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Prime Minister: Hikoi of Hope – Five Years On

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister - Address to “The Hikoi of Hope – Five Years On” Series of Addresses

Inner City Churches Lent Programme

Christchurch Cathedral Christchurch

7.30 pm

Thursday 4 March 2004

It’s a little over five years since the Anglican Church led the Hikoi of Hope to Parliament.

And it’s just five days since the Anglican Church spoke out again on another significant issue of social concern

Tonight I want to speak on what links the two initiatives, and to address both the progress which has been made since the Hikoi of Hope and the direction we need to take together as a nation to build a common future.

The Anglican Church is not a political movement. It is a religious community with a strong spiritual and ethical foundation. It is based in communities throughout the land. It is able to perceive what the concerns of communities might be, and to reflect on how they might be represented and addressed.

The Church took a leadership role in articulating community concerns through the Hikoi in the late 1990s. And, by its statement last Sunday, it has shown that it will not stand quietly by now when it perceives that destructive forces have been unleased on New Zealand society.

For me, the Hikoi of Hope had enormous symbolism, which transcended even its advocacy of the core planks of a decent life for all New Zealanders.

That symbolism lay in the sense of social solidarity which it engendered.

Here were close to 30,000 New Zealanders, drawn from across our communities and drawn together in a common cause.

That was especially powerful because it came after years of division and growing inequity.

Since the great depression, New Zealand had known very little unemployment. Then it began to climb in the mid 1970s, and it accelerated in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Lives and communities were shattered as a consequence of far reaching economic and social policy change.

Benefit cuts, market rentals for state housing, and the Employment Contracts Act had a particularly adverse effect.

We New Zealanders had always prided ourselves on having a country where everyone got a fair go and where everyone had the opportunity to succeed.

That self image was shattered as the queues grew at the foodbanks and real and absolute poverty was being experienced by our poorest citizens.

It was these concerns which were brought to the front steps of Parliament by the Hikoi of Hope, and it was these concerns which I was determined Labour would address if we were given the privilege of forming a government in 1999.

What I knew was that the path ahead wouldn’t be easy. A lot of damage had been done to the fabric of New Zealand society and to social provision over a long period of time.

But the longer the job of rebuilding was delayed, the more difficult the task would have become.

And so, in December 1999 we started on a journey of rebuilding opportunity and security and that sense of a fair go which most New Zealanders value so highly.

We’ve made a lot of progress and a lot of changes. But none of what is happening now can be taken for granted.

What New Zealanders are enjoying today through more enlightened economic and social policy and increased social investment is the direct result of having a centre left government.

The same old agendas are still running on the other side of politics.

Tax cuts for the rich will always be matched by spending cuts affecting everybody else.

The sense of security and stability which our government, with the support of our parliamentary allies has established would be quickly shattered by a change of government.

Superannuation

Take for example the living standards of older New Zealanders.

One of our Labour -led government’s first moves was to restore the level of New Zealand Superannuation.

We reversed National’s cuts to Superannuation which would have seen at least a third of older New Zealanders living below the poverty line.

Yesterday the National Party indicated that it saw the age for receiving New Zealand Superannuation rising in 2020.

That’s only sixteen years away.

The message to every New Zealander under fifty years of age today is that National would not guarantee them New Zealand Superannuation on the present terms and conditions.

That is destabilising, and it threatens the security around New Zealand Superannuation which our government has built up with the New Zealand Superannuation Fund.

There is only one message that the under–fifties can take from yesterday’s announcement, and that is that only a Labour led government is guaranteeing their retirement income.

It does not take a great leap of imagination to conclude that the tax cuts for the rich which will inevitably form part of National’s election policy would be funded by the demolition of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund set up by Labour to guarantee retirement income into the future.

Jobs

One of the key planks of the Hikoi of Hope was the call for income and benefit levels which lift people out of poverty.

That linked to the calls for the creation of real jobs and for affordable housing.

