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Fitzsimons Speech: What Happened to New Millennium


What happened to the new millennium?

Speech by Jeanette Fitzsimons to the Green Party Campaign Conference

Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 2pm

I want you to think back five years to late 1999. It was a time when the Green Party first entered the House in its own name and Labour came to power promising “a new start” for New Zealand. It was the turn of the millennium. People turned out to celebrate the dawn of a new century and the formation of a new government. We had abandoned Ship-ley and rejected Bolger, Richardson and Douglas, and everything they stood for. We were filled with hope that New Zealand could be a vibrant, confident, sustainable, fair and inclusive place.

How did you feel as you watched the millennium dawn? Do you still feel the same way now?

For a while, it seemed the change was real. Remember those early initiatives in Labour’s first term. Stopping the logging on the West Coast. Narrowly averting the first GE release and setting up a moratorium. Setting up a new climate change office and an Energy Efficiency Authority. Repealing the Employment Contracts Act and creating a new industrial relations climate. Raising the minimum wage for the first time in two years. Reintroducing income-related rents for state housing. Supporting the arts and a national identity we could all be proud of. These were all measures which the Greens proudly supported, and in several cases initiated, as part of a move towards making New Zealand a fairer, gentler, cleaner place.

But, towards the end of this government’s second term, as Labour veers right to head off the threat it perceives from National, I am left pondering many questions. What has happened to the momentum of those early days? Is there really nothing left to do? Is it really time to hand back the reins to National or to fold philosophically in the face of its backward-looking, divisive arguments? I don’t think so. We can do better than that. Labour can do better than that. New Zealand deserves better than that.

The Fifth Labour Government was supposed to be the dawn of a more compassionate, more egalitarian, more inclusive age. And, for a time, it was. But now, when Don Brash attacks Maori or beneficiaries, Labour doesn’t stand up for them. Labour acquiesces in Brash’s mean-spirited vision for New Zealand and rushes to amend its own policies accordingly. It’s clear that, If Labour wants to continue to govern with purpose, it needs a renewal. It needs the reinvigoration that Green ideas would bring. It needs to recapture the spirit of the millennium.

Our most urgent global challenges

This Wednesday, there will be a historic event. After twelve painful and patient years of negotiation, the first-ever international treaty to try to limit climate change will come into force. I was there at Kyoto in 1997 when it was drafted and there in The Hague in 2000 when it was almost agreed to. I know the extreme difficulty of getting sovereign nations to agree to even small steps to control their energy appetites. To their shame, the US and Australia still haven’t.

British Green MEP Caroline Lucas has referred to the US and Australia as “rogue states” because of their reckless disregard of the future of human civilisation as we know it. She has called on other countries to impose levies on US exports because they are effectively receiving an environmental subsidy and should pay the full costs of their behaviour. On Thursday, I delivered a letter to the embassies of those two countries, asking them to reconsider their positions in the light of recent information that serious climate change is much closer than anyone thought in 1997 or even 2000. Both of them invited us back for further discussions and the US Deputy Chief of Mission freely admitted the new information is disturbing.

Recent reports have shown melting of the polar ice, cracking of Antarctic ice sheets, thawing of the tundra, increased acidity of the oceans, more frequent extreme climatic events, and increased areas of drought are all proceeding faster than predicted. New projections suggest that we may have as little as ten years to stabilise warming and that what we do after that may be ineffective.

Yet, in the fact of all this evidence, what has the Government chosen to be the flagship of our international reputation at the World Expo in Aichi this year? Coal. Jim Anderton defended the choice in Parliament this week, claiming that coal is now clean. Solid Energy, the owner of coal mines that would put Mordor to shame, which discharges toxic heavy metals and acid and sediments into rivers and streams, that produces the most climate changing fuel there is, has been declared sustainable, and fit to showcase New Zealand exports at an Expo with the theme “Nature’s Wisdom”, focussing on new directions for solving global-scale environmental problems.

Climate change and the approaching end of cheap oil make energy policy the most important economic issue facing the country but you will never hear that from the Government. It was telling that, in Helen Clark’s speech last week at the opening of Parliament, she did not mention the environment, climate change, or peak oil once. It was even more telling that when the Minister for the Environment and the Minister of Conservation spoke in the debate that followed, neither of them mentioned the environment either. The ecological basis of our lives and the most urgent global issues of our times – climate change and peak oil – just don’t rate highly on Labour’s agenda. Only the Greens put these issues before the House, and that is why any future Labour Government will need the Greens pulling it towards sustainable, long-term thinking.

Sharing our prosperity

But, significantly, it is not just the planet that Labour has abandoned. It is also many of our nation’s people. Many ordinary New Zealanders who were, not long ago, part of Labour’s traditional constituency, have been left behind in the rush for prosperity.

