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Agenda - PM Pre-election Interview Transcript

Agenda Presented by Rawdon Christie

Transcript Courtesy of Agenda and TVNZ

RAWDON Helen Clark is attempting what is almost the politically impossible in New Zealand. Next Saturday she will try and win a fourth election in a row, only two Prime Ministers have done that, William Massey and Sir Keith Holyoake. The polls are against her, her campaign last week was dominated by her party president's bizarre trip to Melbourne to investigate National Leader John Key, and all the time she's been campaigning the country has been continually rocked by the latest waves from the American financial meltdown, she's with Guyon Espiner now.

Well Prime Minister let's start with economic matters. Both parties released last week packages to try to help people who may lose their jobs in the recession. We had National topping up Working for Families and giving a $100 a week to low and middle income families, your own package could see the dole given essentially to someone on $100,000 even if their partner is also on a six figure income, haven't the two sides sort of swapped positions here?

HELEN CLARK – Leader, Labour
I think the key thing Guyon is who's got the best economic plan going forward, because what I'm absolutely determined is a Labour led government isn't going to sit like a possum in the headlights waiting for unemployment to rise and rise and rise. I can remember that happening when I was a young minister in a previous Labour government, I can remember it happening under the National government which came in after us, so what I've set out, and I'm putting out more details today, is an economic plan which will see us be prepared to bring forward investment in critical areas which are job rich in regions where we need it.

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GUYON You’ve got more details?

HELEN I have, I'm going to be putting out after we've spoken today more information about being prepared to bring forward an increase in the financial assistance rate which goes to local bodies for roading projects. Where we have regions which are experiencing a surge in unemployment we're prepared to give them an improved rate of support for their roading projects.

GUYON So more money for councils to build roads?

HELEN Correct, and build, maintain, cycles, walkways, there's a lot of things that councils can do with this financial assistance fund and we intend to enhance that.

GUYON Is this new money or are you bringing forward existing?

HELEN We're bringing forward expenditure, look we think the critical thing now is to see that New Zealand comes through an international slow patch which is not of our making at all in as good shape as possible, that’s why we've emphasised bringing forward government investment which would have been done at some point anyway and also keeping up a very high level of investment in education and training, there's two more areas by the way I'm being more specific about today. One is, we have allocated funding for a roll out of Broadband, ultra fast Broadband to communities, we've said that only 40% of the fund could be used the first year, we're prepared to bring that forward too because there's real jobs involved in rolling out your fibre to a broader audience, and then there's also the retrofit programme, we're being very specific we're prepared to bring that forward as well for making our old and damp houses drier and warmer and again there's quite a lot of relatively unskilled work involved in that.

GUYON You’ve had quite a good record on unemployment, it was 6.8% when you came to power in 1999, you’ve got it down to ….. about half of that nearly, now we're looking at a downturn and unemployment increasing, doesn’t this all really show that unemployment really is completely out of our hands, we're hostage to the conditions of an international financial environment.

HELEN I care passionately about this and one of the things I'm proudest of is that we have got unemployment down to half of what it was.

GUYON So you take responsibility then for it rising?

HELEN I will take responsibility for proactive government programmes which will ensure that we keep low levels of unemployment by any western world standard. You’ve gotta realise that Australia …

GUYON I just want to ask you this, do you think that you're going to be able to make jobs for those people?

HELEN Absolutely, absolutely, look we have been very proactive in job creation policy, we didn’t get it down under 4 by doing nothing, we were very proactive in the way in which we've had Work and Income place people, the way we've upskilled people,, the way we've prioritised skills training, now what I am determined to do is two things, one bring forward investment in critical areas of spending like your transport infrastructure, retrofits, whatever to keep people in work. Secondly I'm prepared to put more investment into skills training to ready people for job opportunities that are there, and there's a third point, our economy has in it in any given year, apart from the permanent migration programme, tens and tens and tens of thousands of work permits in areas where we've been short of workers. If our work starts to dry up we have some capacity to free up there.

