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Prime Minister's Speech To Labour Party Conference

Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister

‘Labour: Moving New Zealand Ahead’

Leader’s Address to New Zealand Labour Party Conference

Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, Auckland

2.00 pm

Saturday 13 November 2004

Thirty two years ago, in 1972, I attended the Labour Party annual conference for the first time.

It was a time of hope for Labour with the party, led by Norman Kirk, on the road to victory later that year.

Since then, I’ve attended all but one of our conferences – at all points of the electoral cycle and with varying levels of expectations about our chances.

But one would have to go back more than sixty years to find our party where it is today – in the last year of a second term with good electoral prospects.

Every member of this party has contributed to the standing Labour enjoys today – and I thank each of you for your constant support.

Many of you remember, as I do, that it wasn’t always like this – that at times the economic cycle worked against the party, or bad mistakes were made, or we were a house divided – and sometimes it was all three together !

And didn’t this past Labour Weekend’s television programmes about the 1980s and 1990s remind us just how bad times once were !

Those are the times we set out to put behind us in the long journey back to government.

And when we returned there in 1999, we were older, wiser, - and, yes, a lot more humble – appreciating that New Zealanders’ trust had been put in us again and that we must not let people down.

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After fifteen years of helter skelter change, New Zealanders were looking for stability, predictability, and a commitment to the basics which every day households rely on – work, a home, good education, health care when you need it, and security.

Our programme of change set out to provide that, to promise no more than we were sure we could deliver, but also hoping to over deliver on our promises – as we have.

We’ve also seen that providing the basics adds up to more than a sum of their parts.

New Zealanders wanted to feel proud of our country again – to see it succeed and prosper, and offer opportunities for future generations.

And as our economy’s grown, as unemployment’s plummeted, as our films and music, sports people, businesses, and high achievers across the board have attracted international recognition; and as our country’s stood up for the values New Zealanders believe in; we have as a people felt real pride in who and what we are.

That pride is also felt by our party. Across the New Zealand political spectrum, only our Labour-led government could have delivered these results.

It’s our belief in this country as a great place to live, learn, work and do business, as a birthplace of world changing people and ideas, as a land of endless opportunity; and, as a land where we value and celebrate our diversity as part of our identity,

which has made the achievements of the past five years possible.

And it’s that belief in New Zealand and our vision for an even better future which inspires us to seek a new mandate for a third term.

What we’ve created is a strong platform of achievement from which to move New Zealand forward.

Over the past five years, economic growth has averaged 3.7 per cent a year, and New Zealand has emerged as a star performer among western economies.

Growth in the year to June came in at 4.4 per cent, defying the pundits. The consensus forecasts have underestimated our growth in four of the past five years.

The economy’s going so well now that our opponents don’t want to make it an election issue !

I’ve got news for them: we do !

I agree with that Bill Clinton saying: it’s still the economy, stupid !

Because a strong economy makes so many other things possible – and that’s what our government’s been working for these past five years.

Under Labour, unemployment has fallen spectacularly, and there was more good news this week.

Unemployment just hit 3.8 per cent, the lowest level since the Household Labour Force Survey began 18½ years ago.

That’s down from 6.8 per cent in September 1999, down 44 per cent in five years.

Now we’re making huge inroads into unemployment in regions and in parts of our population where it seemed set to be high for ever.

That means families who haven’t seen much work in a couple of generations are getting jobs.

More than 200,000 extra jobs have been created since we came into government. That’s over 100 jobs a day, every day, since we were elected five years ago.

In these past five years we’ve gone from too few jobs for the many looking for them, to too few people for the many jobs !

The numbers on the unemployment benefit have more than halved – and the numbers on working age benefits overall are down by over sixteen per cent. That’s why our opponents are having trouble drawing up policies on welfare ! People on welfare want a chance to work – and under Labour they’re getting that chance. Labour’s policies are working and more New Zealanders are working !

And with the economy growing and so many more people employed, the tax revenue is rolling into the government coffers.

So now you don’t hear our opponents moaning about budget deficits either. They all want to spend the strong surplus we’ve created !

Let’s give full credit to Michael Cullen for running a strong set of government books which any Western country would be proud to have.

But we’ve been able to spend as well – responsibly and on the basics – and we’re getting results.

Education spending is up 39 per cent in the past five years, with especially big increases in early childhood education and skills training, strongly advocated for by our hardworking ministers, Trevor Mallard and Steve Maharey.

Under Labour, early childhood spending will be up by 79 per cent by 2007/08, as we lift quality, and as we move to the twenty hours free education and care across the community-based centres for three and four year olds.

