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Cullen Speech To Labour Congress

Cullen Speech To Labour Congress

Fellow members,

Less than six months from now we face the challenge of attempting to do what we have not done since 1943 – achieving a third term in government.

And Helen Clark will be attempting what no single Labour leader has ever done: win three elections in a row.

Despite the massive choice for voters that MMP seems to offer, at the end of the day it will come down to a single question: do the people want a Labour-led government or a National-led one?

To frame the same question a different way: will New Zealanders believe Labour or National deserves to lead the next government? Will they believe Labour or National will do the better job of governing?

We may think the answer to those questions is obvious. But democratic history is littered with oppositions who in government thought it was obvious they should be reelected. We have under six months to ensure that most New Zealanders continue to answer those questions in the affirmative as far as we are concerned.

I believe that the reasons we can give to persuade New Zealanders to vote for us come in four categories: principles, policies, leadership, and competence.

I put principles first deliberately. The polls may tell us leadership and competence are our strongest points, but leadership and competence without principles are like the National Party with them or Act without a scandal: an unnatural and incredible combination.

For the first and most important thing this party in government over the last five and a half years can claim it is that we have governed with principles. We have not said one thing and then done another. We have not ducked those hard issues where our principles are not always popular with everyone.

Most importantly, we have asserted and acted in accordance with the principles of promoting the wellbeing of the greatest number of New Zealanders, particularly those for whom strong and effective government is crucial to security and opportunity.

We were told this would destroy economic growth. We were told that repealing the Employment Contracts Act, restoring the level of the pension, promoting a more active role for government in supporting business, setting up a Superannuation Fund and providing a fairer system of student support would sap the nation of its vital juices, destroy our moral fibre, and lead to economic stagnation.

Now the same critics are left quibbling about the size of the surplus and bemoaning a tight labour market due to record unemployment. They have moved from saying we would never create jobs to complaining, in effect, that we have created too many.

Our adherence to principle can be seen also in foreign affairs. Who can doubt that if National had won in 2002 we would have unwillingly joined the coalition of the willing? There would have been no long term early childhood education programme, no phasing out of asset testing. The very old and the very young would have been the unseen conscripts in the march on Baghdad.

We can see our principles of cooperation too in the way that we have made MMP work. With successive coalitions and arrangements we have provided stable government without either surrendering our core beliefs or asking others to surrender theirs.

We have now had a long period without coalition crisis as we and our partners have delivered on our undertakings given in good faith to each other. In particular we should acknowledge our solidarity with Jim Anderton throughout the life of this government. Our pact with United Future and Peter Dunne has created stability and certainty. Their support has been crucial to our success in achieving our ambitious legislative programme. Our common ground on many key policies with the Greens has been the key to their implementation.

And, on the foreshore and seabed issue, we showed we could reach out beyond our usual partners to work productively with New Zealand First.

As the people start looking towards the next three years they will want the assurance that a government can be formed capable of going full term as an effective administration. We have the track record to demonstrate that we can do just that.

Principles, of course, should merge seamlessly into policies. We have never suffered from a lack of these! But look at what we have achieved:

Strong fiscal management which is the envy of most of the world

A fairer and more inclusive industrial relations system which has seen a big drop in litigation

The lowest unemployment rate in at least 20 years

The lowest crime rate in over 20 years

The restoration of the level of New Zealand Superannuation and the securing of its future

A new partnership to build on the growth and innovation framework

The strongest and deepest capital markets for 20 years at least

Large extensions to the conservation estate

Taking action with other nations on the issue of global warming

The strongest growth in apprenticeships and trade training for many years

The passage of the Civil Union Bill and the Statutory References Bill

Active participation in peacekeeping around the world, especially in our own region

The settling on a fair basis for all of the foreshore and seabed issue

The creation of our own final court in New Zealand.

I could go on for the rest of the day. And we are still coming forward with new ideas to build a stronger New Zealand.

In this year’s budget we will put in place further building blocks for our plan to make us a nation of savers who can own our own country. Already the Super Fund has been one of the key factors in restoring the strength of our capital markets. Then we put in place a new retirement savings scheme, supported by the government as employer, for the core state sector and teachers. Now, in the budget we will create a scheme to assist work-based savings for those not covered by the state scheme.