The Greens campaigned last election to end child poverty. Labour’s answer, the Working for Families package, helps the children of low-paid workers but leaves the children of beneficiaries as poor as ever. The Government has acknowledged that Working for Families helps only one-third of children currently estimated to be in poverty. When Sue Bradford asked Steve Maharey about this in the House this week, he responded that Working for Families had brought New Zealand into line with Scandinavia and Holland. So, the Government has no plans to do anything for those other two-thirds. Well, that is not good enough. We can do better. No Kiwi kids should be left to live in poverty, and the Greens will work to ensure these kids are not forgotten.

In housing policy, income-related rents for state housing is all we have seen in five years. But this only helps a quarter of low-income families. Three times as many low-income families are in private rental accommodation as state houses. Households paying more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing are internationally recognised as living beyond their means. In New Zealand, a third of all tenants pay more than 40 percent.

This is significant because housing costs may be the single-biggest contributor to poverty for families who missed out on Working for Families. Children don’t make it to school because their parents don’t have the money to buy school uniforms. Their education is disrupted as families move from temporary home to temporary home. Often the choice is between paying the rent and getting food on the table. Often the result is malnourished kids. That is not good enough. We can do better.

Accommodation allowances often just raise rents so there is really no alternative to an accelerated programme of building or buying more state rental houses, using all the creative ideas we can muster to accommodate different family sizes and structures, providing for sweat equity and community sector involvement.

But it’s not only the cost of housing that’s concerning, it’s the appalling conditions some families are living in. Overcrowded, damp, and cold conditions keep people chronically ill. We need to speed up the insulation, damp proofing and energy improvement of low-income housing . The benefits are significantly improved health and child learning as well as energy conservation.

We’re talking here of people on invalid and sickness benefits, of the unemployed, of migrants and refugees, of people recovering from mental illness. We’re talking of low-paid workers with no children whose wages are not subsidised by the state. We’re talking of the voiceless who have been left out of New Zealand’s rising prosperity. Someone needs to stand up for, and speak up for, these voiceless people. There is only one party left to do this standing up and this speaking up. That party is the Greens.

And to offer just one example of what the Greens are doing at the moment: we’re campaigning as strongly as we can in Parliament for the needs and rights of homecare and rest-home workers, whose wages are minimal and in some cases almost non existent, who are mainly women, and who carry out a job that is becoming increasingly vital as our population ages.

Barriers to “an ownership society”

Last week, in her state of the nation speech, Helen Clark announced her commitment to “an ownership society, in which every family has a stake and sees a future”. No-one would oppose the idea of everyone having the opportunity to seek the security of owning their own homes, but other Labour policies are making such a dream impossible for many Kiwis.

With house prices rising 46 percent in the last three years and average wages rising just seven percent in the same period, most people are being forced out of the market. Both AMP’s general manager and Westpac’s chief economist have said publicly that wages are falling far behind house prices. Since Labour came to power, wages have risen an average of 2.4 percent a year, not even keeping up with inflation. That’s extraordinary under a Labour government. We need to bite the bullet and raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Even that is very hard to live on. Anything less is just not good enough. We can do better.

At the same time as this real decrease in average wages, the CEOs of 25 large companies sampled increased their remuneration by 25 percent in just one year. But, unlike today’s first home buyers, those CEOs probably got their education while it was still largely free. How are today’s young graduates to fully engage with Helen Clark’s “ownership society” if they are still struggling to pay back their student loans? They cannot afford homes, they cannot afford to have children, and many of them are deciding they cannot afford to stay in New Zealand. When that happens, we all lose.

But student debt isn't just an economic issue, it's also an educational one. Because there's a startling fact about what student debt is doing to our young people's education that this country isn’t facing up to or speaking out about. As student debt rises, crippling our young people's ability to concentrate on their studies, the quality of their education is suffering.

When the student loan system was introduced, I was teaching at Auckland University. Some of my best students couldn't afford to keep studying. Others struggled to stay awake in classes after waiting tables till the early hours the night before. Others told me about the daily choice between bus fares and food.

It's clear that the student loan scheme is forcing students into working longer and longer hours in paid employment. This means they simply don't have enough time to devote to their studies. A recent NZUSA survey found that full-time students put in an average of 13 hours a week of paid employment. Many work twenty hours a week or more. If you add to that the around 45 hours a week full-time students are supposed to put into their studies, you realise there just aren't enough hours in the day for students to get everything done. It’s their studies, and thus the quality of our graduates, that inevitably suffer.