Only last month I took the good news to an early childhood centre operating in a garage in Mangere. Next year, they will have their new purpose built centre, built with the help of a substantial government grant. That means their qualified teachers can do even more with and for those small children, making sure they get the best possible start in life.

We’ve kept pouring money into skills training – to give New Zealanders the best possible chance to fill the gaps in the workplace.

And there are many gaps – the June employer survey showed a net 48 per cent of employers reporting difficulty hiring skilled labour, and even a net 29 per cent say it was hard to hire unskilled labour.

So in September we announced funding for another thousand places in the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme this year, over and above the extra funding provided in the Budget in May.

I’m meeting these apprentices all over New Zealand – in boat building and panel beating; retail and distribution; engineering, construction, tourism, and many other sectors. These young people and their parents are thrilled at the opportunities being provided, and employers are willingly signing on to make it happen.

One small employer told me – if you’d come to me ten years ago and asked me to take on an apprentice, I wouldn’t have done it. But now with a good scheme in place, he’s signed up willingly, and I thank him and the many thousands of companies, large and small, which are investing in the future of our country through skills training.

In education, we’ve funded over 2000 more teachers in our schools than roll numbers require, and we’re getting results. New Zealand fifteen year olds rank well within the top thirty per cent in the OECD for literacy, maths, and science. Our future depends on our young people doing well – and they are !

At tertiary level, participation is high, and our focus now must be on quality and excellence – as it is through the new Centres for Research Excellence and Partnerships for Excellence.

More money was found for student allowances this year, bringing the total number of those eligible up to fifty per cent of all students. And we are keeping both a cap on fee rises and the policy of no interest accruing on students’ loans during a course of study.

In health, spending is up by over forty per cent over five years and we’re seeing the difference.

But, as I acknowledged last year, we needed to make faster progress in some areas.

So this year’s Budget announced a doubling of the number of major joint surgery operations being funded over the next four years.

That means New Zealanders will get the same access to hip and knee surgery as people in Britain – and better access than in Australia. That’s a big achievement !

I want to thank Annette King for her dedication to rolling out the primary healthcare strategy.

We now have 3.7 million New Zealanders enrolled in primary health organisations.

Over the next three years the lower cost scheme for doctors visits and prescriptions will be rolled out to all of them.

Already this year many older New Zealanders have seen their doctor’s fees virtually halved, and their standard prescription fee slashed to $3.00. That means they’re more likely to get the care they need when they need it – and what a difference that can make to people’s lives.

A recent international survey showed that New Zealand comes out ahead of Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States on ease of getting to see a doctor, and on patients feeling that their doctor has a quality relationship with them.

We’ve also invested a lot more in improving law and order - and we’re getting results.

We have more police than ever before – and a record police budget of over $1 billion a year – full marks to George Hawkins.

Now the crime rate is at its lowest since 1983 – and a massive fourteen per cent below its peak in 1996. That’s why our opponents are getting no traction on crime.

And surely it’s no coincidence that crime has come down as unemployment’s come down – lowest unemployment in 18½ years; lowest crime in twenty one years.

As well, the reforms pursued by Phil Goff have resulted in less bail, less parole, and longer sentences for serious offenders – all designed to make the community safer for ordinary New Zealanders.

You don’t mind spending the money if you’re getting the results – and this government gets results – across the economy, employment, education, health, and law and order, - across the basics, across the things which matter to New Zealanders.

Our message to New Zealand is:

Labour looks after the basics – and only Labour will put the needs of ordinary people and families first, as we’ve shown these past five years.

So where from here ?

There’s a lot in the pipeline – not least the big increases in family incomes announced in this year’s Budget.

We know it’s tough, bringing up children on low and modest incomes. Many of our families have to manage very carefully every week, and there are many weeks when there isn’t enough money to do justice to every family member’s needs.

In our first four Budgets, we focused on investing in economic growth, vital public services, and infrastructure, and we’ve been working for the day when something dramatic could be done for families. We’ve built up to this in a careful and responsible way, so our spending can be sustainable.

The good news came in our May Budget. Over the next two and a half years, substantial targeted tax relief is coming for 300,000 households with dependent children.

That’s sixty per cent of all households with dependent children.

Two thirds of these families are in full time or part time work now – and those in work are guaranteed to be better off than they would be on benefits.

The delivery’s already started, with improvements in childcare subsidies and housing assistance from last month. Direct improvements to family income for those eligible begin in April.

