enjoy at least that. We ruled out implementing the change in our first two terms, and made no commitment beyond that. But now the time has come to signal change.

I am announcing today that Labour will support a four week annual leave provision in the Holidays Act, to take effect on 1 April 2007.

This will provide a boost for families and it will bring us into line with most Western countries. And by signalling it now, employers have 3½ years notice of the change.

While building a more robust and modern economy has occupied a lot of our time, in government, we’ve never lost sight of what we are dong it for.

The commitment Labour gives is to reinvesting back into a better quality and quantity of life for all New Zealanders as fast as we can grow the cake.

For older New Zealanders, our top priority was lifting and securing the value of New Zealand Superannuation. We did that in our first term with the lift in the rate, and with the establishment of the Superannuation Fund.

This term the big advance for older people comes with the fulfilment of another manifesto commitment, to phase out asset testing on older people in care.

From 1 July 2005, the first $150,000 of assets will be exempt, and that level will increase by $10,000 each year. At $150,000, it will already cover, or substantially cover, the value of superannuitants’ homes in many parts of New Zealand.

The $150,000 is a huge step up from the previous exemption levels of $15,000 for a single person in care, and $30,000 for a couple.

Older people are also benefiting from big new investments in health care. We’ve set goals of having all people referred for a specialist assessment seen within six months, and then all those referred on for treatment seen within six months.

In the latest year 93 per cent of those referred for specialist assessment were seen within the 6 month target and of those meeting the criteria for surgery, 80 per cent were treated within the 6 month target time.

That is real progress

But much as we are making progress, there is still much to be done.

A fast growing metropolis like Auckland has big pressures on its treatment services. I did not come into politics to see older New Zealanders waiting in pain for years for their treatment, and I want our targets met.

For that reason I have asked the Minister to look at new initiatives over the next year, to target areas like orthopaedics where we need to make faster progress.

One area moving faster than expected is primary health care.

Already more than half the population is enrolled in the new Primary Health Organisations, and more than a million now have access to low-cost primary care through their PHO.

From 1 October all 6 – 17 year olds enrolled in PHOs were added to the low-cost scheme.

From 1 July , all over 65 year olds will also receive low-cost primary care. That includes paying reduced prescription charges of only three dollars.

By enabling people to seek advice and treatment early, we hope to prevent a lot of avoidable illness.

And the PHOs will also help us meet our goals for higher levels of immunisation and better health overall.

Housing policy is getting a lot of attention as we strive to make homes affordable. Rapid population growth has strained the market, and that makes it especially hard for low and modest income households in areas like Auckland.

The last National Government sold 11,500 state homes in nine years.

We’ve added another 3,430 in four years, and we plan to add another 3,300 by 2007.

By the second anniversary of income-related rents, state tenants were better-off on average by about $35 a week, and in some areas of Auckland by $50 - $60 a week. That makes a huge difference to household incomes.

We put pensioners’ minds at rest in Auckland City by buying the Council’s rental housing. A sale to the private sector would undoubtedly have seen elderly people forced from their homes. We are now working with local government and third sector agencies to encourage the building of more social housing.

And there’s a new initiative for home ownership; a home mortgage and insurance programme for low and modest earners to help them secure a loan.

Nothing is more fundamental to the wellbeing of any family than a secure, affordable and decent home. Our government knows the market cannot guarantee that for all our families. That’s why we’re involved. Nothing has given me more pleasure in the last four years than seeing the relief and the smiles on the faces of those Auckland pensioners when they heard we had saved their homes.

I want to say a word on the state of our families.

With unemployment falling, with the big investment in education, healthcare, and housing, I know that we are running as hard as we can to invest in the basics. And by introducing a Paid Parental Leave scheme we are enabling more parents to spend time with their babies. Next year’s budget will also help low and modest income families.

But I am left troubled by the level of abuse, violence, and neglect affecting children in our country. The economic and social turmoil New Zealand went through did destabilise families, but it isn’t the whole story.

Our children are our future and we must ensure they all get a fair chance to succeed.

