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Dunne: Address to Eastern Hutt Rotary Club


MONDAY 14 APRIL 2014 AT 7:00 PM

Politics so far this year have been dominated by two circuses.

First is the Conservative Party of moon-landing sceptic, climate change doubting, chem-trail believing Colin Craig, and the second has been that of extradition avoiding, publicity driven Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party. Leaving to one side the temptation to make allusions to rich boys and their toys, the reality is that both these clowns have done more through their antics to reduce contemporary politics to a modern theatre of the absurd, than the actions of any conventional politician in recent times. And the sad thing is that rather than increase the credibility of the political process and encourage greater participation, their antics are likely to make more people more cynical and less willing to be engaged, thus further tarnishing the credibility of what ought to be a noble profession of public service.
At its core, politics is the art of the achievable. Nothing more, nothing less. Politicians are people who, whatever the circumstances, work hard to achieve certain outcomes, and who ultimately should be judged by the electorate for what they actually achieve, rather than the level of public entertainment they provide, or the superficial flashiness of their smile.

When people vote later in the year, they will be judging politicians against the criteria of their own aspirations – their desire for the opportunity of a good job, the chance to bring up their families in a secure environment; access to good health and educational services; and a chance to enjoy all that is good in the New Zealand lifestyle. It will have nothing to do with whether man landed on the moon, or international fugitives trying to buy their way to freedom and credibility here, or making racist slurs to blame one ethnic group for all the country’s perceived social ills. They are all superficial side shows, and those who perpetuate them are no different from the pernicious snake-oil merchants of earlier times. They deserve derision, scorn, and the political scrapheap, not sneaking admiration.

Against that background, I want to put the case this evening for UnitedFuture – the small liberal democratic party that has played a role in government for 15 of the last 18 years since MMP was introduced, and which stands ready to play a continuing role in government after this September’s election. Without wishing to fall prey to any illusions or fatalism, I am reminded at this point of Sir Christopher Wren’s famous epitaph engraved high in the walls of St Paul’s Cathedral in London: “If you seek his monument, look around you.” Similarly, if you seek to understand the worth of the role of UnitedFuture to successive governments, look around the policy landscape.

So, without wishing to be tiresome, let me take you on a journey around the policy landscape of the last decade or so, and draw attention to the various changes initiated by UnitedFuture as a government support party for both National and Labour, and often a one MP support party at that, and invite you to reflect upon the significance of these alongside the claims of other smaller parties, who have either never been anywhere near government, or fired from it every time they have been involved.

Let me start with Families Commission. This UnitedFuture initiative was introduced under Labour in 2004 to provide an independent voice to advocate within government for the interests of New Zealand families. Over the years, the Commission has provided valuable data on the status and differing circumstances of New Zealand families, and has played a leading part in advocating for the development and extension of paid parental leave under successive governments. It also initiated the highly successful “It’s not OK” campaign against family violence and continues to play a leading role in that space. From the middle of this year the Commission will be producing an annual report on the state of New Zealand families to guide future policy making in this area.

Another UnitedFuture initiative, the National Medicines Strategy, Medicines New Zealand, was introduced under Labour in 2007, and has been carried on under National. It is now the overarching policy framework against which the government, the Ministry of Health and PHARMAC operate on issues regarding access to medicines, and has seen around 240,000 more New Zealanders getting access to the medicines they need. It is no coincidence that the public rows there used to be about funding decisions by PHARMAC have dropped off the radar screen since Medicines New Zealand has been in place.

The review of tax rebates for donations to charities which UnitedFuture initiated in 2006 because of our commitment to the role of the voluntary sector led to the previous $1,800 cap on qualifying donations being dropped and all donations to charities qualifying for the 33% rebate. This has not only boosted the level of charitable and philanthropic giving considerably, but has also contributed markedly to the upskilling and growing professionalism of many non-government organisations delivering valuable services in the community, thus meeting the objectives of the original review.

Our 2008 commitment to get rid of Gift Duty was achieved under National during the 2008-2011 Parliament. Gift Duty was New Zealand’s second oldest tax – only Stamp duty currently levied at 0% is older – and had become an anachronistic, compliance nightmare. It raised about only $1.5 million a year, cost Inland Revenue directly around $500,000 annually to administer, and was estimated to cost the private sector around $70 million a year to comply with.

