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A Birthday To End All Birthdays

A Birthday To End All Birthdays

Heather Roy Speech to ACT Tamaki mid-winter dinner; Tamaki Yacht Club; Friday June 25, 2004;

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for inviting me to your mid-winter dinner.

It is a privilege to be asked to speak tonight, and I do it with some humility given that your ACT MP is Ken Shirley - Ken's breadth of knowledge is so great that he can give a speech on almost any subject at a moment's notice. I am pleased to say that he is very generous with his knowledge, and has been of great assistance to me as I learn the ropes in Parliament.

My own area of expertise is health although - in the nature of a small party where we all have to cover many portfolio areas - it is necessary to go outside my own comfort zone and comment on a range of subjects. One of my other areas is ACC, and I shall come to this shortly.

First, however, I would like to make mention of birthday celebrations. Birthday parties are a big deal in our house. Our 16 year-old isn't much bothered with them these days, but our 13 and 12 year-old girls spend months planning every last detail. Then, when their's are over, they begin planning parties for their younger brothers - right down to the party food and the contents of the `loot bags' that those lucky enough to be invited will take home to remember the occasion. In this respect, my family is very like ACC, but with one exception - the cost.

ACC recently celebrated its 30^th birthday - 30 years of, aparently, "Kiwi's helping Kiwi's". It was quite a bash, with the total bill coming in at over three quarters of a million dollars - $795,000. Here's how the money - collected from levies paid by Kiwi businesses and earners - was spent.

The organisation began with some Internal spending:

• $11,000 for staff morning teas

• $7,000 on promotional items for staff

• $17,000 on a 30^th anniversary poster (including framing) - one for each of ACCs 54 business units

• $4,000 for a staff video with a 30^th anniversary theme

• $8,500 for a function for those with 25 years of service.

A total of $90,000. One could argue that this is a small price to pay to be a good employer. Rewarding hard work is, of course, worthy.

But, then, things got a bit out of hand when the external spending started:

• $31,000 for a 30^th year booklet covering ACC's development since its inception, and what it means to New Zealanders.

• $28,700 for a First Day Cover - stamps. My understanding has always been that stamps are the Post Office's business. ACC's answer is that other organisations do it, so why shouldn't they? This came shortly after the comment that ACC's function is to prevent injury and rehabilitate those who have suffered an injury.

• $8,000 on a new logo. No-one has been able to explain what was wrong with the old one.

• $113,000 on stakeholder presentations around the country. Ken was invited to one of these.

• $54,000 on display material for external events

But worst of all, the thing that first alerted me to the spend up: $470,000 on a three-week advertising campaign - pamphlets delivered to homes and full page advertisements with graphic pictures of accident victims, comparing New Zealand with Australia, and New Zealand with the US. This was an almost half a million dollar self-congratulation campaign - a huge pat on the back for an organisation that is funded by the taxpayer and which has no competition. There is no choice for Kiwis, and this is an organisation that discriminates against those suffering as a result of illness as opposed to injury.

It is interesting to note just how far $795,000 would go, had it been spent on operations that the public health system is struggling to provide. It could have purchased 360 knee cartilage repairs, or 61 hip replacement operations, or 54 knee replacements. Those at home in pain on waiting lists feel particularly agrieved about this spending. I know, because just about all of them have written to me.

Understandably, ACC was reluctant to talk about the birthday bash. The agency declined to appear on the `Holmes' show with me two weeks ago, so Paul Holmes allocated them an empty chair - the chair of unavailability - in Wellington's Beehive studio. So, after a thorough roasting in the media, the story rested there.

There is, however, a sequel. After the Budget, Government Ministers appear before Select Committees to be questioned about the Estimates - their spending plans for the coming financial year. As luck would have it, ACC Minister Ruth Dyson and ACC officials were timetabled to appear shortly after I released these figures. I was able to question them about the birthday spending. I have to report they were unrepentant, and the CEO called my "pat on the back" claims dopey. But - if the media and the large number of Kiwis who wrote to me are to be believed - it is ACC who is dopey. The only concession they made was to jokingly tell the committee that the 31^st birthday wouldn't be quite as lavish as the 30^th.

One of the questions I am frequently asked is "Can you achieve anything as an opposition backbencher?" In Opposition, it is ACTs job to hold the Government to account. We must ensure that taxpayers' money is spent wisely - if it is not, we bring it to the public's attention.

So what is ACT's answer to ACC? Our basic philosophy answers this simply: choice, achieved through competition. The employers' account could easily be opened to competition again - just as it was for nine months at the end of the National Party's last term in government. Injury numbers declined - as did the levies - in that short space of time.

There are also many who question the fairness of the entire ACC regime. Kiwi's might well be better off with health insurance that covers both illness and injury, and gives the right to take legal action. But that is another story.

As Minister Dyson and ACC officials rose to leave the Select Committee, they presented me with birthday party loot: bumper stickers, complete with the new $8,000 logo. This leaves me with a problem. Bumper stickers weren't on my list of birthday goodies - now I'm going to have to ask the Minister how much you and I forked out for them. I'll keep you posted.

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