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Michael Cullen Speech To Labour Conference

Finance Minister Michael Cullen Speech To Labour Conference

Fellow delegates,

We hold this conference at a time when we are close to celebrating the fourth anniversary of the election of a Labour-led government. During that time the top end of our line-up has remained remarkably stable. Now we face our third National leader, the never-elected to anything else Don Brash, and our fourth deputy-leader, Nick Smith, who is there to prove Don Brash's claim there are too many adult illiterates in New Zealand. I face, sort of, my fourth finance spokesperson, John Key, though he's not allowed to do the grown up bits which are left to Dr Brash. Though that is the only left thing about Dr Brash.

We are also, of course, close to celebrating the tenth anniversary of the election of Helen Clark as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party. Helen is now the longest serving Labour leader since Walter Nash. If we continue to do things right, she will be the longest serving Labour Prime Minister ever, eclipsing the great Peter Fraser. And that would be a fitting result of Helen's tenacity, intelligence and hard work.

To achieve that will require a third and a fourth term. We have done that once before. National has only done it once. It is, as the sports commentators say, a big ask.

The basic strategic imperatives can be easily summarised as:

- delivering sound and stable government

- delivering progressive government that improves people's lives

- avoiding too many side roads

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- dealing with the unexpected

- working with those prepared to work with us

- dealing to our opponents.

Delivering sound and stable government

This is the top priority. And we have been good at it. It means addressing the fundamentals of sound budgets, the promotion of economic growth, the avoidance of rushed and ill-informed policy making, and the careful building of a variety of solid strategic frameworks in the key areas of policy.

It means the maintenance of unity and discipline at every level of the party.

In other words, it means looking and acting like a long-term government. And that means controlling our own desires to do everything at once, solve all problems, and deliver the promised land to the people by yesterday.

That is why we are moving cautiously on labour market changes, took our time over the holidays issue are, maintaining a strong fiscal stance, and calibrating carefully what can be done when.

But sound and stable is not doing nothing. It is not complacency in the face of poverty and poor health, satisfaction with mediocrity, or the tolerance of injustice. Hence we also need to be

Delivering progressive government that improves people's lives

This, of course, is the heart of the Labour mission. We exist to change things for the better, lift up the downtrodden, give hope to the excluded, and strengthen the foundations of family, community, and society. And as we were founded to change things for the better, National was created to stop us doing it.

We have, of course, done much already in our first four years. We have raised the pension and put it on a sound long term financial footing. We have changed the industrial relations framework. We have restored income related rents and begun to rebuild the state housing stock. We have stopped in its tracks the massive rise in tertiary education fees and reduced the cost of student loans, and we have boosted spending in such key areas as conservation and the arts.

We have also restructured our defence forces so that they are meeting New Zealand's needs and New Zealand's priorities. We have ended the nonsense of saying we are not capable of running our own judicial system as though we are still a tiny British colony. The New Zealand Herald needs to remind itself it is the New Zealand Herald, not the Colonial Herald.

We have reformed the central management of our tertiary education system to serve better our social and economic needs, created a new support system for industry development and then merged it with our trade support agency, boosted venture capital provision, increased investment in research and development, put major funding into Maori capacity building, reorientated our overseas aid effort, and maintained our integrity while making our contribution in international affairs. We walk, talk, and act like a Labour led government and are proud to be such.

But we have so much more to do. The fight to build a just society is never over. The forces of greed and envy and hatred that build injustice and oppression are never permanently overcome.

We have to do more to assist low to middle income families in their struggle to deliver a decent standard of living, so as to give their children real opportunity and security. There is here a stark contrast between the Labour and National parties. Dr Brash says tax cuts for the rich are the top priority. I say higher incomes for low to middle income families are our top priority. We will be happy for the people to choose on that basis alone in 2005.

But, unlike Dr Brash, we won't destroy the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, or borrow to pay for the moves we make. You can, however, expect the first moves in this term of Parliament.

We have, of course, other long term large fiscal demands which we must manage. They include improving our savings levels, pay equity, implementation of the early childhood strategy, the phasing out of asset testing for long stay geriatric care, and the boosting of primary health care. These are all potentially big ticket items which will have to be phased in carefully if we are to maintain our good housekeeping seal of approval.

The second big area I would mention is better early intervention programmes, of which improving the performance of the Children, Young Person, and their Families Service is but part. There are plenty of politicians who want to be tough on crime, but addressing the causes of crime and underachievement have far fewer champions. We have to be there leading them.

The third area I would single out, for it encompasses so much else in the economic area, is to lift our performance in terms of labour productivity growth. This is where we do lag behind too many other developed countries. That means we have a lot of work to do to change mindsets around the need for greater cooperation between government, business, and organised labour. In particular, we need the message to go out loud and clear that investment in lifting workers' productivity is the one absolute prerequisite for high incomes and high wealth.

We cannot forever continue down a path where greater output demands ever more people working longer hours. New Zealand workers have a right to expect that, over time, a Labour government will deliver a better work-life balance. A Labour government, the trade union movement, and business organisations have a duty to work together to produce the productivity gains which will enable us to secure that better balance while remaining internationally competitive.

After all, the easiest, and the worst way to get more leisure is to be made unemployed. The hardest, the best, and the only sustainable way is to lift productivity and share its fruits fairly.