A key part of UnitedFuture’s post 2005 agreement with Labour was a review of business tax arrangements. This review resulted in the decision the 2007 Budget to cut the business tax rate to 30 cents in the dollar, to boost business competiveness, and the particular acknowledgement of the then Minister of Finance of my role in developing the package.

The corollary, which Labour would never accept, was cuts to personal tax rates. That had to wait for another day and another government, so that initiative formed part of our agreement with National after the 2008 election. The comprehensive review of the taxation system that followed the establishment of the Tax Working Group in 2009, led to substantial across the board tax cuts in the 2010 Budget, and the Minister of Finance’s Budget speech reference to my “tireless” efforts to deliver such a programme.

For Wellingtonians, one of the longest running sagas has been that of the northern access way to the city. The Transmission Gully Highway was first mooted as a serious solution to northern road access to and egress from Wellington as long ago as 1939, although there had been reference to its development as a rail corridor even earlier in 1906. But dithering, division, obfuscation, and a general lack of political commitment meant nothing, other than endless talk, ever happened. And all the while, the cost of its development mounted, and the “not in my lifetime” response became the standard fallback for frustrated locals. I had twice unsuccessfully introduced Member’s Bills to Parliament, and in 2002 took the opportunity through our agreement with Labour to get the concept of public/private partnerships into the legislation, as I saw that as the most likely way that Transmission Gully could be built.
In our 2005 agreement with Labour there was the provision to develop Transmission Gully if it was clearly shown to be the preferred option of Wellingtonians. It was – and work was proceeding in that direction when the government changed in 2008. We were able to pick up that work with the National-led Government after 2008, which culminated in the decision to proceed with Transmission Gully under the Roads of National Significance package, and the Prime Minister’s announcement just before Christmas last year that construction of Transmission Gully would begin in the middle of this year, and be completed by 2020.

Consistent with UnitedFuture’s interest in the wellbeing of families and children, reform of our Child Support system that looks after children when relationships break up was always going to be a high priority. There had been no major reform of the Child Support system since its introduction in 1991, yet social conditions had changed vastly in that time, as had family structures. So I began a major review of the Child Support system under Labour in 2006, and carried it through under National, with new legislation which introduces more fairness, as well as a major overhaul of the system, passed in 2102.
Unfortunately, the scope of the change and the complexity that having more flexibility introduces mean that it will be 1 April next year before it is operational.

In the same vein, under this government I have overseen major reviews of our mental health and suicide prevention strategies, resulting in a new mental health blueprint, “Rising to the Challenge” through to 2017, and a revised suicide prevention action plan for the next three years.

UnitedFuture has long been a champion of New Zealand’s outdoor lifestyle, and an advocate for all sectors of the community having a say in the management and protection our pristine environment. In this regard and following our agreement with National in 2008, a new Game Animal Council has been established to promote the interests of recreational hunters, and the initial appointments will be announced shortly.

There are two outstanding issues from the current term where we have yet to achieve our goals. The first of these is income sharing, which would allow couples with dependent children to split their incomes between them for tax purposes, up to a maximum household income of $140,000 per year. I introduced legislation to provide for this during the term of the Labour-led administration, but it has not progressed beyond the select committee stage because neither National nor Labour are prepared to support it any further. However, Labour’s announcement earlier this year of a heavily qualified family assistance package for families earning up to $150,000 a year, puts income sharing back on the political agenda. It is a more simple system, without the raft of exclusions Labour seems to be suggesting, and will deliver a more direct benefit to families who do not gain much from existing measures like Working for Families.

The second item of unfinished business is Flexi Super. You will recall that last year I released a government discussion paper on Flexi Super, UnitedFuture’s plan which would allow people to take a reduced rate of New Zealand superannuation from the age of 60, or an enhanced rate if they deferred uptake until 70. The rationale was to give people more choice over retirement income and to recognise that for some people 60 was the age to leave the paid workforce, but that they were currently unable to do so for financial reasons. Flexi Super has proved very popular with the public – far more so than putting up the age for New Zealand superannuation to 67, or even sticking with the status quo of 65. The Government has received the results of the public consultation process, but has so far made no decision about how to proceed. So pursuing Flexi Super will be a priority for UnitedFuture this year and beyond.

