Dunne: Hutt Rotary Club
Peter Dunne speech
Hutt Rotary Club
Embargoed to midday, Wednesday, 20 February 2008
Hutt Bowling Club, 10 Myrtle St, Lower Hutt
The big news over the summer holidays was that Labour and National suddenly discovered that disaffected and increasingly alienated young people are a social time bomb.
Among the solutions they propose – some of which are sensible and ought to be implemented, not just talked about; and some of which are downright populist drivel that ought to be ignored – has been the recognition of the importance of promoting good parenting and nurturing families.
That simply underscores the reasons why UnitedFuture was so keen after the 2002 election to establish a Families Commission to promote good parenting and resilient families.
Today the Commission has been a reality for almost four years, and through its work leading the campaign against family violence, and its recently announced programme promoting the importance of parenting (a mandate we gave it after the last election) it is more than demonstrating its worth.
It is one of many flagship UnitedFuture policies that have been implemented over the last two Parliaments as a result of confidence and supply agreements we have entered into with the government of the day.
In a similar vein are the business tax cuts we pushed for in 2005 which were announced last year, the National Medicines Strategy to ensure New Zealanders get better access to the medicines they need, and tax changes to better promote the charitable sector and a culture of giving across New Zealand.
While I am very proud of these achievements which show the positive impact a support party can play in our political process, I am equally well aware that many people, who might otherwise approve of our involvement, and who agree it is important there is a viable centre party in New Zealand politics, do not see us in that light or support us politically because of a feeling that all this is window-dressing for a more fundamentalist agenda.
Even after the rather sad Captain Oates impersonation by one of our MPs last year, that perception has lingered.
Today, I want to make it unambiguously clear that those days are behind us – well and truly.
That departure last year was not just an individual’s fit of pique – it was an orchestrated desertion by those annoyed the party would not embrace their particular narrow agenda.
But contrary to their plan, their departure has left us a far stronger, more united and focused organisation.
UnitedFuture is now genuinely what it was always intended it to be - a truly modern, centre party focused on New Zealand’s best interests, and determined that all New Zealanders, whatever their background, race, or creed, have the chance to enjoy all that is good in our country.
Ours is a party that promotes freedom, self-reliance, personal responsibility and independence, whose policies and practice are based on the evidence, rather than blind dogma or prejudice.
From the start we have believed very much in the power of families and local communities as the fulcrum of change, which is why we have placed a strong emphasis on supporting those who support others.
We have not just discovered these issues because an election is looming, and we do not forget them once the election is over, or the headline has faded.
The triennial toss up later this year between the two old parties about who will lead the next government already looks decidedly uninspiring.
On the one hand, there is the Labour Party, increasingly tired after three terms in office and becoming more rigid and ideological as each week passes.
The more it is challenged electorally, the more it reverts to traditional policies to shore up its voting base, rather than looking ahead to what is in New Zealand’s best interests.
The irony is that as a result of many of Labour’s policies, New Zealanders have a stronger sense of self-belief and confidence, yet the government’s “we know best” attitude is increasingly out of step with that more confident public mood it has created.
And then, on the other hand, there is the National Party.
While it has a fresh, new leader who projects an air of confidence and optimism, nothing much else seems to have changed at all.
The rest of the party and what policy it has released so far still reek of the torpor and ordinariness that overwhelmed the last National Government in the late 1990s, and there is an anxiety that much of the good of recent years could be at risk if National tries to turn back the clock.
In short, both the two old parties simply lack the vision and commitment to inspire any great hope for the future among New Zealanders.
Yet there is a significant group of mainstream, socially progressive and economically literate New Zealanders who have no great enthusiasm for, or sympathy with, either Labour or National, but who at the same time feel there is no real alternative because the media keeps telling them the new MMP parties are either too single issue focused, dogmatic, or downright quirky to be relevant to what they have already decided is a two-horse race.
In this regard, it is telling that “time for a change” and nothing else seems to be the main political theme emerging so far this year.
That vacuum Labour’s and National’s collective inertia has created makes the role of a modern, centre party that is prepared to take a fresh approach and to heed the common sense (or shared values as John Raulston Saul has described it) of the community at large all that more vital.
But, as a party, we face challenges too.
We have to earn afresh the confidence and trust of New Zealanders, especially those whom I have just spoken of, to convince them we can play a vital role in achieving the future they are seeking for themselves and their children.
Last year, UnitedFuture learned a powerful lesson – via the medium of the Electoral Finance Bill - about listening to the community.
Let me say this as I clearly as I can: we were wrong to support that legislation for as long as we did, and while I am pleased we eventually came to our senses and opposed the Bill, it remains one of my greatest regrets in politics that we misread the situation for so long.