We cannot afford huge bribes to induce higher savings. But there will be incentives to join, we will seek to reduce the costs of administration so as to increase the return to savers, there will be minimal compliance costs for employers. And the work-based savings scheme will be linked to a necessarily modest scheme to assist more families to buy their first home and achieve the New Zealand dream.

We also face big challenges which need the realism and the heart and soul of the Labour Party to meet. Challenges which cannot be solved by either wishful thinking or freemarket brutality.

We face the very real challenge of moderating the high growth in spending that we have been able to afford over the last couple of years. A very strong economy has enabled us to implement many of our dreams in education, income support, and primary health care to name but three.

But the rate of growth in spending in last year’s budget, and to come in this year’s cannot be sustained into the indefinite future on the basis of present projections. Much of what we have already decided – in health and education, senior citizens policy, law and order, and other areas – will continue to flow through in increases for years to come.

This year’s budget will also see significant cuts in taxes for the business sector which should increase savings and growth but come at a fiscal cost.

Those who now call for massive tax cuts across the board will have to explain where the money is then going to come from to fund current programmes.

We face challenges also in reprioritising some of our spending. Nowhere is that clearer than in post-compulsory education where we must shift more spending into trades and technical training and away from lower value courses in terms of quality and relevance. We need to worry less about the number of bums on seats and more about what is going into the heads above them.

And nowhere is that challenge more acute than in education of and for Maori. Enormous success has been achieved in reconnecting many Maori with the education system and addressing the need for foundation skills. But we must back Parekura Horomia in his quest to ensure that Maori education does not become ghettoised into simply education about things Maori. We must have a full and fair ratio of Maori accountants, Maori engineers, Maori doctors, Maori plumbers, Maori maths teachers, Maori information technologists and so on.

In a society as intermingled, intermarried, and interdependent as ours there is enormous room for cultural diversity but little or no room for cultural isolation. The latter will, in the end, reinforce social and economic deprivation. Cultural diversity will undermine that deprivation as we learn to value and encourage each other to succeed.

Who else but us is going to do this? The National Party? Its spokesperson is Gerry Brownlee whose attitude to Maori is if you push them all downstairs a lucky few might stop near the top? Act? They believe the Treaty of Waitangi was a contract to create a free market economy. Or the Maori Party? Their vision for Maori is that of an ideal and non-existent past which it is the duty of the Crown under the Treaty to help recreate.

Addressing this great issue for all our people requires leadership of the highest order. It requires leadership that can unite rather than divide, leadership that understands our many different backgrounds and aspirations, leadership that is proud of us as a nation, not obsessed with others.

In Helen Clark we have that leader and in the rest of our team we have the people to support her. The people have spoken through the polls overwhelmingly – Helen Clark is the preferred Prime Minister by a wide margin.

And, collectively, we lay claim to competence. Of course we have our moments. It is in the nature of government that not everything goes smoothly. The issue is not whether problems arise but how quickly and effectively they are dealt with (or to as the case may be).

We have had a couple of doozies this year. The mess-up by NZQA of last year’s Scholarship exam came first. What we have done?

First, we adopted immediate measures to ensure, as far as we possibly could, that justice was done with respect to students. New awards were put in place and we erred on the side of generosity. Then we put together a strong reference group and as a result we now have a plan for the future which will avoid the problems of the past.

Number two problem was the fact that a highly reputable French company produced a flu vaccine which was thought to be insufficiently potent with respect to one of the three varieties we expect this winter. Within two weeks of the nature of the problem being known we have more than enough effective vaccine to meet our needs. The National spokesperson barely had time to practise his elocution before the problem was solved.

The fact is that we are a known and proven package. We deliver what we say we will. We believe in a strong economy delivering real gains to New Zealand families – higher incomes, better education, better health services, a secure retirement, a New Zealand we can all be proud of.

And then the people have to look to the other side, they have to brace themselves to consider the alternative. In National’s case let us begin with their leader for at least, unlike their principles, he can be found, if not in Parliament.

The official authorised biography of Dr Brash portrays a seriously strange and out of touch person. From the old pyjamas to the vacuuming of the concrete floor to the frozen corned beef and the whole air of slightly deranged hermetic retreat from the real world this is the oddest politician we have had on offer in New Zealand for a long time. In the end he appears to be a cross between Mr Magoo and Dr Strangelove. One can almost see him riding the nuclear bomb down to the ground yelling “gone by lunchtime.”