GUYON You set a goal early in your tenure as Prime Minister of returning New Zealand to the op half of the OECD the rich club of 30 nations. We're languishing somewhere around 22 out of 30, haven't you over promised and under delivered on the economy?

HELEN In many respects we're well up in the top half of the OECD, if you look at all those indicators we publish on our education achievements, so many things we are well well up, but certainly in terms of GDP that’s our gross domestic product per capita,, other countries are moving up fast. It's gotta be remembered New Zealand does not have a sugar daddy like the EU to pour in support.

GUYON No but you’ve been talking for years Prime Minister, we've had the growth and innovation framework, we've had transforming the economy and we are still an economy reliant on commodity based…

HELEN Well actually we are not, we are moving and strengthening that economy enormously, imagine where we would be if we had not done all these things while others were also moving up fast, but I'm glad you mentioned innovation because I am passionate not only about educated and skilled people driving our economy forward under Labour but also about innovation. I care about the research and development tax credit we've made available to our businesses. I want to finish on innovation – I care about the fast forward fund that is going to get much more return from our farmers and primary industry, Guyon …

GUYON Yes these things have only just been brought in after ten years Prime Minister, that fund is not in existence yet, those recent development tax credits haven't even really kicked in.

HELEN And Guyon my point is the National Party has pledged to scrap both of them, the National Party has always opposed research and development tax credits for our businesses, these are some of the reasons why New Zealand hasn’t been able to get its private sector research and development spend up to western country averages, I am determined that we will get it up, we have good schemes in place, the National Party pledged to dump them because it didn’t think innovation was important, if Kiwis want an old fashioned commodity based low skilled poor educated economy vote National, but that’s not the future I want for our country.

GUYON Last week I'm sure you would have liked to talk a lot more about the economy but the week seemed very dominated by the attacks that Labour was preparing on John Key, do you think it was a good idea for Mike Williams to travel to Australia to bring back 24 kilograms of paperwork to have a Cabinet Minister Pete Hodgson in a publicly taxpayer funded research unit pour over looking for wrongdoing that the Australian Fraud Office and the New Zealand Serious Fraud Office couldn’t find?

HELEN Well most people will have lost the details of that question, but let's be clear.

GUYON Well was it a good idea for him to go over there…?

HELEN Okay well you’ve got it now into a sound bite. Look I didn’t feel distracted by that, I had big and important things to talk about last week which didn’t include that. As Vernon Small said earlier on this programme Mike's had a bit of a crusade on this, but so has the New Zealand Herald which sent a journalist to Melbourne to go through the same material. Now look yesterday, at yesterday's Herald, there are two pages devoted to an in depth analysis of this and an editorial, all of which conclude that Mr Key had a lot of questions to answer. I don’t intent to ask those questions, I don’t intend to spend a minute of my time on it, because the critical thing to me is talking about the plan I have and Labour has for the future of New Zealand.

GUYON Sure, but you're creating the impression that you didn’t sanction this trip that you didn’t have much to do with it at all, but you’ve got an iron like grip on your party, you put Mike Williams into a six month silence period after his last appearance on this show.

HELEN And I'd rather like it to stay that way, but as Vernon says he's had a crusade and we have the major newspaper in our country agreeing that there are questions to answer. Now frankly I'm not interested in it, what I'm interested in is how I and Labour lead our country through the worst international financial crisis that has existed since the 1930s, we've got real challenges and I believe how parties deal with these challenges will relate back to basic values. For me it's about keeping a high level of employment, a high level of jobs so our people come out of this okay, I'm committed to that.

GUYON I'm just wondering whether Labour and yourself have become a bit obsessed with attacking John Key.

HELEN Well I'm not particularly interested in attacking at all, what I want properly compared is Labour's visionary approach on how to get economic growth at a high level with better wages, more skills and innovation for the future against an old fashioned commodity based economy approach of the National Party which is do nothing and leave it to the market.

GUYON Do you think he's a trustworthy man John Key?

HELEN Personally no, but that’s a judgement for each and …

GUYON Why not, why not?

