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Don Brash Speech: Building a Better Future


Don Brash National Party Leader

Address to National Party Lower North Island Regional Conference:

Building a Better Future

This is the second National Party Regional Conference that I have had the privilege of addressing in my capacity as Leader of the National Party.

This morning, I bring you both good news and bad.

The good news is that we have had a great start to 2004. I want to thank all of those who have contributed to that start, and who have worked so hard to turn it into membership, money and above all, support for the National Party. In particular, I want to thank Patricia Morrison and her team for their work in this region, and President Judy Kirk for her tremendous support during a demanding period.

The bad news is that it is only a start. We have a long road ahead of us. In this region we have a huge challenge ahead of us. No major political party can expect to govern this country without much stronger constituency and list representation in this region than we obtained in 2002. And we need constituency representation in the capital. But at least we can see very clearly now where the road leads.

A National or National-led Government some time in 2005 is now a very real possibility.

I have spoken at hundreds of meetings since I entered Parliament, and have had the pleasure of visiting numerous towns throughout New Zealand in the course of my provincial tour to explain the Treaty issues raised at Orewa.

After each speech, I usually get the opportunity to meet with the audience, discuss issues, hear people's concerns, listen to their ideas. It has been a wonderful experience, from which I have learned much.

I have been impressed by the ability of New Zealanders to debate highly contentious issues in a reasonable way, to express deeply held convictions with passion, while acknowledging that there are other ways of viewing the world. Sometimes reasonable people can agree to disagree.

New Zealanders possess a fundamental decency and commonsense. It is interesting that in the immediate aftermath of Orewa, it took many in the media several weeks to realise this - to realise that the public were alarmed by the direction in which Government policies were taking this country, and that the public welcomed the debate and wanted it to be conducted rationally.

And it is also clear - and I will come back to this shortly - that the issues we want debated are much broader than just those surrounding the Treaty.

Of all the discussions I have had, one stands out above all the others.

On that occasion, I had given a speech largely about economic issues - and they were quite narrowly economic issues at that.

I was approached by a woman after that speech, and without introduction, or any conversational preliminaries, she simply said "bring my children home".

I must say her comment shook me a bit.

By contrast to the speech I had just given, it was a simple but eloquent expression of an emotion, of an anxiety, that many of us have felt.

And the thought has stayed with me like no other comment I have encountered on my tours around New Zealand.

Because surely all of us have wondered what is happening to our country when so many Kiwis have decided to move overseas; when so many families are now scattered around the world; where visiting your children or grandchildren, or having them visit you, involves an overseas trip.

And if what it takes for a grandparent to see their children and grandchildren involves international travel, then it is clear that for all except the relatively well off, family contacts will be ripped to shreds in a society that is becoming increasingly splintered.

>From talking to New Zealanders, it is clear there are many aspects of the way New Zealand is developing that concern them.

Part of it is economic - we don't seem to be able to generate jobs that pay enough, and we grossly overtax hard-working people.

Part of it reflects inadequacies in our social policies: our hospitals are cash-strapped, our education system is not working for a good quarter of our children, and although we have had moderately strong economic growth and low unemployment, we still have around 330,000 working age adults dependent on welfare.

Part of it reflects the fact that our communities are becoming fractured: we have gone soft on crime, and are reaping the consequences; our families are struggling to cope while this Government overtaxes them and wastes the money; our families are scattered; and we are under investing in crucial infrastructure such as roading, partly because we allow environmental extremists to block needed investment.

Part of our malaise is that we have allowed the goodwill symbolised by the Treaty settlement process to be swamped in a riot of race-based political correctness.

I want today to discuss some of these aspects of the problems facing our society, because addressing them will be the priority for the next National Government.

Consider first some of the economic aspects which drive people away from New Zealand.

Why can't we generate income levels that match countries such as Australia?

The incomes we earn are a consequence of the productivity of our economy - of our businesses and of the government.

We will be a higher productivity nation, and thus a nation which can afford to pay all our people better wages: * If we are working with state of the art capital, not aging and inadequate equipment - and that requires business investment; * If we are well-educated; * If we work in an environment with excellent infrastructure, reflected in efficient ports, airports, telecommunications, and road and rail transport; * If we work in a relatively low cost regulatory environment, which doesn't block investment or undermine property rights; * If our businesses operate in a labour market environment which allows them to adjust at relatively low cost to changes in business conditions; * If our welfare system does not systematically undermine the incentive to work.

And I think it is plain that we are failing in most of these areas, or that we could very easily do so much better.

Consider what this Government is doing to the labour market. Against the advice of expert bodies such as the OECD and our own Treasury, Labour is continuing to unwind the gains we have made.

We didn't get our current low unemployment rate by regulating the labour market. So it is bizarre that New Zealand should try to imitate the industrial relations law of European countries, where unemployment rates are stuck at around 10%. While Labour hopes to emulate their failed policies, in Europe they're busy trying to repair the self-inflicted damage.