What all these initiatives show is that over the years, whatever the political circumstances, UnitedFuture has not only been able to progress its agenda, but has been to initiate lasting change in a significant range of areas. A couple of things flow from that. The best indicator of future achievement is past performance – in UnitedFuture’s case, like the Wren analogy, there is a pretty solid record of past achievement to give confidence in our ability to make similar progress in the years ahead. So, if you agree with the direction we are proposing, you can support us, in the more than reasonable hope that we will achieve our major goals. And second, compare that record of achievement with that of any other smaller parties operating in the MMP environment. With the possible exception of the Māori Party in respect of its particular constituency , it is a comparison that would be overwhelmingly in our favour, as a party that gets things done.

Now, against that backdrop, let me discuss a couple of policy areas that I see as critical in the lead-up to this year’s election. Consistent with UnitedFuture’s commitment to preserving New Zealander’s access to the great outdoors, I was very concerned last year at the moves being made to limit sharply the number of snapper recreational fishers were able to take from the so-called Snapper 1 area, principally around the major Hauraki Gulf fishery. While I am strongly in favour of responsible fish stocks management, and utterly opposed to the wanton pillaging of our fisheries, often by large scale fishing operations, there were aspects of those ultimately unsuccessful moves which concerned me greatly, which we need to address. At present, when the fishing quota for a particular species is set, the total allowable catch limit for the commercial sector is set first, and the recreational sector is set from what is left over. In my view, that is essentially back to front. While I fully acknowledge the worth of the commercial fishing sector to the New Zealand economy, and that it is far larger than the recreational sector is ever likely to be, I think that it is time to consider the establishment of a priority right for recreational fishers ahead of the commercial players. UnitedFuture will have more to say about this when it releases its recreational fishing policy in the next few weeks, but our focus, consistent with our long standing outdoor recreational emphasis, will be on ensuring that current and future generations of New Zealanders continue to have the opportunity to catch a reasonable daily bag limit of fish, in the time honoured way, and consistent with good principles of fisheries management.

The second issue I wish to canvas is that of healthcare affordability. While we do not face an immediate crisis, I am concerned that the levels of health funding of the last two governments cannot be sustained indefinitely into the future. When that is added to the rapidly increasing availability of and demand for new healthcare technologies, and often insatiable public expectations of what the health system can deliver, I become extremely worried. This is by no means a solely New Zealand problem – it is becoming increasingly common throughout developed societies. The limits of the taxation system to provide the necessary resources alongside all the other demands citizens properly make are becoming clear. Some countries – mainly European – have opted for insurance based healthcare systems, funded by a separate levy system and offering patients various categories of care, depending on their ability to pay, as a solution. Others have opted for greater privatisation with the risk being transferred to healthcare companies, and all the ensuing populist criticism of the Americanisation of their health system. I do not think that either of these extremes would work in the New Zealand environment.
Rather, we should be looking to the adaptation and expansion of a successful local social insurance model to meet the challenges of the future. I am of course referring of the ACC scheme. We could look over time to expand a renamed ACC (Kiwihealth perhaps?) to cover all health conditions, in addition to its existing focus on personal injury, and to contract with a range of public and private providers to deliver comprehensive services. Funding would still be on a levy basis, although levies would need to increase to cover the increased range of services to be provided, but a portion, or in some cases all, of these could be offset against general rates of taxation to minimise impacts. I fully concede the Kiwihealth idea is at a very early stage, and requires a great deal of work to assess its viability, and how it could be implemented. But I believe it is a concept worth exploring further in the interests of ensuring New Zealanders continue to receive quality comprehensive first world health care into the future. It is an issue that UnitedFuture will want to pursue as part of a future governing arrangement, to get the best outcome for New Zealanders.

As both the experience of the decade or more and these latter two examples show, UnitedFuture has never been afraid to promote bold ideas, many of which we have been able to implement, and aims to continue doing so in the next Parliament.


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