HELEN Because – I'd have to go into a long list of flip flops which I really can't be bothered with, but if you look at issues which I have been passionate about not going to an unjust war in Iraq, Mr Key and the National Party attacked me, attacked the Labour Party for staying out of that war, they would have joined the invasion, then he flips round and said he never said it, you can't trust people like that. Now I'm putting myself up as someone who people know very well, you know my record, you know everything there ever is to ask about – let me finish this – I am pitting strong proven leadership against amateur hour and people who have failed in the past and don’t give me please this story about fresh faces, who popped up last week but Lockwood Smith, Maurice Williamson, Murray McCully, Bill English who was there in the last recession and cut the pension and sold Contact Energy, one of the main SOEs.

GUYON Your critics might say, if this election is about trust, why would we trust you when you put your name to a painting that you didn’t paint and you claimed that you didn’t realise when your ministerial motorcade was travelling at 150 ks through South Canterbury, when you kept on a Minister of Foreign Affairs who took $100,000 from Owen Glenn and then pushed for him to take an honorary consul to Monaco, why should they trust you?

HELEN Let's deal with those three issues. The first one you mentioned, I've won two general elections since then, doesn’t that tell you what Kiwis think about me. The second one you mentioned, I've won an election since then. The third one it is very obvious to all that when I learned from Mr Glenn directly that he believed he'd given money to Mr Peters or New Zealand First or whatever, I stopped any further progress on any appointment to any position in Monaco.

GUYON But didn’t that really worry you, you know that he's been given that money.

HELEN That’s why I stopped it.

GUYON But why didn’t you stop his job then?

HELEN Well you know I heard Mr Key question yesterday about a National Party candidate who is accused of doing nefarious things, he said and I quote 'I've taken his word'. I took Mr Peters' word as an Honourable Member as I'm bound to do.

GUYON Do you feel let down by Mr Peters?

HELEN Well I think probably Winston should have, when I raised the issue with him, gone back to his lawyer, to his party and been a lot more searching about whether there'd been money, but you know in a funny way I think he maintained the old convention that leaders should not know the source of funds going into coffers.

GUYON What's new this time? Why should people give you a fourth term, as you heard in that intro and as you know as someone who's as much of a student of political history as a practitioner, it's extremely rare, why should people give Labour another term.

HELEN Well let's talk about history, the Holyoake government ran four terms, and actually was a government which practised a high degree of consensus in the society as ours has. Secondly the first Labour government ran four terms and Savage would undoubtedly have won four terms if he hadn’t tragically died part way through the term of that government, so this is not out of the ordinary at all.

GUYON 1946 was the last time that a Labour government did it.

HELEN Yes, and 1969 the last time the National government did, but these are unusual times and there's no doubt that what was a soft move for a change has now been replaced by well who do we want in charge in the most difficult financial and economic circumstances, New Zealand has experienced this in the 1930s and the world has experienced.

GUYON Let's talk about that because you're facing an economic crisis, you might have a multi party coalition, I know you’ve dealt and dealt well in previous ….

HELEN Anyone would have.

GUYON Yes, you’ve got New Zealand First who wants to rewrite the Reserve Bank Act and reduce GST to 10%, the Maori Party wants to take GST off food, the Greens want a capital gains tax and ecological tax reform commissions.

HELEN ACT wants to slash state spending.

GUYON I just wonder how you could possibly deal in a financial crisis with what John Key's calling a five headed monster?

HELEN Look I've run minority governments for nine years, I am a strong and proven leader, I know that we have a plan that can take New Zealand through. I have worked with small parties in good faith for nine years. In the end they put the interests of New Zealand first, I have total confidence that we can put in place the economic stimulus package and bring this country through in very good shape for when international growth resumes.

GUYON You joined the university branch of the Labour Party in 1972.

HELEN No, in 1971.

GUYON 1971, I stand corrected. You were lecturing at the age of 23 in politics, you’ve been in parliament since 1981, have you got any plans for life outside politics?

HELEN No I haven't, I only have Plan A.

GUYON No other plans, nothing?

HELEN Absolutely not.

GUYON And what is Plan A?

