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Closing speech to the NZ Labour Party Conference

29 October 2006 Speech Notes


Embargoed until; 12 noon

Closing speech to the NZ Labour Party Conference


Rotorua Convention Centre

My fellow members,

It is a great honour to be able to address you for the tenth time as your Deputy Leader. During those ten years we have gone from the depths of Opposition to three successive victories.

For nearly seven years, Labour has been the key influence on the direction this nation is taking. And what a very different New Zealand we have from the one we inherited at the end of 1999!

We are, first of all, a nation that stands taller in the world and is prouder of itself. We have not shirked any international responsibilities which have come our way. But neither have we slavishly followed the dictates or interests of others.

We have seen more of our young men and women engaged in peacekeeping operations in more places around the world than ever before.

We have seen a flowering of the arts and culture and a growth in our national identity in a way unparalleled since the Third Labour Government. And that has been evident in areas which create real wealth and incomes such as film, design, and popular music.

We are more diverse, more tolerant (at least most of us are), more creative, and surer of ourselves. The great majority of us no longer seem ill at ease with who we are and where we are. A pakeha All Black captain from Canterbury can pay tribute to the Maori Queen and a nation warms and responds as one. An Afrikaans New Zealander and a Samoan New Zealander carry our hopes in goal shooting for the Silver Ferns. Our favourite films over the last couple of years have been about Pasifika peoples and a pakeha Southlander.

Civil unions have been celebrated, the sky has not fallen and, if anything, the heterosexual marriage rate has gone up.

This tapestry of peoples we call home is a New Zealand Labour can be proud of.

But, of course, not all New Zealanders are. Beneath all the recent breathless furore over the funding of political communications has run a deeper and darker subtext. That is the story of how a small, unrepresentative, intolerant, self-confessed exclusive group bought themselves a political party and nearly captured a nation by stealth.

I have tried hard to be tolerant of the intolerant, for that is always the profound dilemma of the true liberal. After all, there are times in the last year or so when I’ve felt a sneaking sympathy for people who don’t read newspapers, watch television, or listen to the radio.

And as long as they leave others alone, don’t impose their views, and let people leave their group freely then there is no reason the Exclusive Brethren should concern us.

But one can’t ignore a group which deliberately published lies about both Labour and the Greens. One can’t ignore the fact that, in many provincial seats in particular, the Exclusive Brethren engaged in deceptive and dishonest push-polling which may have had a significant impact on the results.

Nor should we ignore the hypocrisy of people who claim not to vote but tried to buy themselves a government; of people who will not fight for their country in time of war, but falsely condemned Labour for not providing adequate defence systems; of people who claim to support traditional family values, but have been pretty obviously party to helping spread rumours and lies about people’s families; of people who call the internet a conduit of evil communications to be shunned and, at the same time, run a website.

As deputy leader of your party it is nice to know sometimes people follow me. But not ones paid for by the Brethren please!

Above all, we cannot ignore asking National some hard questions. The two most important of these is who knew what and when about the Exclusive Brethren’s campaign? And, what was the Brethren seeking from a National Government?

We know Dr Brash has lied at least twice about his links with the Exclusive Brethren, both before and after the election. But other National leaders – including Mr Key – have yet to come clean about their involvement with the sect. We need a clear statement about how much collusion there was to avoid the spending limits in the Electoral Act. We need to know how much National was involved in designing the push-polling that was so important in many marginal seats.

And why did the sect spend such huge sums of money, and devote so many hours of time, to influencing the outcome of a process they themselves do not deign to participate in?

Was it to reverse human rights advances passed under this Government? And, if so, what do the small band of liberal National MPs make of that? Was it to reduce the rights of trade unions? Was it to somehow underpin some of their stranger beliefs such as not sharing a driveway with a neighbour, not sharing a sewer if they connect before reaching city property, not taking out annuities, not eating with non-sect members, or not allowing married women to engage in paid employment unless their husbands are unable to do so.

Perhaps, deep down, the denial of human rights and the subservience of women in particular are matters of little consequence to Dr Brash and Mr Key and many of their colleagues. After all, if you can wish a whole ethnic identity – and, at that New Zealand’s indigenous one – out of existence, as Dr Brash recently did, you are clearly capable of any amount of strangeness.

Much of the media has been strangely unwilling to dig deep into these questions. There almost seems to have been an assumption that because the Brethren used their own money there is no issue of public accountability here.

Well there is. Dr Brash’s private life is his own affair. But his public life, his links with big business and the more extreme forms of the religious right, are all of ours as New Zealanders.

And not out of a spirit of revenge. We should not allow ourselves to fall into some kind of “pay them back” mentality. We must go on defending the right of the Brethren to follow their own beliefs provided no laws are broken. But neither should we accept, especially after recent weeks, that the rich or the powerful should be allowed to buy themselves a government without the public being fully aware of all the issues involved.

The fact remains that wittingly and willingly Dr Brash and Mr Key were the agents of intolerance, the agents of the undermining of the national identity which we have been building under Labour and Helen Clark.