But we have learned our lesson as a consequence – we will listen to the voice of New Zealanders far more closely in future, and then we will act accordingly.
We will undoubtedly disagree from time to time – I am not suggesting we should become a blank piece of paper to be written all over as the mood suits – but as best we can, we will redouble our commitment to put the public interest ahead of that of party or government.
And in so doing, we will give effect to the shared values of our community, and provide leadership for our country.
Over the summer period, I have been listening to the voices of New Zealanders on a variety of issues, and I want to reflect on some of those this afternoon.
Let me start with health.
Waiting lists for elective surgery continue to be a major problem across all District Health Boards, but their responses vary.
Some are able to treat their patients within six months.
Others reprioritise their waiting lists after six months, so that the numbers are reduced as longer term patients are culled from the list, in line with the Ministry of Health’s requirement that where “public treatment” is “not yet available … you will cared for by your primary care practitioner and/or specialist.”
In other words, if we cannot treat you, we will get you off our books.
And, in some cases, patients are transferred to Australia to get the treatment they need.
What is even more interesting is that the public health system’s commitment to its patients is extremely circumspect.
There is no bold proclamation of your rights or the system’s obligations to you, but simply the bland statement that “if public treatment is available you will be told that you have a firm treatment date within the next six months, or will receive treatment within six months and you will be given the treatment date closer to the time of treatment.”
It is hardly a ringing assurance that we have a world class health system that will do its best to help you when you need it.
Now, this would maybe not be so bad if, at the same time, it was also acknowledged that, the limits and pressures on the public health system notwithstanding, there are alternatives for patients, but this never happens.
Too often the reality is that if you do not get your elective surgery within the first six months, then it is more than likely to be a case of back to square one.
That is as unfair and unjust, as it is unnecessary.
Only rigid ideology stands in the way of resolving this issue.
In addition to our 21 District Health Boards, there are 35 private surgical hospitals across New Zealand, from the far north to the deep south.
Already, almost 150,000 elective surgery operations are carried out in these hospitals each year.
That is more than half of all elective surgery performed annually in New Zealand.
But here is the rub: less than 2% of those operations are funded by the public health system.
At the same time, while public hospital waiting lists grow, private hospitals report their facilities are not being utilised fully.
The message from all this is abundantly clear – if you want elective surgery in a timely manner, go private; otherwise, take your chances, with no guarantees, in the public sector.
This is as stark and brutal, as it is unacceptable.
That choice is simply not available for many elderly people, or for those on low and fixed incomes.
Labour’s ideology gets in the way of addressing the problem, because it finds it difficult to acknowledge there is a legitimate role for the private sector in health care, so vulnerable people are denied the care they need.
National’s ideology is more sympathetic to private sector involvement, but its commitment to helping the vulnerable is far less convincing.
Either way, patients will continue to be the losers.
But the solution is obvious.
We need to be making greater use of private sector capacity for elective surgery, to cut waiting lists, and free up public sector beds.
UnitedFuture would start by publicly funding private hospital elective surgery for the elderly, and then progressively extending that, with the eventual aim of making it universal, so that no-one has to wait longer than six months for elective surgery.
Our policy also favours making medical insurance premium payments for over 65s tax deductible, to encourage many older New Zealanders to retain their medical insurance, at the very time they need it most, but cannot afford to keep on paying.
But I would like to see us go further and consider the feasibility of establishing a subsidised national health insurance scheme to ensure all elective surgery needs can be met in a timely manner.
This is not about ideology – it is about people, and using all our resources wisely and properly.
But it will need the input of a party like UnitedFuture to make it happen.
Education is never far from people’s attention, and like health is an area where simply holding the line means we are falling behind.
Despite the funding increases of recent years, and the passionate commitment of many in the sector, there is a strong public perception that we are still not doing as well as we could be.
Access remains a core concern, as shown by the debate last year over just who would be eligible for 20 hours free early childhood education; the ongoing debate about tertiary funding levels typified by the uproar over Auckland University’s new entry criteria; cuts to the funding of Southland Institute of Technology; the never ending spiral of mounting student debt; and, the mounting concern of parents that activity fees mean the public education system is no longer free.
It all seems a long way from Peter Fraser’s clarion call nearly 70 years ago that “every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.”
While times have changed, the sentiment of equality of access to educational opportunity, regardless of wealth or circumstance, remains strong.
Given the importance we place on the early years of a child’s life, why does access to 20 free hours early childhood education not include playcentres, and why does it only apply to facilities agreeing to cap their fees at a certain level?
