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Ruth Dyson: Speech to Hikoi Forum

Hon Ruth Dyson
Minister for Social Development & Employment
Minister for Senior Citizens
Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector
Minister for Disability Issues

13 May 2008 Speech Notes

Embargoed until delivery (7.00pm today)

The Rebuilding of Hope: Address to Political Leaders Forum, 58th General Synod/ te Hinota Whanui

Level 16 James Cook Hotel, Wellington


Rau rangatira maa,
tenei te mihi ki a koutou i runga i te kaupapa o te ra.
Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

Thank you for your warm welcome. It’s my privilege to speak to you this evening on behalf of Prime Minister, Helen Clark - thank you to the Co-Presiding Bishops for your invitation.

Ten years ago New Zealanders were reeling. The free market policies dominating the 80s and 90s had many grappling with keeping their jobs, their homes, and feeding their families. With meagre resources and little political influence, social services agencies were left to pick up the pieces of a demoralised, disenfranchised population.

Ten years ago the Hikoi of Hope said: “enough”. And you captured the mood of a nation. In the words of a Working Party reporting in 2001 to then Minister of Community and Voluntary Sector, Steve Maharey, there was “an overwhelming message of anger, burnout, profound mistrust and cynicism.”
Most if not all of you here today will remember that mood very well. But I often speak to a lot of younger people who know little about what happened during the 1990s and why the country fell into such despair. It is vitally important that the causes of that despair are not forgotten, especially as this year we are approaching a crossroads for the future direction of this country, which I’ll come back to later.

The Hikoi provided a lightening rod for change. That was clear from the 30,000 people joining your journey to Parliament in 1998. Voters the following year also made it clear they look to government to provide a growing economy, availability of jobs and investment in the critical services of health, education, and policing.

That’s a message that Labour took on as we entered office. We began the journey to rebuild our nation’s hope – a journey that was never going to be easy, or quick.

And I will acknowledge at the outset that despite the many positive developments over the last eight years, some of which I’ll outline in a moment, there are still some sections of our communities experiencing hardship. Global economic pressures have contributed to higher mortgage, food and petrol costs, so a lot of families are feeling the pinch at the moment. There is obviously still a lot of work to be done and this Government will be focusing on helping lower income families in particular.

So the work is ongoing. However, it is clear that New Zealand is a very different place today to what it was in the 1990s. We’re seeing proof that ambitious social policies and initiatives really can make a difference.

We know this from the benchmarks and measures we put in place in our first term. Since 2001, The Social Report has provided information on how key social indicators have moved so we know what’s working and what isn’t. This is complemented by the Living Standards report, which shows what we’ve achieved – and what still needs to be done.

Most of the 2007 Social Report indicators, for which we have 10-year trends, show that New Zealanders are enjoying improved social wellbeing. We’ve made a marked difference in areas like suicide, road casualties, unemployment, and low incomes. We’ve achieved this by working with communities to develop the infrastructure that supports true social development.

We’re seeing outstanding results in the creation of real jobs – the first plank of the Hikoi of Hope.

Paid work is the best long-term solution to poverty. Today, there are over 350,000 more jobs in the economy than in 1999. More than two million New Zealanders are in paid work, the highest level of employment since records began.

The conditions working New Zealanders now enjoy have also improved. All workers receive four weeks annual leave. And 14-weeks paid parental leave is available to workers with six months’ service or more. People working in sheltered workshops now have the same rights as other workers. And all employees can now request flexible working arrangements. These arrangements help them balance work and family commitments, thanks to employment relations legislation changes.

Good health is an important contributor to people’s independence, a recognition we share with the Hikoi’s second plank: the provision of a public health system that people can trust.

The World Health Organisation’s first ever analysis of the world’s health systems, using data from 1997, ranked New Zealand’s performance at the time at No 41 – not a ranking that anyone would be proud of, I’m sure.