By 1 April 2007, families earning $25,000 to $45,000 a year will be on average $95 to $100 a week better off through these changes – and that’s not counting any help from the improved accommodation and childcare subsidies.

These changes will have a dramatic impact on child poverty, reducing it by up to seventy per cent if we use fifty per cent of the median income as the poverty line.

But even if we use sixty per cent of the median as the poverty line, we reduce child poverty by thirty per cent – and at this new level, child poverty in New Zealand reduces well below the European Union’s rates – and will be on a par with that in the Netherlands. This is an outstanding result.

These changes make me proud to be a Labour Prime Minister, knowing the difference they will make to so many of our hardworking families.

Our government works for families – and we want a decent work-life balance for families too.

In the third term of a Labour-led government, every worker is guaranteed four weeks holiday every year.

Without Labour, wouldn’t that be gone by lunchtime, if not by breakfast ? And our opponents would probably steal your lunch as well !

And by the end of next year, under a Labour-led government, paid parental leave will be extended to fourteen weeks after the birth of a baby – meeting the standard set by the International Labour Organisation.

Longer holidays, support for families with new babies, - these are heartland issues for Labour.

And when the economy’s growing, we demand that the gains are shared across the community so that all our people benefit.

But there are also other reasons for making work more attractive.

New Zealand needs more workers. We need more women working. Our rate of women’s participation in work is well below that of the affluent Scandinavian economies.

If our rate rose to level theirs, we would close the gap between average incomes in this country and in the OECD by around a third.

But Scandinavia didn’t persuade its women to work with poor working conditions.

It provides good models of support for working parents and better working conditions.

And that’s why we see decent labour law, holidays, paid parental leave, and quality, affordable early childhood education and care as critical economic policies – working to boost participation rates in employment, and working to boost productivity and prosperity.

We have made some improvements to labour law this year – to strengthen collective bargaining and good faith procedures.

And where a union and an employer agree, it will now be possible to negotiate a bargaining fee – to reduce the problem of free loading, which has irked union members from the time of the Employment Contracts Act.

We agree – it’s dispiriting to pay union fees and support the union through negotiations – and then see those who made no contribution benefit equally.

So much of these past five years has been about rebuilding the basics of a strong economy and a fair society.

That work must go on, because the bar we have to clear is raised ever higher.

What makes our economy strong today is easily superseded by technological change and competition from others.

We face a future of upskilling and innovating to stay ahead – and we face it with confidence.

And while we are proud of what we’ve achieved in health, and education, housing and jobs, and lower crime rates, we know there’s always more to do.

Economic growth has replaced one set of problems with a new set of challenges.

Now we have too few workers for the many jobs and too few skills.

When the economy was struggling, and the population was static, we didn’t have the same pressure on infrastructure.

Now upgrades are urgent across the physical infrastructure of schools, and hospitals, transport and energy – and the investments are being made.

New Zealand is being equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

We’ve reversed the downward spiral of the second half of the twentieth century.

Our country’s moving ahead with a new sense of optimism and confidence.

Next year this party will present a bold agenda for a third term in office and beyond.

We won’t be sitting on our laurels, thinking the job is done.

We will be keeping the momentum going, building strong foundations for sustainable growth, and making the important social investments too.

We’ll be paying special attention to policies which could build the asset base and savings capacity of New Zealanders.

Our rate of home ownership is falling – and that’s especially significant in a country where working people’s main assets have been their homes.

Our rate of saving for old age is low – yet given the opportunity we believe New Zealanders will want to put money aside for retirement.

Last year we set up a new superannuation scheme for the public service.

Already 46 per cent of those eligible have signed up.

Now we’re studying improvements to the scheme, ranging from increasing the government’s employer subsidy to opening it up to other parts of the public sector.

We believe that, given the opportunity, more private sector workers would save for retirement too.

The work-based savings report released recently shows how that could be done – without compulsion, and to the great benefit of workers who wish to plan for a secure retirement.

Then there’s the challenge for families of supporting their children into tertiary education.

While we’ve done a lot in government to increase the affordability of tertiary education, it’s a pipedream to think that we can offer it free to all.

So we will look at ways of supporting families to plan ahead for the inevitable costs, not to replace what the government funds, but to be better prepared to meet the costs which fall on students and families now.

One of the biggest challenges to the future stability of New Zealand has come from those who’ve used Māori as a political target – claiming that the most disadvantaged group in New Zealand is somehow more advantaged than any other group.

As political lies go – that was a whopper, and it’s lost traction through the year.