HELEN Plan A is to win this election.

GUYON And how are you ultimately going to do that?

HELEN I'm going to do it by continuing this week to put up strong proven leadership and the only plan to bring New Zealand through this international financial crisis in good shape against those with a secret agenda to set up a razor gang, slash spending, privatise key public services, sell state assets and do all the right wing things they really wanted to do and would use a crisis to do. I say that Labour can be trusted to keep its word when it puts out policy we do what we say and we have shown over nine years that we run a strong financial management of the economy, a strong economy, we put jobs, families, people first.

GUYON Thanks very much back to you Rawdon.

RAWDON Thank you GUYON, now it's the turn of myself and the panel, John Roughan.

JOHN ROUGHAN – New Zealand Herald
Did I hear you tell Guyon that you believe Winston Peters had no idea that Owen Glenn had contributed to his party when he was pushing his case to be honorary consul in Monaco?

HELEN I'm sorry, repeat your question.

JOHN Did I hear you say you had no idea that – or rather that you believe Winston Peters had no idea of the Glenn donation when he was pushing the case?

HELEN Well that’s what he told me John and what I've always said is I accepted his word on that.

JOHN What other reason could he possibly have for wanting a Consul General office in Monaco?

HELEN Well a National MP Mr Worth had been pushing the creation of such a post for quite a long time, actually the Labour government and no government before it had ever made it a priority to have such a post. Now what I can tell you and what you'd be well aware of yourself, is that right around the world older richer men tend to be consuls for New Zealand, honorary consuls, they spend a lot of their own money doing it, so prima facé Mr Glenn would not be out of the ordinary as a candidate, however it's clear from the advice that Foreign Affairs gave that Mr Glenn who spent only three months a year on average in Monaco would not have been selected for that reason alone.

JOHN Mr Peters is doing you enormous damage I suggest, just by your refusal to rule him out of any future coalition given everything that’s happened this year. Wouldn’t you be wiser just to tell us now that he is also out of the equation for you?

HELEN Well I don’t agree with you, and I don’t think taking those sort of fixed positions is very helpful to the political process. I have no idea whether Winston Peters and New Zealand First will be returned to parliament. I can only judge people as I find them and over three years New Zealand First has been a confidence and supply partner like the United Future has been over six years, which has kept its word to Labour on a wide range of issues, so it would be very foolish to rule them out. I also hear that there's consternation in the National Party at Mr Key ruling New Zealand First out because if New Zealand First pops up again like the jack-in-the-box, they are left looking rather foolish. If the people send people to parliament who are within the range of parties that you’ve successfully worked with in the past it would be ridiculous to rule them out of consideration.

VERNON SMALL – Dominion Post
Well moving to other coalition options then, or support party options, the Maori Party has been making noises about entrenching the Maori seats, about the nature of the relationship that’s formed after the election being the crucial thing, and also looking for a Treaty partner, what do you make of that and how would you negotiate with them on that basis?

HELEN Well firstly Vernon I think there's a strong case for entrenchment. In 2001 the select committee on MMP considered that among other issues, and a majority of parliament made up of the Labour Party the Alliance Party and the Green Party all agreed with the principle of entrenchment. At that time it was strongly opposed by both National and ACT but at that time they weren't evincing very active policies of scrapping the seats, now they are, and I believe that the next Labour led government should sit down with people it's working with in parliament and look at taking this issue further, because I think it is unthinkable that a pakeha majority in our parliament should take the right to determine the future of those seats off Maori.

VERNON During the week you implied that while you didn’t have a problem with it in principle that it was an empty gesture in a way because you can't entrench the entrenching clause.

HELEN This is true too but I think it sends a strong moral signal. Look when I used to be a teacher in political studies at the university I used to lecture on this very point, I used to say the entrenchment can be there, and it is there on about six different sections of the act, but in the end the entrenchment clause itself can be overturned by a simple majority. However there's a strong moral force against doing that, but the problem we have now is right wing parties are very committed to abolishing these seats and I think to do that over the heads of the Maori people would be absolutely wrong. The Maori electoral option gives a way forward, when Maori wants the seats they stay, if they don’t they don’t.