So when Labour took office in 1999 we’ve were faced with a long climb back. We have responded by injecting literally billions of dollars of extra funding into health services that have enabled significant upgrading of public hospitals in many parts of the country, big increases in the medical and nursing workforces, especially in key areas such as mental health, and more affordable primary health care.

With regard to the latter, about a million people are today receiving low-cost primary health care services. This includes free doctor’s visits for the under sixes – benefiting 235,000 children. All New Zealanders enrolled in Primary Health Care Organisations are now receiving considerably cheaper access to primary care services than five years ago.

The hospital upgrade progammes are still under way. When they are complete, we will have 22 new operating theatres nationwide.

Investment in healthcare is resulting in more New Zealanders seeing their doctor and the highest rate of elective surgery since reliable reporting began.

The health status of New Zealanders has continued to improve overall, and we will continue to strive towards our longer-term goal of raising the health status of Maori and Pacific peoples in particular, through programmes such as those relating to cancer, diabetes, smoking and obesity.

While there are a range of indicators showing our health services are improving, there are still a lot of areas where we can – and need – to do better. With a modernised hospital infrastructure, a larger health workforce, and a more accessible primary health care system, we are well placed to do that.

The third plank of the Hikoi is benefit and wage levels that move people out of poverty.

First up, this Government has significantly transformed the way that we think about and deliver social assistance to people. The old “social welfare” was primarily about the passive payment of benefits. “Social development” is about trying to make a difference, rather than just distributing money.

To understand the range of support provided to our poorest families we need to consider not only income support, but also support to reduce essential costs, and investment in helping those families build a better future for themselves.

This government has ensured that the income of beneficiary families have kept pace with inflation. We have made annual inflation adjustments to benefits to maintain their real value with regular CPI adjustments.

Under Working for Families, beneficiary families receive the Family Tax Credit as well as their benefit. Comparing the tax year ending March 2007 with pre-Working for Families, on average a beneficiary family with no wages or salary has gained $38 per week.

Also, importantly, we have cut the costs faced by beneficiary families in meeting their essential needs, including the costs of housing, accommodation, child care, as well as primary health services.

While we’re steadfastly committed to providing the safety net of welfare assistance for the nation’s vulnerable, we’ve worked to avoid trapping families in welfare dependency. We’ve done this by making work pay for New Zealanders.

To start with, when people move into work, they do not automatically lose this support. They will continue to benefit from reduced health costs and from free early Childhood Education.

If they are on a low income they can continue to get help through tax credits, the Accommodation Supplement, and child care support.

And they will continue to have more choice in balancing their paid work with family responsibilities, with investment in paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements, and more out-of-school services.

Our Working for Families package has provided support to over 370,000 families, including those receiving benefits as well as those in work. Most of the spending goes to those whose household income is less than $50,000 a year.

We expect the combined effect of our family-targeted policies and increased employment rates to lift as many as 130,000 children out of poverty by this year. This will move New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD.

With the lowest levels of unemployment in 22 years, in March this year there were less than 20,000 people on an Unemployment Benefit, there’s never been a better opportunity for people to get into paid work. But we want more than just any jobs for New Zealanders. We want jobs that lead to higher skilled, better paid positions. Such opportunities are important if we’re to achieve the economic transformation needed to prosper in the global marketplace and provide for all New Zealanders.
So we’re working with people who are on the lowest rung of the employment ladder, and with employers and training providers, to keep people moving up. We’re also teaming up with industry to develop a Skills Strategy this year. This unified approach is all about ensuring New Zealanders, and organisations, can develop and use skills needed in future workplaces.
We’ve also raised the minimum wage from $7 an hour in 1999 to $12. This applies to workers as young as 16 years compared to 20 years in 1999.

I’ve talked about putting more money into families’ pockets by reducing their costs.

Providing more state housing and introducing income-related rents are two further ways we’ve done this – answering the fourth plank of the Hikoi: affordable housing.

On introducing income-related rents in 2000, 85% of state housing tenants saved between $20 and $80 a week. Today, nearly 60,000 tenants are benefiting from this. There are also now over 10% more state houses than in 1999, and, through the Housing Innovation Fund, more properties are available to Maori and Pacific peoples, older people and people with disabilities.