But, Dr Brash, New Zealanders don’t want to come along for the ride.

Once, to be fair, he had clear principles. They were the same principles the Act Party once had. The market was the source of all wisdom. Benefits should be slashed, if not abolished; the labour market should be entirely deregulated; there should be no minimum wage; schools and hospitals, indeed everything, screwed down or otherwise, should be sold.

And these views in one form or another are on record being delivered in all the usual haunts of the ultra-free market Right. They were the principles he took an 80 per cent pay cut for in 2002.

But over the last year he and the National Party have been trying to give the impression that these principles have changed. It is now to be tax cuts for all, not just the rich.

But of course the rich will get a lot more and, as a result of the squeeze on spending, those on low and modest incomes will actually end up with a lot less, much much less than under our Working for Families package.

Now, also, the Super Fund is to stay, even though Dr Brash believes it is “all smoke and mirrors”. Now New Zealand Super is to remain untouched even though Dr Brash believes it is unsustainable. Now National won’t return to the Employment Contracts Act even though Dr Brash believes labour market deregulation is crucial to high growth. Now we are to believe public health and public education will be safe in the hands of a man who believes deeply in private provision. Now we are to believe there will be no major cuts in spending when Dr Brash and his finance spokesperson argue spending is out of control (having claimed for the last two years there was plenty of fiscal room for tax cuts).

The problem here is simple. Where and who is the real Dr Brash? At least with Mr Hide there is no Dr Jekyll. What you see is unfortunately what you get, all the time. But Dr Brash has spent the last eighteen months pretending to be a different person from the one he has so publicly been for so long.

In fact the Emperor has no new clothes – only that pair of old pyjamas. And he does not feel comfortable in them.

We do know Dr Brash does not command the unified support of his caucus. Like a prematurely aged boxer Mr English is clearly in training for a rematch – but is wisely delaying it until after the election. Mr Brownlee awaits Buggins’ turn. It can only be a matter of time before Mr Richard Worth appears yet again in the pages of the National Business Review as a potential deputy leader.

We also know National has shown no skill at working with any other party for any extended period of time. In other words, they show no capacity to form a government under our electoral system. National and Act seemed to be locked in a death struggle on the outer reaches of the Right.

National and New Zealand First have a toxic relationship. New Zealand First commits the unforgivable sin of having a leader – and National commits the unforgivable sin of not worshipping him. National has foolishly savagely attacked United Future for daring to stand by its word and its principles – perhaps for National the most unforgivable sin of all.

Perhaps National can turn to the Maori Party. After all, Mrs Turia has voted happily with them on a number of key occasions. Both hark back to an ideal past that never existed – they just differ over what it was. In one there were no Maori, in the other there were no Pakeha.

And as for competence, it is best not to dwell too long in that territory. Suffice to say, if National had to sit NCEA in political competence it would be a solid array of not achieveds. It is quite simply impossible to imagine a credible Cabinet being created out of the current National Party lineup.

All that National tries to distinguish itself on is that it is less tolerant, less inclusive than Labour. On that we concede – as does Georgina te Heu Heu, Katherine Rich, and many others.

Indeed, Dr Brash cannot manage his own caucus let alone look like being able to work with others.

We go into this year’s election far from resting on our laurels. Surely, we can point to great achievements over the last five and half years. We have stabilised a country that was battered and bruised from endless restructuring followed by endless governmental instability. For we need to remind people how insecure they felt in 1999.

We have to a substantial extent won the debate over economic policy so that even Act no longer places this at the centre of its argument. We have done more to improve security and opportunity for ordinary working New Zealanders than any New Zealand government for many decades. Our stance in international affairs has made us proud Kiwis once again.

But we call upon our past to give assurance about our future. We talk of these things because we need to reaffirm their continued relevance as we move forward.

And move forward we will. This year’s budget will mark the downpayment on the next stage of building the New Zealand of our dreams. It will point the way to a more dynamic business sector; higher levels of savings and more security for the future; a recommitment to assistance for home ownership as a key element in the fair and just ownership society we seek; a lift in our levels of foreign aid; and further substantial boosts in investment in health and education.

Because of your support, your commitment, and your hard work the Labour led government has been able to make New Zealand a much better place than we found it. With your support, your commitment, and your hard work we can carry on building a nation to be proud of.

Let’s do it.


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