The new Holidays Act came into force on April 1 - and in spite of how it turned out, it was not intended as an April Fools' Day joke. The Act means that employers must pay staff a minimum of time-and-a-half for work on a public holiday, as well as offering a day in lieu. In other words, the rate is double time-and-a-half.

There are other aspects of the Act which will be costly, but let's just focus on this aspect for a moment.

According to the Restaurant Association, about 30% of restaurants and cafes which normally would have opened on Good Friday or Easter Monday stayed closed. Approximately another 20% intended to stay open, but operate with fewer staff. Virtually all of those that did open introduced surcharges to cover their costs, generally at around the 15% mark.

Thus, the immediate effect of the legislation was a substantial reduction in employment over that weekend. The Government has eliminated the Easter weekend jobs of thousands of employees, while artificially increasing the pay of some. Usually the re-regulation of labour markets takes years to destroy jobs. This Government managed to wipe jobs out virtually overnight.

It represents a step back to the days when New Zealand was closed at the weekend. And we are gradually learning of the adverse consequences for other industries - most don't get to choose when they are open for business: cherry fruit exporters, hospitals, support services for the elderly, and so on. Many race meetings occur on public holidays. Virtually every week organisations and businesses are discovering they now face a massive hike in costs.

And the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill, now before a Select Committee, will, if passed in anything like its present form, do vastly more damage to the prospects for the New Zealand economy and, by so doing, hurt employment and reduce the incomes that workers can earn. As with the Holidays Act, a few will benefit but most workers will be harmed - and many of them will not even realise it, as they will simply find it harder to find a job and will get lower wage increases than otherwise.

None of this is necessary. If we are charitable and assume that the Holidays Act and the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill are being put in place with the best of intentions, rather than as the sop to Labour's union friends that they appear to be, then they are totally misconceived. They are based on the fantasy that government can simply dial up an income for people. The reality is that governments can at best create an environment in which businesses create well-paying jobs. This Government is destroying that environment with almost every new piece of legislation.

These two pieces of legislation are based on a public sector, glide time mentality, typical of a group of ministers who have spent their entire working lives in the public sector.

This Government is putting in place labour laws appropriate to the 1950s public sector, not to a modern economy.

But there are many other ways of slowing down income growth. And Labour has discovered them all.

Consider our infrastructure.

Two words sum up the overall problem: road construction.

Three letters illustrate the core of the problem: RMA.

And two political parties are responsible for nothing being done: Labour and the Greens.

Five years of dithering and negotiation between Labour and the Greens have left gridlock on our roads in many parts of New Zealand, including Auckland, the Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Wellington. Unwillingness to update and reform the Resource Management Act has meant that, even when the funds are available, the roads are not built. Nor is the electricity generating capacity that will soon be needed. A country with second-rate transport infrastructure and an uncertain supply of energy is a low productivity, low-income nation.

So is an over-regulated society. The Government is interfering in every aspect of our lives. Helen Clark is building a nanny state.

The statute book contains around 2,000 public, local and private Acts. It comprises 89 volumes and about 65,000 pages. How many of these are really in the public interest? The weight of regulation hugely increases business costs and uncertainty. Our regulatory environment wastes vast amounts of time, energy and capital as businesses struggle to keep up. Small businesses just have to hope they don't unwittingly collide with a regulation they didn't know about. The RMA in particular is a massive roadblock to development in New Zealand. And with the Treaty-related features that have been rammed into the Act, it is a major source of racial tension in New Zealand.

Reforming the RMA, reducing the burden of regulation on business, cutting red tape, and setting in train a sustained decline in the tax burden faced by hard-working New Zealanders will be major priorities for the next National Government.

But the issues we are discussing are not just economic. We know we can lift the incomes of all New Zealanders with growth-oriented economic policies.

But there is more to a nation than a job and a decent income - although that makes a great start.

What else do we need?

Well, we need to do much better with our social policies. We need to reduce taxes on struggling families, not build new Family Commission bureaucracies. We need to be sceptical about politicians whose first instinct is to build another bureaucracy instead of allowing people to keep the money they have worked so hard to earn.

When we read, as we have recently, of struggling single-income families - still finding it difficult to get ahead, in spite of earning a good income - we should be appalled that their taxes are being used to fund hip-hop tours of the world, polytechnic courses in twilight golf, personal grooming or Maori language sing-along courses, or any other of the multitude of nonsensical government sponsored programmes. National will take an axe to these programmes, and return the taxes to those who have earned them.

We need to be much more focused on whether our communities have adequate infrastructure to cater for community needs. What about the crucial infrastructure embedded in our schools and hospitals? Helen Clark was content to ignore community needs while the school closures were underway, only moving to stop the closures when the polls turned sour earlier this year.

In healthcare, the potential productivity gains from new technology are immense, but our bureaucratically managed, centrally directed and cash-strapped hospitals are not in a position to take advantage of these opportunities.

If our economy does not generate first world incomes, then we won't get first world health and education services, and won't be able to pay adequate salaries to those who work in the education and health sectors.

All these issues are inter-related.

I have major concerns about these and other areas of social policy. Our education system is failing a good 25% of children, and most of the rest could be doing much better. If education is the ticket to a better future, many of our children won't be making the trip.