State housing tenants today enjoy a better living environment. We’ve modernised nearly 3,000 Housing New Zealand properties built before 1980. And we’ve retro-fitted over 15,000 properties to make them warmer, drier and more efficient.

The Welcome Home programme is helping people who wouldn’t otherwise attract loans from banks or finance companies to get into their own homes. Last year alone, this programme helped over 1000 people.

We provide the Accommodation Supplement to people on low to middle incomes with high housing costs – whether that’s renting or paying a mortgage. And under Working for Families we’ve relaxed the rules so that people can earn more before the Supplement is affected.

Moving on to the Hikoi’s fifth plank – accessible education – we know that lifting educational achievement makes sound economic sense. It improves a country’s skill base and grows the value of the economy, and therefore the living standards of everyone.

Today more young children are engaging in early childhood education. Research shows this delivers lifelong advantage. We’ve made services more affordable with increases in childcare subsidy funding rates. And last year we introduced 20 hours free early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds.

We’ve invested more in compulsory schooling too – with more teachers, increased professional development and greater access to technology. But we need young people to stay engaged in education long enough to gain skills and qualifications needed for work and life. Our ‘SchoolsPlus’ initiative aims to keep all young people in school or other forms of education or training until they’re 18. And interest-free loans and capped fees are supporting their transition into tertiary study.

We recognise that conventional schooling doesn’t work for everyone. The Modern Apprenticeship Scheme is getting more and more young people into trades training. We reached the Scheme’s target of 14,000 apprenticeships 15 months early in September 2007. And currently we’re rolling out the Youth Apprenticeship Scheme, which kicks in at Year 9 as an early catch for students not connecting well with the education system.

Reflecting on the five planks of the Hikoi – and this government’s commitment to addressing them – there have been marked improvements for most New Zealand families over the last decade.

While this government owns some of the credit, it has been our partnership with NGOs, communities and volunteers that has helped us to progress. We recognised from the start that the turnaround desired by the Hikoi, by New Zealanders, by us, required more than government alone. That was why we established the State of Government Intent in 1999 as a first step to building relationships with the community and voluntary sector.

Those relationships have since grown from strength to strength. Many of the programmes I’ve mentioned have involved services provided by the sector. This year we announced Pathway to Partnership, a programme that will build those relationships further through improved funding levels and funding arrangements.

Over the next year alone we’ll be investing an extra $52 million in community organisations already providing essential services to families, children and young people. This investment will continue to increase, to over $192 million in 2011.
To wrap up, I’d like to return to what I touched on earlier. This country is approaching a political crossroads. I haven’t come here primarily to comment on other parties’ agendas. But I do suggest to you, as an audience acutely aware of the circumstances that led to the Hikoi, that you continue to promote a thorough scrutiny and debate of all the parties’ social policies over the coming months.
I say this because some of the proposals I have seen from some quarters suggest very strongly a return to policies of less-government, more private involvement in social services and more user pays – the very same sort of policies that epitomised the 1990s.

A key underlying issue will be tax cuts.

Through the policies I’ve outlined, and many more that I haven’t, the Labour-led Government has tackled inequality and social injustice head on. My colleague Dr Michael Cullen has made it clear that he would not put his name to tax cuts that required us to step backwards from any of those polices.

I have yet to see any such guarantee from any other party proposing tax cuts.

We’ve come a long since 1998. As I’ve said, we know there’s still some distance to go. The ‘Let Us Look After Each Other - Aroha tetahi ki tetahi‘ programme launched by the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services in March highlights some of the persisting pockets of disadvantage.

You can be assured that these pockets are on our radar and that we’ll continue to exert energy and new ideas to address them. That’s an assurance I make from a government that over the last eight years has shown a willingness to listen, to acknowledge that we don’t own all the answers, and to work closely with others to do what it takes to help New Zealanders build successful lives.

Thank you.


ENDS

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