The new Families Commission is due to be established next year, and along with the new Children’s Commissioner, the Ministry of Social Development, the Department of Child Youth and Family Services, and concerned NGOs, we must come up with some better answers. Our children are entitled to far more safety than many presently get.

I for one cannot accept that it is fair and reasonable for the law to allow a defence for those who assault children. That does not yet seem to be a widely accepted view in New Zealand. I do ask our fellow citizens to reflect on the extent to which that law is shielding and protecting those who are violent. In my view, entrenched attitudes on physical discipline may be standing in the way of offering our children better protection.

Let me be clear: removing the defence of reasonable force does not mean banning smacking. There is no such defence available to a person charged with assault of an adult. That doesn’t mean the police lay charges every time one adult pushes another. So why the reasonable force defence with respect to children? Don’t our kids deserve better?

Policing faces new and more complex challenges in our 21st century society. The police are doing a good job on the basics like burglary, but the ground on which they work keeps shifting.

The new methamphetamine drugs on the market prove the point. Unlike other illicit drugs, they are made from ingredients which have been freely bought and sold. Their spread has been responsible for bizarre and horrible crimes and tragedy for many individuals and families.

Our government is absolutely committed to resourcing the police to deal with such new trends in crime, and to dealing severely to serious offenders across the board.

This Labour-Progressive Government has also kept up the momentum on environment and conservation issues. New national and conservation parks and reserves, and new and upgraded huts, tracks and facilities are being put in place.

We have strategies to minimise waste, improve water quality, and increase the supply of renewable energy.

We’ve ratified the Kyoto Protocol and now must meet our commitments. Every sector and individual New Zealanders will contribute to that.

But the gains of ratification are also enormous. It forces us to move to best practice in environmental technologies. That has every prospect of both lifting productivity and giving substance to our clean and green image.

The precautionary path we’ve taken on genetic modification has sparked controversy. Some would prefer that we turned our back on this science and these technologies. I for one am not prepared to do that. We have to remain open and alert to future advantage for New Zealand. The way ahead is through a strict regulatory regime and case by case consideration, as recommended by the Royal Commission. To proceed, applications will have to prove that any benefits outweigh the risks. If they are not safe, they won’t be able to proceed.

This is not an issue of food safety. If food is not safe, it does not appear on supermarket shelves in New Zealand. We have some of the strictest rules in the world on food safety, and they will not be compromised.

Implementing the range of programmes and initiatives an active Labour government requires is no easy task. Achieving success with them relies on the dedication of the many thousands of committed public servants around the country.

One of the consequences of the 1990s extremism was a contraction of the core public service and a decline in the base of skill and expertise within it.

An active Labour government needs a strong public service, and we are determined to continue our efforts to rebuild it.

That’s why we announced this week a new superannuation scheme for government employees. This will see government leading the way in earnings-related superannuation.

The new scheme will encourage people to save for their retirement and we hope it will also encourage more superannuation schemes in the private sector.

This scheme has been developed in conjunction with the PSA, which shows how constructive employer-union partnerships can be.

Our government has also set out to assert New Zealand’s unique national identity. The arts, culture and heritage have a big role to play in doing that.

Our efforts are paying off, as we see the visual and performing arts and film reach new heights. Contemporary music is an especially big success. Over eighteen per cent of radio airtime is now being devoted to New Zealand music – up from under two per cent in 1995. Kiwi music is also featuring well in the charts at home and getting more recognition off shore.

By tending our heritage, we acknowledge the forces which shaped us as a nation. Just this year I’ve attended openings of the magnificent new Christchurch Art Gallery and Te Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, to which the government made substantial contributions. The Auckland and Canterbury museums now have guarantees of government support for their redevelopment, and other projects are in the pipeline. We see these facilities as cultural assets with significant economic impacts.

A project likely to commence in this term is the Kerikeri bypass, necessary to protect the Stone Store and the Kemp Homestead from flooding. These are iconic heritage properties.

And we continue our work on the new digital encyclopaedia of New Zealand, oral and other histories, memorials to the fallen, and the commemoration of significant New Zealand military engagements in which so many of our families have a personal interest.