Our welfare system is a national scandal, a human tragedy and a social time bomb. Traditional Kiwi values are being destroyed by a growing government-funded culture of welfare dependency.

There is a significant section of our community that is locked into welfare dependency, whose children are largely failing in our education system, and who are over-represented in the rising levels of criminal activity in this country. And Maori are tragically over-represented in those statistics. It is plain that what we are doing is not working. We need a new agenda.

Our attitudes to law enforcement are a failure.

Who does our legal system protect: the criminal or the victim? What happens when people step over that line which forms the boundary between honest and criminal activity, between civilised behaviour and that which preys on the community? At the moment, not much. Our Courts are overloaded; people don't even bother to turn up for their community work sentences; we have a methamphetamine epidemic; and we badly need to revamp the Proceeds of Crime Act and our parole system.

As a country, we have gone soft on crime, and we are reaping the consequences. The next National Government will stand entirely in support of the victims of criminal acts, and decisively against the criminal.

We must be concerned about what these social trends are doing to our communities. Are they safe? Is our policing effective? Can our children walk to school without a parent as guard?

We organise ourselves in voluntary and cooperative ways to meet our various enthusiasms for sport and culture, through the mechanism of clubs and associations, and through charitable groups and churches, to provide for those of our needs which are best met collectively. Is our emerging nanny state regulating these essential community activities to death? Are we to prosecute the organiser of a cycle race because a participant may neglect to take due care? Will excessive safety requirements mean that school trips and camps are a thing of the past? Are we insisting on so many trivial rules and safeguards that our children are not getting the lessons that life provides: how to look after yourself, how to explore, how to pick yourself up after a setback, how to cope with failure or defeat?

I mention these things because the regulations that government places on these activities can dramatically influence the way our communities evolve, and very often for the worse. Sometimes we just need the government to get out of our lives.

>From talking to New Zealanders from all walks of life this year, I know that my concerns about economic issues, about the direction of our social policies, and about the fracturing of our communities and families are widely held.

And we all surely know by now that the public is profoundly concerned that the commendable process of settling Treaty grievances has become wildly out of control. Race-based political correctness is undermining the institutions of our society.

It is clear that most New Zealanders are fed up with having bi-culturalism rammed down their throats and drilled into their children. This is simply madness, and it must be stopped.

We are not all the same. There is no more a Maori view of the world than there is a non-Maori view. Nobody has the right to claim to speak for any group, unless elected to do so. We all have different preferences, interests, beliefs and sympathies.

The issues facing us are not just about the economy, they are not just about growth and jobs and incomes, or about government social programmes, nor are they just about the Treaty. The real issues are about the way we live - about our communities, our aspirations, our security, the education of our children, the care of our elderly, the preservation of our environment.

We need to reinvigorate our society if we are to create the sort of place that will be attractive to our children and grandchildren, a society that will allow them to meet their aspirations here in New Zealand.

Can we catch up with the rest of the world? Of course we can. There is not the slightest need to be defeatist about the challenge.

There is so much, so easily identifiable, to be done.

And most of it is so easy to do.

We have no need for any thunderbolt of reform. That was done, and in the past. Rather, we simply have to patiently build on and improve what we have.

And what an extraordinary base that is. We are a stable democracy, and relatively wealthy by world standards. We live in a country of outstanding natural beauty. We have a population of wonderful diversity and talent. As a nation, our finest have achieved at the highest levels in the sciences, in business, in the arts and in sport. And we keep doing so with such regularity that it is easy to become complacent about it.

But not everybody gets ahead in this country.

It need not be that way. With a bit of imagination and a lot more resolve, the opportunities available to most can be available to all.

And we are also a fundamentally decent people: taxpayers who had nothing to do with the trauma of early colonial days in New Zealand have been willing to fund Treaty settlements with the descendants of those who were harmed.

But we need to quickly finish those Treaty settlements and move on.

There is a dismal lack of imagination from this besieged Labour Government, an unwillingness to debate issues, a fear of new ideas, a fundamental gutlessness in standing up to the challenges we face. We will change that.

We need to get serious again, not sweep problems under the carpet. We need some determination, some imagination, and a bit of backbone.

There is plenty at stake in the political battle we face over the coming sixteen months. I don't believe that New Zealanders are prepared to put up with mediocre aspirations for themselves or for their children; they are not indifferent to the levels of taxation they face or the way this Government wastes their taxes on second-rate spending programmes; they want to live in a dynamic economy which will deliver them and their families well-paying jobs, and first-class education and healthcare, not a society falling further behind the rest of the world.

We want to make our own choices within our communities, to engage in activities of our choosing, to be able to influence local decisions, to choose our own lifestyles, to live at a pace that suits us, not on the terms of some grand view handed down by government. We want an ability to influence the way our local environment and communities evolve. We want to exercise choice.

This is the sort of New Zealand the National Party represents and will be fighting for at the next election.

And I hope one day to meet again that woman who said, "bring my children home".

And she can tell me how well the next National Government will have done.

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