Our government has been active across all these areas and has new initiatives coming as well.

When we abandoned the failed policies of the 1990s, one of the first to go was “work for the dole”.

We believed that there were real jobs needing to be done in the economy, and that our priority must be to equip people with the skills and wherewithal to do them.

That seemed a lot more appropriate than having armies of caseworkers trying to find make-work for the unemployed.

And so it’s proved to be. Unemployment fell steadily from the time we were elected to a sixteen year low of 4.4 per cent late last year.

Compared to when the Hikoi of Hope came to Parliament in late 1998, there are over 200,000 more New Zealanders working now.

That is spectacular progress, and it’s been felt across our communities.

The annual average unemployment figures in December 1999 were 16.6 per cent for Maori and 13.6 per cent for Pacific peoples.

By December 2003, they stood at 10.2 per cent for Maori and 7.7 per cent for Pacific peoples.

But are we satisfied to leave progress there? Of course not.

Those unemployment rates are far higher than those for the general population.

So, in the interests of everyone having a fair go and the chance to succeed, we have to try harder to spread the fruits of economic growth into every community.

What’s more, each one of us has a stake in making that happen.

The Maori and Pacific communities are growing fast.

Do we as a nation want those communities to be embittered by and burdened with the marginalisation which comes from high levels of unemployment, crime, and underachievement?

Do the rest of us want to pay and pay for the consequences of failure?

Or do we want to build a strong nation which values all its peoples and finds ways to move us all ahead ?

I strongly believe that our future lies together, not in being driven apart.

That means finding ways to lift everybody’s life chances across and within our communities, and not standing by and letting some fall behind.

Let’s not forget what the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s was.

Some communities saw lack of work affect three generations.

Some children never saw mum or dad or grandma or granddad go to work.

In such communities, crime, drugs, alcohol, and ill health can take their toll.

The road back to independence can be long and slow.

Rebuilding a work ethic is critical, and it is now happening.

As a government we put enormous priority on supporting people into independence and creating opportunities to acquire skills.

There is a now a high demand for labour in the economy : a net fifty per cent of companies are reporting difficulty in hiring skilled labour, and a net 27 per cent are reporting unskilled labour shortages.

I believe our Jobs Jolt initiatives, which aim to get more beneficiaries into work, are well timed. Frankly, unless there is some compelling family, health, or other reason, there is no sense in enabling people to move to areas where there is no work when there are other areas with plenty.

The opportunity is there to get more people into real jobs. In these circumstances suggestion of a return to “work for the dole” is just plain stupid !

It’s clear that modern economies are going to require ever higher skill levels, and that the more skilled people are, the greater their chances of life long employment and independence will be.

That’s why our government has invested greatly in skills training, and in building new pathways for young people in particular into jobs in industry.

Well over 6,000 young people have now signed up for the new Modern Apprenticeships – the flagship programme for our work-based trade and technical training programmes.

In total we are aiming to have 150,000 industry trainees in place in 2005, and to build towards a total of a quarter of a million within two to three years thereafter.

It’s initiatives like these which stand to guarantee New Zealanders good standards of living in the years ahead.

But meantime we’ve also been active in lifting low incomes.

Incomes and Working Conditions

When the Hikoi of Hope came to Parliament, the minimum wage was seven dollars an hour, and it was stuck at that level for three years from 1997 to 1999.

We’ve lifted the minimum wage every year we’ve been in government, and it now stands at nine dollars an hour for adults.

That means that an adult on the minimum wage and working forty hours a week is paid $80 more a week than when people marched in the Hikoi of Hope.

The increases in the minimum wage have been particularly spectacular for young people.

Back in 1998 the youth minimum wage stood at sixty per cent of the adult wage at $4.20 an hour, and applied to 16-19 year olds.

In March 2001 the age for the adult minimum wage was lowered from 20 years of age to eighteen, and the youth minimum increased to seventy per cent of the adult minimum.