And the fact is that reality extends across a broad range of differences in policy. Mr Key recently attended the British Conservative Party Conference. He was there to learn how to pretend a change of government would make little or no difference to the things about a Labour Government people most like.

This is best summed up in the attempt to cosy up to the environmental movement. Never mind that only fifteen months ago Dr Brash still doubted global warming was occurring – now the call is for action. As long, of course, as it does not adversely affect any National Party constituency.

This kind of Al Gore lite is best summarised by the British Conservative Party leader staging a photo opportunity in which he biked to work. Unfortunately, his official car followed on behind. The net effect on greenhouse gases, while small, was undoubtedly for the worse, both through the exhaust fumes and the heavy breathing.

In fact, of course, a Brash-led or Key-led National Government does represent a real threat to many of our achievements in a range of areas.

In economic terms Brash remains a kind of Klingon clone. No amount of combovers can disguise his cerebral lean to the far right. Every speech he ever gave before he became leader of the National Party reveals his true intentions – slash social spending, sell state assets, reduce worker rights, deregulate everything in sight.

Mr Key’s real economic beliefs are not known. We know he deeply believes that wealth is best created by means of financial manipulation and speculation. We know as far as policy goes he is a rich-Johnny-one-note: cut taxes. But beyond that you can read all his speeches and find nothing. On the same day recently he implied that taxes should be cut by $11.5 billion a year in the morning and about $2.5 billion in the afternoon! More and more the suspicion is that he is just a pretty face.

Mr English certainly does angry better. Nobody does angry better than Mr English. But he is no new National liberal, just a seething mass of resentment and warped anger struggling to express a rational view. Mr Brownlee remains a booming voice box looking for a brain box. Simon Power will always be the future leader of the National Party, at least until he retires.

And behind the pretenders to the already vacant throne who is there? Judith Collins, who has long since gone a screech too far? Dr Lockwood Smith, who if he engages in any more manly overacting will burst his speedos? Or Mr McCully, who usually looks as though he’s been left outside all night in the rain?

The fact is that a National Government is such a horrible thing to contemplate we should not contemplate it.

Our job is now to move on and get on with the business of being the government, of doing what we do best. That is to provide the conditions in which those extraordinary people, ordinary New Zealanders, can realise their aspirations and improve their lives.

After nearly seven years we have so much to show in that respect. Over 330,000 new jobs; an unemployment rate of 3.6 per cent; 2300 completed modern apprenticeships and over 9100 in such apprenticeships at present; higher levels of New Zealand Superannuation and the creation of the New Zealand Superannuation Fund; interest-free student loans; an expanded rates rebates scheme; stronger government finances than almost any other developed country; cheaper doctors’ fees and cheaper prescriptions; massive growth in spending on infrastructure, not just including, but especially public transport; the impending revolution in telecommunications legislation; a massive reduction in the numbers of children living in poverty; economic growth higher than the OECD average; a fairer industrial relations system; the largest increase in overseas aid in our history; and so the list of achievements goes on.

Amidst all of these we have fulfilled or are fulfilling all of our pledge card promises. Those from 1999: done. Those from 2002: done. Those from 2005: being done.

No wonder the National Party hates the pledge cards! Nothing more clearly sums up our different approaches to policy. Theirs are to win office and then be broken, ours are promises to be kept in office.

But achievements are banked by the electorate. As they move on, so must we move on. Both over the next two years and into the long term future we face many challenges to preserve, sustain, and strengthen the kind of free and fair social democratic New Zealand that we seek and yearn for.

The challenges cover all three of our major themes: economic transformation, families young and old, and building national identity. Some are unique to us, many are to be found in one form or another in other developed democratic societies.

Economic transformation is not a finite event. We don’t do it and then it’s over. It is an ongoing process of equipping ourselves to compete in an increasingly globalised world which has no reason, and little emotion, to do us any favours.

It is a process because there is no end point. We must always strive to improve our productivity, increase our quality, adapt to changing markets, and take up new opportunities.

It means addressing, in particular, our biggest areas for improvement: savings, infrastructure, skills, research and development, and exports.

Already the Government is a net saver. With the Super Fund we are building our savings for the future. Next year KiwiSaver begins, the first significant attempt in more than a generation to improve our domestic savings. At the same time tax changes are being introduced to support employer contributions, reduce the taxes on savings for those earning under $38,000, and reduce the taxes on investment in New Zealand equities in addition to the incentives in KiwiSaver itself. Contrary to what you may have seen in the media, Labour is cutting the taxes on savings by around $200 million a year before any further decisions are taken.

I have already outlined current moves on infrastructure. We are the first government in decades to spend all the income from general petrol excise duty and road user charges on land transport. Over the next five years we will spend ten times as much on public transport as National did in its last five years. Yet we face difficult negotiations and decisions over the future of our rail network.

We are moving to ensure we have a truly modern telecommunications infrastructure so that we can cut the tyranny of distance with the freedom of high speed, low cost broadband. But each few years brings another generational change in technology and capacity. We cannot afford to be left behind again.