Something is going desperately wrong with the Government’s tertiary education policy when lecturers can't even expect their students to read set texts before class because they're too busy working part-time jobs. Something is going desperately wrong when students are falling asleep in class, exhausted from the treadmill onto which the student loan scheme has thrust them. And something is going desperately wrong when students are treading water rather than striving to meet their academic potential because they simply haven't the time to do their best.

If this continues, the consequences will be dire. The education of this generation of students will become more and more devalued, endangering this country's human capital, and ultimately our social, economic, and educational future. Our graduates will become associated with mediocrity, not excellence. And students moving into the workforce will know a lot about how to juggle time but not enough about the specific field in which they have been studying.

There are ways to head off this catastrophic development. All full-time students should be eligible for a living allowance, set at the level of the unemployment benefit. This would allow students to concentrate on the thing that matters the most to this country's future: their education. A universal student allowance would illustrate the importance we place on the intellectual development of our country. It would say: we value our young people and want them to have the best education possible, for all our sakes.

That, and the capping of fees, is the most important thing to do for present and future students. But we must also ease the burden of debt on those who have already graduated. The Greens propose a new deal where debt would be gradually erased for each year a graduate stays in the country and contributes to the New Zealand economy and society.

Labour’s “ownership society” seems to be another attempt to occupy the middle ground, in order to leave Brash with nowhere to go. This is quite smart strategy, but it leaves the most vulnerable of Labour’s own constituency abandoned. Luckily, they do have somewhere else to go. The Greens are committed to ensuring all New Zealanders share in the prosperity of our country.

Kiwi values

Labour and National are both, in their own way, pushing growth in GDP as the priority goal for government. Hardly a day goes past without Parliament being lectured by one or the other on moving up the OECD league table, but only for incomes. We are actually in the top half of the OECD for environmental quality, for education, for open space, and for recreational opportunities. These are achievements of which New Zealand should be proud. These quality-of-life considerations don’t rate with Government, but they certainly do with ordinary New Zealanders.

The Government’s flagship Growth and Innovation Council carried out a survey last year on Kiwis’ attitudes to economic growth. What it shows is that New Zealanders are too smart and too broad-minded to be taken in by simplistic calls for more growth. When asked what is most important to them, Kiwis’ top four factors were quality of life, quality of the natural environment, quality of education, and the public health system. The level of economic growth, and even wages and salaries, were further down the chart.

Other questions asked cast some light on this holistic view of quality of life that Kiwis hold. Substantial majorities said economic growth would not improve the balance between work and family, but would increase traffic and congestion, the gap between rich and poor, personal stress, resource limitations, a more materialistic culture, and damage to the environment. So when politicians chant “top half of OECD”, Kiwis are saying “show us a different ladder. We are keen to improve our lives but we measure our success differently.”

This is what the Green Party has been saying ever since we were formed. Kiwis’ values are our values. Kiwis’ dreams and aspirations are our dreams and aspirations. To improve our quality of life, there are many things we can do. We can choose growth in public transport rather than building more motorways and driving more SUVs. We can develop industrial relations that allow all Kiwis more time to spend with their families and to have a more humane work/life balance. We can choose solar energy rather than coal. We can help our students concentrate on their studies rather than making ends meet. We can eat organic food rather than chemical fodder. We can provide all low-income Kiwis with humane housing. And we can develop high-tech/high-skill industries rather than smokestacks.

For many Kiwis, GDP has come to stand for greed, division and pollution. The Anglican Church agrees. It has told its members, in the book Sharing God’s Planet, that “the project of growth without limit has to be curtailed”. It warns of ecological devastation if growth continues and points out that the social injustices of growth are already with us, saying “two-thirds of the world doesn’t have enough to eat while the other third is trying to lose weight”.

That’s why we’re committed to pushing Labour towards developing new indicators to measure success – holistic indicators of quality of life like housing, water quality, education levels, reduction in diabetes – rather than just the size of the economy. And we’re committed to pushing Labour towards using these quality of life indicators proudly. And we’re confident that New Zealanders agree with us. Because, ultimately, our values are New Zealand’s values.

Voters who signed up to Labour’s social democratic vision in 1999 need to be crystal clear about the choices this year. Labour seems to have no problem consorting with parties with dated, authoritarian and conservative social values. If Labour is comfortable with United Future and NZ First’s views of society – backward looking, prejudiced and divisive – then who will they not consort with? Voters who believe in that vision for the new millennium have to give the Greens the numbers to make that vision a reality.

Labour came into government with a heart, a soul and a social conscience. Five years of poll-driven politics have drained it of all three. Only the Greens can re-inject the spirit of the millennium and the vision of a fairer, gentler, cleaner society into what has become a tired, rudderless government.


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