There has never been any doubt in my mind as a fifth generation New Zealander that our country is independent, sovereign, and able to stand on its own feet. That’s why Labour backed the establishment of a Supreme Court in New Zealand. It’s time to say farewell to colonial cringe. We have a strong, independent judiciary, backed by a fully competent legal profession. We have the ability and the institutions to take charge of our own affairs.

In building a strong sense of national identity we must also look forward to encompass the new New Zealand. It will be more diverse in every way, and we have to make it work. Celebrating all our cultures and all our heritage, and respecting the wide variety of faiths and beliefs among us will be critical to the success of 21st century New Zealand.

History has thrown us some big challenges, as we continue to work through the consequences of colonisation and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. These challenges are not always well understood, and at times our interests are perceived to be in direct conflict.

The foreshore and seabed issue is a case in point. It is unthinkable to most New Zealanders that their access to what has always been open space could be curtailed by new rights of private ownership. Yet most reasonable people would also agree that customary rights should be protected. Resolving this in our common interest requires the wisdom of Solomon, but that is what we are intent on doing.

So much else that is positive is happening in Maoridom. Maori unemployment has fallen sharply since 1999. There are many new initiatives in education, health, housing, and family services. New Maori businesses are forming. A Maori language strategy is rolling out, and will be supported by Maori television. The fisheries allocation legislation comes to Parliament this month.

Next year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Hui Taumata, which charted a new course for Maoridom. 2004 will be an appropriate time to take stock and scope the next twenty years of progress.

For Pasifika peoples, unemployment is down more than twenty per cent under Labour, and new economic and social services are thriving. The new Pacific radio network is also on air.

Other migrant communities have also benefited from economic growth and falling unemployment. New programmes are helping people settle more smoothly in New Zealand. The Migrant Resource Centre opened in Three Kings earlier this year is a model of its kind.

New Zealanders do look to the government to reflect our nation’s values in our international relations. In government we have given expression to long-held New Zealand views about multilateralism and the rule of law – in the work we have done on terrorism, disarmament, and on Iraq. The decisions we’ve made and the stances we’ve taken haven’t always been easy or straightforward, but even with the benefit of hindsight I wouldn’t change a single one of them. That was reinforced by my brief visit to Afghanistan and Iraq last week.

Looking back over the past four years I feel an enormous sense of pride and achievement.

But I know that in government, our work is never done. It’s like climbing: once one mountain is conquered, there are always more standing behind it. And in government, the mountains don’t always show up early on the radar, and may not even be drawn on the map !

MMP has brought our party new responsibilities and new challenges. We are currently the only large party, and the one around which governments are presently most likely to form. That has happened because we are a pragmatic mainstream party which sets out to build and unite, not to fragment and polarise.

This means that we have a responsibility to develop the best policies we can to take New Zealand ahead. It means we have a responsibility to remain humble in office, because so may people have placed their faith in us. We also have a responsibility to remain open and alert to new trends, new ideas and new forces in society, and to keep listening.

And for the party, there’s a challenge. Our membership and structures need to be able to help us meet our responsibilities of representing a broader cross section of New Zealanders. Our consultation and policy-making processes need to be improved. And in government, we need to work openly with compatible partners to advance the good policy ideas which emerge.

We must continue to advance policies which avoid the extremes, and are focused on meeting the challenges we face as a nation.

My thanks go today to all those who work so hard for this party:

to all my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, who without exception pour their hearts and souls into their work,

to the party president, the general secretary and his staff, New Zealand Council, all regional and electorate organisations, branches, and to you, the members who make it possible for us to be in government.

Thanks must also go to that wide cross section of New Zealanders who have backed us to carry on leading New Zealand with steady and progressive policies.

Our challenge is no less than the building of a strong and cohesive nation which can succeed in the 21st century.

We have made a good start these past four years,

We are making a real difference,

But there is so much more to do.

We should celebrate what we’ve been able to achieve.

But we must also commit to continuing to do a decent, honest job for the people who’ve placed their trust in us.

Vision combined with steady and real progress is a powerful combination.

With your help, our government will keep on delivering.

Enjoy the conference.

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