Then in March 2002, the youth minimum wage for sixteen and seventeen year olds increased from seventy per cent of the adult minimum to eighty per cent.

Today the youth minimum stands at $7.20 an hour – over seventy per cent more than in 1998 for sixteen and seventeen year olds.

Our government has also taken other steps to improve conditions for working people.

In 2002, paid parental leave was introduced for a period of twelve weeks.

The maximum payment stands at $334.75 a week and is adjusted by the rise in average weekly earnings each year.

By late last year more than 14,000 people had accessed the scheme.

The idea is to make it financially easier for working people to take leave to be with a new baby. It is a very important social justice and labour market measure, and of greatest benefit to lower income families. Extensions to the scheme are due to be announced shortly.

Legislation has also been passed to give workers a right to a minimum four weeks annual holiday from 2007.

This, too, is of greatest assistance to the lower paid and least skilled workers who have the least bargaining power.

Australians have had a minimum four weeks holiday for three decades. It’s time our working people enjoyed the same. Only the continuation of a centre left government guarantees that extra week’s holiday. Does anyone really think it would survive under a right wing government determined to tip the balance away from working people and their families?

The same can be said of decent industrial relations legislation. One of the key pillars of the social division and marginalisation of the 1990s was the Employment Contracts Act, which was heavily weighted towards employers’ interests.

Our government set out to strike a better balance with the Employment Relations Act. We’ve succeeded, with more support for collective bargaining, with good faith made central to the bargaining process, and with improved mediation services and procedures to help resolve disputes.

It can surely be no accident that the numbers of industrial stoppages are falling, with almost thirty per cent fewer stoppages in the past year than there were in the last year of the Employment Contracts Act.

But on top of all these measures, we know there’s more to do.

We’ve held back from significant upward adjustments to family incomes until we knew we could sustain the spending required.

After several years of economic growth and careful budget management, we believe the time has come to do more. This year’s Budget will deliver a further growth dividend to low and modest income families.

We aim to ensure that families with dependent children are always better off when in work, while also improving the circumstances of families with children whose parents are not currently in the workforce.

We will be addressing some of the most critical barriers to employment, such as access to affordable childcare and accommodation costs.

In last year’s Budget we increased the childcare subsidy from a maximum of 37 hours a week to fifty hours, making paid employment for parents more accessible and worthwhile.

That and raising the threshold for Family Support were important steps in a longer term plan of substantial improvement in assistance to families.

Housing

Big changes have also been made and more are planned to make housing more affordable for low income people.

We reintroduced income-related rents for state housing in 2000 and have ensured that low income tenants pay no more that 25 per cent of their income in rent. We estimate that on average state house tenants are saving $1800 per year as a result of the return to income related rents. By doing that, we are helping those families get out of the poverty created for them by the policies of the 1990s.

Around 90 per cent of tenants in Housing New Zealand’s 64,000 households now have directly subsidised rents.

We also brought back a needs based allocation system for state housing. In the bad old days of market rents, the houses went to those who could pay the high rents. Since then, turnover in state houses has decreased significantly. That contributes to greater stability for families and for communities.

Another legacy of the 1990s was National’s sale of 13,000 state houses. We have been re-building the stock. To meet the demand for state housing in areas of high need, nearly 4,000 homes have been added to the state house stock since December 1999.

That included buying 1600 Auckland City Council homes, mainly pensioner units, which were to be put on the market by a privatising council. Nothing gave me more pleasure in the last four years than seeing the relief and smiles on the faces of those Auckland pensioners when they heard we had saved their homes.

We are also keen to work with local government and third sector housing providers to get more affordable housing.

Last year we allocated $63 million to a four-year programme of social housing programmes for that purpose.

We’ve taken a new initiative to bring home ownership within the reach of low and modest income earners by launching the pilot Mortgage Insurance Scheme in partnership with Kiwibank.