Why are schools’ operations grants inadequate to meet the costs of running schools today, meaning parents have to pick up the difference through activity fees, regardless of the decile status of the schools concerned?
We say that the first 20 hours of early childhood education ought to be free, regardless of the facility providing it, because education is the key to the future and every child deserves the best start in life.
We want to phase out activity fees by ensuring all state, integrated and independent schools are resourced properly, so that a child’s educational attainment is not determined by their parent’s wealth, but by the skills and quality of their teachers.
And we would place stronger emphasis on ensuring all educational institutions have good access to broadband services to ensure our students at all levels are able to take advantage of the most rapid developments in information technology.
If we are serious about developing positive opportunities for young New Zealanders, these are the issues to focus on, ahead of knee jerk reactions years down the track when it is almost too late.
In Australia, Kevin Rudd talks of an “education revolution” based on broadband access to build his country’s future.
Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” was based around education, and reducing the distinction between the knowledge “haves” and “have nots”.
But in New Zealand our focus has sadly been far more limited – the great “Knowledge Wave” conference a few years ago was sidelined because its conclusions looked too grand, and its vision challenged the government’s view of the world.
Sadly, we have ceased to see education as bold, exciting, and sometimes unpredictable through the variety of opportunities it provides to open the doors to the future, and instead have become too bogged down in making sure students are taught the “right” subjects and attitudes.
It may be safe and reliable, but it will not rattle any international cages, nor spread the boundaries and scope of knowledge across our population – and while that remains the case there is little point requiring people to stay in the education system for longer.
This timid, rigid approach reaches its apogee in the final topic I want to cover today – what we loftily refer to as the constitutional debate.
Merely mentioning the subject can be guaranteed to elicit an identical response from Labour and National – “this is an important issue for the future, but not today.”
What that means is simply this.
Labour does not want to address it because it will raise the dreaded “T” word – the Treaty of Waitangi – and it feels sufficiently spooked by the Maori Party already to do anything in that area.
National knows in its heart of hearts that some form of change is probably inevitable, but it does not really know what that will involve, and by its nature does not want to get out on a limb, so prefers to leave the question alone altogether.
All of which leaves us in a very unsatisfactory situation – drifting down the river in a raft without oars towards a waterfall we do not know the precise location of.
I get very frustrated every time I hear the two following commonly expressed sentiments: nothing will happen while the present Queen reigns, and if Australia becomes a republic we will probably follow suit.
Both statements are more than likely true, but they do not say very much about our national self-confidence or march to national identity.
It is much more like a diffident meander, than a bold step ahead.
Let us just drift along and see what others do first is not an inspiring basis on which to take a country forward, yet that is precisely what Labour and National are doing.
The recent controversy about the lack of Royal attendance at Sir Edmund Hillary’s State Funeral was a huge beat-up, but the debate it did stir up, and the same would hold for the ongoing debate about MMP, and last year’s debate about the Electoral Finance Bill for that matter, showed that New Zealanders are not shy when it comes it comes to discussing our constitutional relationships, or the principles by which we are governed, and indeed relish the opportunity to do so.
It is surely bizarre that, on the one hand, successive governments can laud the international achievements of New Zealanders in sport, the arts, business and other areas, as typifying what it means to be a New Zealander, while, on the other, remain so unwilling to engage in any organised dialogue about the future constitutional shape of our nation.
Ultimately, these are matters to be decided by the people through referendum – they are not ones to be determined by government fiat.
But governments do have a responsibility to provide the opportunity for the public consideration to occur and for its decisions to be made.
So we say that it is time to implement the recommendation of the Constitutional Affairs select committee which I chaired in 2004-05 that a public education process on New Zealand’s current constitutional arrangements ought to be established forthwith.
That should lead to a binding referendum on future constitutional arrangements, including the question of a republic and the future of MMP, perhaps as early as the end of 2010, and certainly no later than 2012, so that any new arrangements can be put in place for the 2014 General Election and beyond.
Labour and National’s Nelsonian approach to these matters sells New Zealand short, and again underscores their lack of vision for our country’s future.
New Zealand is a young country – yet they both seem content to lead us into sedate middle age, at the expense of our enthusiasm, vibrancy and emerging nationhood.
Each of the issues I have spoken of this afternoon requires a new approach to what UnitedFuture has always regarded as the primary goal of any government - making New Zealand the best place in the world in which to raise a family, an exciting place to call home.
The two old parties are too trapped by their past to provide that leadership.
They need the spur of a party that is prepared to go beyond the square, but not fall off the planet, a party promoting change we can believe in, a party called UnitedFuture.