VERNON Can I move on to something else that you touched on with Guyon and this is the package that you're going to announce later today, you're saying that if there's a loss of employment as I understand it then you'll bring forward the Broadband, the retrofitting, road building, but this isn't the 30s is it, the people who lose their jobs aren’t going to be able to operate the equipment on the roads, roll out Broadband and retrofit houses are they, they're not the same people.

HELEN Well a lot of this stuff is relatively unskilled work Vernon and in any kind of downturn that tends to be the sort of jobs that goes first, but I think we've gotta be very region specific about that, at this point of course our unemployment is still very low. As I've pointed out there are tens and tens of thousands of work permits given every year and not just for the seasonal industries, so we've got quite a lot of slack there, but a Labour government is not going to sit and just see unemployment inexorably rise, heaven forbid, I think one of the best things that’s come from nine years of a Labour led government is low unemployment which has given people the dignity of being able to provide for themselves and their families and I'm determined to keep it low, I'm determined to make the sort of investments bringing state investment forward that will make that possible.

RAWDON Prime Minister would that mean that to cut immigration would serve your benefit to any purposes?

HELEN I'm not talking about cutting immigration, we have a permanent migration quota and that needs to stay because as we all know we have the brain exchange going on, some Kiwis go, other people come to fill those gaps but on top of that we've tens and tens and tens of thousands of work permits and that is short term stuff which can be more easily lifted and lowered as need requires.

VERNON So are you talking about winding back some of those things like the grape harvesting in Marlborough?

HELEN Well I actually think that would be the last area affected because were still short of seasonal labour in those areas and there'll still be a need for that recognised seasonal employer scheme which brings people in from the Pacific primarily, and that’s done a lot of good for the Pacific.

JOHN No recession is completely cyclical, there's an element of adjustment of permanent adjustment in the economy from things that happen, this recession brought on by financial crisis is probably going to see a reorientation of the economy away from the financial sector and that sort of service industry.

HELEN To a real economy.

JOHN Into a real economy but not possibly in areas that you're talking about beefing up with unemployment in the short term. Now where is the vision for riding with the adjustment in the economy through this recession making sure we're not just wasting labour and wasting a lot of public budget on job schemes.

HELEN Well I would have thought John that Broadband was pretty relevant to a very modern and innovative future, I would have thought by the way that the research and development tax credits and getting more money out of our primary and food industries was very relevant to the future of the economy.

JOHN If they work.

HELEN I would have thought – well I believe they will work and we have seen an incredible uptake of the R&D tax credit, in fact there has been signs until the National Party's disastrous policy was announced that people were relocating research activity to New Zealand because our scheme was so good and better than the Australian one, but if you take the primary industries which are always going to be the backbone of our economy having a decent road and rail network which can shift the goods is actually pretty important for the future of New Zealand, so I see both a hitech future and a much more high value future off our basic primary industries that we've long relied on.

JOHN And railways, railways are gonna be hugely expensive.

HELEN Well railways are incredibly important going forward, do you really want to see the doubling of freight which we are expecting in our system by 2040 all on the highways, I don’t, I feel for the family in the little car that’s trying to battle with the juggernauts, we have to get more of our freight off road on to rail and probably on to coastal shipping as well.

JOHN It's a very bad railway system, it's going to take an awful lot of money to bring it up to any kind of standard isn't it?

HELEN Of course it's going to take investment to bring it up to standard, but look we're left with 19th century links like the one between Palmerston and Wellington where you can't get a modern sized container through the tunnels, we have to change those things that’s part of a modern and future oriented vision for New Zealand.

RAWDON Alright quick question Prime Minister is this the most important week of your political career coming up?

HELEN I've had many important weeks in my political career.

RAWDON But this one?

HELEN Of course it's important and of course this has been a tough campaign but I come back to my key point, this is about strong proven leadership against people who have shown no vision and have very little experience of running a strong economy in the country.

RAWDON Alright thanks very much Prime Minister, Helen Clark.


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