This year’s Budget will see improvements to Accommodation Supplement to help make mortgages and private rentals more affordable.

And consultation will begin soon on a new Housing Strategy for New Zealand, setting out the steps to be taken to ensure that all New Zealanders have access to affordable, sustainable, quality housing appropriate to their needs.

Health

The Hikoi of Hope called for a health system which was affordable, trustworthy, and accessible to all.

One of our first steps was to abolish the entirely appointed and business-oriented health boards across New Zealand, and replace them with boards with a majority of elected members.

They are charged with the responsibility of being responsive to and meeting their communities’ health needs.

We set goals of having all those referred for a specialist assessment in the public health system seen within six months, and then all those referred on for treatment seen within six months.

By late last year 83 per cent of patients newly referred for specialist assessment were being seen within the six month time frame, and of those meeting the criteria for treatment, ninety per cent were being treated within the six month target time.

But we need to do more yet. Health is one of many areas where one’s work is never done. I am particularly keen to see new initiatives to bring down waiting times in areas like orthopaedics where progress hasn’t been as fast as we would like.

One area of especially fast progress has been in primary health care.

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

Last October, all six to seventeen year olds enrolled in PHOs were added to the low cost scheme. From 1 July this year, all those aged 65 and over enrolled in PHOs will also have access to low cost care, and will pay only $3 for their prescription charges.

These initiatives represent the greatest increase in access to primary care since the 1938 Social Security Act of the first Labour Government.

In addition, there have been big investments in mental health services the new vaccine against the deadly meningococcal B virus is being rolled out the age range for the breast screening programme has been widened to encompass all women aged 45 to 70 years there are solid initiatives in many other areas of public health, including in targeting smoking levels.

We are also facing the reality that some of our communities have worse health than others.

For example, Maori smoking rates are very high and Maori life expectancy is much lower than that of the general population. Research released only yesterday suggests that even high income Maori have a significantly higher death rate than high income Pakeha.

Diabetes and its related health problems feature more prominently in Maori and Pacific peoples’ communities.

It’s important to our government that we endeavour to meet the health needs of all our communities, whoever or whatever they are.

That may mean spending more in some and doing things differently to even up the odds.

To dismiss such initiatives as unfair and discriminatory, as the National Party has done, is quite extraordinary.

What is unfair and discriminatory is to see especially bad health and do nothing about it.

Education

The final plank of the Hikoi of Hope called for accessible education.

That means action at all levels from early childhood education through to tertiary.

We are steadily increasing the numbers of children in early childhood education, and there will be more initiatives in this year’s Budget.

In the compulsory sector, we’ve increased spending per student significantly and targeted more resources into lower decile schools.

Since 2001, we’ve created more than 2000 new teaching positions. This year alone, there are an extra 774 more positions in our schools than were required for roll growth.

It’s in the tertiary sector that rising costs were being felt most by families in the 1990s.

In response, we froze the fees for three years, and from this year have introduced capped maximum fees to make sure they stay affordable.

We stopped interest accruing on student loans while students were studying – a significant saving over the years of borrowing.

We’ve introduced new Step Up scholarships for students from low income families studying in the health and animal sciences.

We expect to bring more students into the student allowance net to improve affordability.

As much as we can do we will do to improve access and affordability, because we believe in the inherent value of education and the difference it makes to life chances. As well we also need to be mindful of funding improvements in the quality of tertiary education.

Where to from here?

I believe that our government over these past 4 ¼ years has responded comprehensively to the call of the Hikoi of Hope for action.

I don’t pretend that the job is done, but I know that it is well underway, and that our will to continue on the journey is strong.

But we can only continue down that path with public support.

If New Zealanders want the growing opportunity, security, and fairness which this Labour-led government has brought, then they will need to vote for it.

The alternative is a return to the policies of division and despair of the 1990s which caused so much heartache across our communities.