Equally large challenges face us in terms of water quality and management, energy security, and land management. These and other challenges must be solved in ways which are consistent with the greatest long term challenge facing the world. That is, how to deal with global warming and reverse the threat which each successive report shows us is both more certain, larger, and nearer in time. And if we fail to meet that challenge we risk later generations living in a literally smaller New Zealand in which much that we have taken for granted will change dramatically.

The fact that we could not get a parliamentary majority to put in place a carbon charge has meant a major rethink of policies in this area. David Parker is leading that work. We can and must make a long term difference in this generation for the future of the one planet we can live on.

We are also engaged in major changes in our tertiary education system. We have made huge progress on putting trade training back on the agenda but have an equally long way to go. We can, and will, move away from the bums on seats model of funding. But that raises big issues around maintaining a viable network of polytechnic provision and building world class universities. Over the last seven years we have done much to help students. Over the next period our focus must shift to the quality and strength of the institutions.

The universities are, with the CRIs, the key centres of research, crucial to our economic transformation. But much modern work suggests development is even more important than research and it is where we more clearly have catch-up work to do.

As we do in exports. A generation of economic reforms has done little or nothing to lift our relative export performance.

What connects all these threads are two things. The first is that all involve a central role for government as organiser or funder or facilitator. All demand large amounts of tax dollars either by way of expenditure or foregone revenue. In looking at business tax changes and related matters it is important not to get sucked into the right wing agenda that the only way governments help economies grow is by cutting taxes.

And certainly an obsession with low taxes does not help create a healthy society. If we really want to build strong families, young and old, we need good housing, excellent health care, a strong base of fundamental education, effective family intervention services, support for the voluntary sector, proper aged care services which do not exploit the workers, and much else besides.

Throughout the developed world a backlash is beginning to grow against the way in which the very wealthy have, over the last generation, captured the public debate over social and economic policy to their own ends.

The great broad mass of those in the middle are beginning to realise in a number of countries that often their gains have been small compared with those of the top one to five per cent.

In New Zealand Labour has done much to help those at the bottom and those in the middle. We have done a great deal to help a broad range of families with children well into the middle range of incomes. We have done much to help the elderly.

We must remain and be seen to be concerned with those on low and middle incomes. During this century they will need the protecting and nurturing power of the state to care for their interests and advance their aspirations just as much as in the last century.

But one thing that will continue to develop and mature is our growing sense of national identity. Nothing could best sum up where we differ from our principal opponents than this area.

Dr Brash wishes Maori into non-existence on the basis of generations of intermarriage. On the same basis, what is Dr Brash? British? Saxon? Viking? Norman? Certainly not, at least, Afro-Caribbean!

And if he were still in the Britain he clearly but inaccurately remembers what would he make now of the local inhabitants? Yet, at the same time, he tells us the British make good immigrants because they imbibe the principles of the Magna Carta with their mother’s milk.

It seems extraordinary that the principles of an agreement between the Anglo-Norman king and the Anglo-Norman nobility can be transmitted via breastfeeding over 800 years, even to people who are not English. Yet, according to Dr Brash, the culture, traditions and identity of New Zealand’s indigenous people can disappear in a matter of a few generations.

The fact is National has no Maori in a senior position, no Pasifika in a senior position, and its only Asian is an MP ranked at the bottom of her peers. There is still no evidence of any real embracing of modern New Zealand’s diversity and excitement by National. Dr Brash lives in a past that never really was, dreaming of a future that never will be.

One only has to look around this hall to realise that Labour represents a very different and diverse New Zealand. Labour looks like New Zealand.

Of course we also stand for some old-fashioned virtues and ideals. There is nothing PC or trendy about asserting the essential equality of all human beings, our innate right to the assumption of being valued and valuable irrespective of wealth or race or family connections or sexual orientation.

After 25 years in Parliament and ten years as your deputy leader that remains for me the guiding principle of the Labour Party and of the social democratic movement throughout the world. It will always be opposed by an alternative model of society and politics which makes the assumption that somehow wealth equals worth and is the true source of value.

Sadly Mr Key proves that not only can you take the boy out of the state house you can take the state house out of the boy. He seeks to climb to the top on the bowed shoulders of others.

We seek to climb a ladder so that we can help others up. We seek, as we have always done, to remove the stain of poverty and unemployment on society, to ensure access to education and advancement, proper health care, and decent housing. We seek to ensure that families can be raised in security and opportunity, that the elderly can live in dignity.

Above all we seek a nation proud of itself, a nation which advance the cause of peace and justice, not war and oppression, throughout the world. We seek a political system which is inclusive and open, which cannot be simply bought and sold by the rich and powerful. And that cannot be achieved without the state providing support to the process of democracy itself.

This Helen Clark led government continues to burst with new initiatives and ideas. It continues to deliver real social and economic change and development in the interests of the vast majority of New Zealanders.

At the moment we see the hyenas of the right circling. We see strange and dark forces trying to reverse the gains we have made. But they shall not prevail. They shall not prevail for, in the end, the power of the people will triumph over the power of privilege and the power of prejudice.

Ends


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