These are just three of my priority areas as Minister of Finance. As a government we have many others - ranging from Treaty issues to infrastructure development to the protection of the South Island high country to how we improve our planning laws. We've got plenty to keep us busy for the next couple of terms or so!

So that means

We must avoid too many side roads

The Labour Party is a broad church with many different congregations. That develops demands for instant action on all kinds of issues. But as a government we need to be conscious that we cannot afford to outpace the tolerance of the broad mass of the people for change. Their values need to be treated with respect too. To adapt the words of Goldenhorse, if we don't quit them they won't quit us.

But if we give the impression we are not concentrating on their main concerns then we will be asking for trouble. Leaders need to lead, but get too far out in front of the troops and it can suddenly get mighty lonely.

In saying that, let us not be trapped by the rhetoric of our opponents. These days any move to improve the status of those who have been discriminated against or downtrodden is labelled by the right as "politically correct."

Well, it is not in my view politically correct to insist that people be treated equally irrespective of race, colour, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. It is just plain commonsense and decency.

It is not politically correct to recognise families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, just a fact of life. It is not politically correct to recognise that only one group of New Zealanders can claim to be the indigenous people of this land, the first settlers of our much-settled nation. That is simply history.

And it is not politically correct to insist that those who have arrived more recently also deserve respect for their cultures and enjoy the full rights of citizenship. That is the only basis on which we can move forward as a nation.

Our fourth imperative is

Dealing with the unexpected

Issues come at us out of the sky. One of the reasons for not trying to juggle too many balls at once is that fate has an unkind tendency to throw more at you at the most unexpected times.

So the war on terrorism did not appear in our 1999 manifesto, nor did leaky houses. Seabeds and foreshores are not to be found in our 2002 manifesto though oceans policy and marine reserves and aquaculture are. These sorts of issues are often deeply divisive, often not well understood, and have the capacity to cause trouble with a capital T.

And when these sorts of issues come up that is when in particular we need to be

Working with people who will work with us

There are still people who talk as if we can make up our minds and that is all there is to it. Well, sometimes that is true. But often we need to work issues through Parliament and that means building majorities. We must first work, in all cases, with our coalition partners in the Progressives. Often, particularly for legislation in areas such as industrial relations and some social legislation, we must work with the Greens. And we depend solely upon United Future for our fundamental stability and for procedural support.

That means building ongoing relationships despite fundamental differences. That is not easy. It is sometimes very frustrating. It often slows things up. It often leaves more ragged edges to our originally perfect design!

But in remembering our friends let us also remember we have to

Deal to our opponents

Now, we are not out to destroy the National Party. Why we should imitate the one thing they are already better at doing themselves! But let us be clear about where they would take New Zealand and make sure the people understand that before the next election.

With Bill English it was never clear where he wanted to go though it was pretty clear where he would end up. That is because so often he agreed more with us than his own mad rightwingers. But he could never bring himself to say so, so he failed by never saying what he meant.

Don Brash will fail whenever he says what he does mean. Already we have the promise to flog off nearly all the remaining state assets. Already we have the bizarre promise of tax cuts for the best off and practically nothing for everybody else. Already we have the apocalyptic language of the messianic right, the giant ego assuming he is the salvation of both his party and the nation.

Here is a man who couldn't beat a used caravan dealer in East Coast Bays a generation ago; who believes the answer to almost everything is privatisation and lower taxes for the rich.

This odd combination of Mr Magoo and Richard Prebble is scarcely going to convince middle New Zealand he is relevant to their needs unless we fail to take him seriously enough so that he slips in under the radar screen.

He has already been hailed by Act as their tenth MP. Given that Ms Awatere-Huata was the ninth that perhaps is an accolade he did not seek. Her best defence, of course, would be to argue that she was taking Act's self-help philosophy too seriously.

Act's whole motivation and position is best summed up by their advance refusal to abide by legislation requiring MPs to disclose their pecuniary interests. I think we all know why! But we must keep up the pressure on a party which lives in a strange world where only those on high incomes create wealth and the vast majority are seen as somehow parasitic.

As for Mr Peters he is more and more the blowfly of New Zealand politics, feeding on whatever bit of the body politic gives off any sense of decay. Or, to change the metaphor, he is like an ageing card dealer on a somewhat run down cruise ship. He oozes his way through life living off a ready leer and sleight of hand. But most of the audience have seen it all before and recognise the lack of substance for what it is.

The Centre Right is not a pretty sight, particularly as there is very little centre to them. With Brash, Rich and Power now all on the front bench National has become the world's first eponymous party. A Brash-Peters-Prebble coalition would be the stuff of political nightmares, a sort of GE free Frankenstein monster.

New Zealanders are getting, and deserve, better than that. Under Helen's leadership we offer real progress, stable and sensible government, a strong economy, a commitment to social justice, an enlightened international role, and the offer of cooperative relationships with all prepared to work for a better New Zealand.

After four years we can list more than just solid achievements. We can point to a change in the framework of political discourse away from the selfish extremism of the 1990s. The choice is now a simple one between a National leadership which is Ruth Richardson in drag or a Labour leadership which values our diversity as a nation and our capacity to build a unique cooperative society in our special corner of the world. Our job is to make the choice clear and trust the people to choose correctly. I have no doubt of their capacity to do so as long as we remain true to ourselves and deliver to them.


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