Those forces of division have reared their head again in the wake of the now infamous Orewa speech.

That is what moved the Anglican and Catholic bishops to speak out five days ago.

I believe they spoke out because of that same sense of social solidarity which led to the launch of the Hikoi of Hope.

I also believe that New Zealanders yearn for a nation which has a unity of purpose, which celebrates its successes and its strengths, and gives fellow citizens across our communities a fair go.

Perceptions have been fostered by right wing parties that some New Zealanders, namely Maori, are better off than others.

That’s hard to sustain when one looks at the levels of unemployment, poor health, low educational attainment, and poor housing in Maoridom.

What the National Party now seems to resent is that Labour in government is trying to address those very serious problems in the national interest, as indeed it did in the past, albeit with less generosity and success.

This opposition attack is a new and disturbing development.

What it shatters is an informal consensus which has operated across governments of both kinds for many years about how to deal with disparities between communities.

From the earliest days of the old Department of Maori Affairs, there were programmes designed to promote more equality of opportunity for Maori.

In the late twentieth and early 21st centuries, Maori providers have been funded to ensure that nationwide strategies to lift educational achievement, health standards, and many other indicators can also be effective for Maoridom.

Now it appears that all these positive initiatives are being questioned, and that that informal consensus has been shattered.

That does not call for a U-turn by Labour and there will not be one. What we will do is address the concerns and questions which the current debate has seen genuine people raising. It would be both irresponsible and insensitive not to be listening to that.

We believe in fairness and equality of opportunity for all New Zealanders.

What we will do is go back through all our policies to assure ourselves that they do indeed promote those values and are responsive to the needs of all our communities.

Where I believe perceptions of unfairness can arise is where policies move from a population focus to an individual benefit.

For example, education spending targeted into low decile schools, which in many communities have a significant proportion of Maori students, serves to lift performance across whole communities.

Spending targeted into individual scholarships available only to members of specified groups can be seen to be unfair and should be re-examined.

If there is to be any good come from the gross and unpleasant Orewa speech, it may be that we can get the facts out on the table and encourage an informed debate about the kind of society we want.

For I am very clear about the kind of New Zealand I want to develop.

I don’t want to return to the unfairness and the nastiness and the division of the 1990s.

I do want to keep on addressing the key planks of the Hikoi of Hope and making life better for ordinary people across all New Zealand’s communities. But our government can’t achieve that if New Zealand’s indigenous people are left behind as a marginalised community, permanently worse off than everyone else.

I strongly believe that our future lies together.

I know that people around the world have looked at New Zealand as an example of a country which has endeavoured to recognise the status of indigenous people and build an inclusive society.

Many at home and abroad have seen the renewed focus on the Treaty of Waitangi as a strength and an asset, not as a liability.

These past few weeks, offshore observers, like many of us at home, have wondered why New Zealand is suddenly turning itself inside out.

My commitment to New Zealanders is clear.

I believe that one of the fundamental duties of leadership is to bring people together, not to drive them apart.

We are a nation of many peoples, and we must respect and value them all. Our nation is likely to become more, not less diverse.

I came into politics to work for a more just society. I know that to achieve that we also have to build a stronger economy. It is to these ends that I have devoted a political career which has stretched over more than thirty years, including more than 22 in Parliament.

I am not going to stand by and see a cynical and manipulative opposition set out to destroy what our government together with New Zealanders has been busy repairing for four and a quarter years.

Nor do I believe a return to the bad old days of the 1990s is what New Zealanders want. Hikois of Hope would become annual and increasingly hopeless events if the forces behind the policies of the 1990s were let loose again.

We live in a democracy and the choices are clear.

We can go forward together – or we can rip ourselves apart.

We have recent experiences of both paths. The decision about which to take will be in New Zealanders’ hands next year.

I know where I stand.

I know where my government stands.

A debate about the future of New Zealand has been launched.

I say : bring it on.

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