Most New Zealanders have a deep yearning for this country to move ahead as one – respecting the beliefs and heritage of all our peoples, and wanting all to be treated fairly in this land of our birth and/or of our choice.

I said in February that the breaking of the informal consensus between governments around how to deal with Māori and Treaty-related issues would require a new balance to be struck.

It can’t be winner takes all as both the sovereignty advocates and the conservative parties wanted in their different ways over the foreshore and seabed. There has to be a balance of rights for all.

It is important to acknowledge Māori as the first people to arrive in this land and to acknowledge the guarantees provided by the Crown in the Treaty of Waitangi.

But it’s also important to acknowledge all other peoples who’ve made their homes in New Zealand as being here for the long haul – and not as permanent strangers in what they see as their land too.

In government we are working our way through all policies and programmes to see that they meet genuine needs and are fair to all.

That’s meant changes to scholarship schemes, so that we target them to the skills we need and not to ethnicity.

We are determined to find ways to provide opportunity and security which are fair, and respectful of the needs of all groups, and which ensure that all our communities get a chance to move ahead.

Under our government, a lot more opportunity is available for all New Zealanders, and Māori and Pasifika peoples are as keen to pick it up as anybody else.

In the September quarter of 1999, Māori unemployment was 14.8 per cent. Five years on, September 2004, it’s 8.3 per cent– down by around 44 per cent. There are over 40,000 more Māori in work since Labour was elected in 1999.

Pacific peoples’ unemployment five years ago was 15 per cent. Now it’s 7.7 per cent, down 49 per cent.

Unemployment of other ethnic minority peoples five years ago was 9.3 per cent. Today it’s 6.5 per cent down 30 per cent. I particularly want to thank the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, employers, and government officials who’ve worked so hard to place well qualified new New Zealanders in worthwhile employment, where they can make the contribution to this country which they came here wanting to make.

The truth is that Māori, Pasifika peoples, and other minorities are all much more likely to be standing tall and moving ahead under the policies of this Labour-led government than they were before we were elected.

For Māori, the numbers in early childhood education have almost trebled since 1983, but we’ve still got work to do to bring equal opportunity to Maori and Pasifika children.

The tertiary education participation rates for Māori are now very high, with the numbers at more than twenty times what they were in 1986, but the enrolments are clustered in lower level courses. The challenge is to lift the level of study and qualification being achieved.

But compared with two decades ago, Māoridom is on a roll.

Māori television is up and running and getting good support from viewers.

It’s helping the rollout of the government’s Māori language strategy – aiming over 25 years to have Māori spoken again in most Māori households.

The Māori commercial asset base is substantial at around $9 billion. Māori control up to 37 per cent of New Zealand’s domestic fishing quota, ten per cent of land in the forest estate, and contribute seven per cent of agricultural output.

We are now making faster progress with historical Treaty settlements – with the aim of completing them within ten to fifteen years.

That will mean at some point setting a closing off date for lodging historical claims, and we should discuss when that would be reasonable. We can’t complete historical settlements unless we get all claims into the process.

I said earlier this year that I was concerned that governments over a long period of time had moved ahead on Treaty-related initiatives with little attempt to keep the general public appraised of what was happening.

I believe many New Zealanders felt that these issues had got away on them – and that they didn’t know what was being done in their name by governments over a long period of time.

So now it’s catch up time for the public.

Last year the State Services Commission was funded to establish a Treaty Information Unit, so that those who wanted to know more could access information easily.

In the coming year, the State Services Commission will be funded to foster a public dialogue about the place of the Treaty in contemporary New Zealand, an initiative the Greens have already expressed support for and will be working with us on.

One question often raised is just what is the status of the Treaty in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements – and we do need greater clarity on that.

But that’s not the only question raised about our constitutional arrangements. They are scattered over a range of statutes, and unwritten conventions, and they are not widely understood.

The government believes it is time for a constitutional stocktake, and that the job should be done by a special select committee of Parliament.

We propose that one be set up under the chairpersonship of Hon Peter Dunne with representation from all parties in Parliament who wish to participate.

The committee’s terms of reference will invite it to do a stocktake of how our constitution has developed to where it is today; and to analyse the current arrangements. It will be asked to review other nations’ experiences of constitutional reform, and to look at ways in which New Zealand might approach constitutional reform – if that’s deemed desirable in future.

It’s anticipated that the committee will be able to report back, at least on an interim basis, before the 2005 general election.

Constitutional arrangements should reflect a nation’s sense of identity. For that reason, any future proposals for change would take time to develop, and would need to be part of a full and proper process of public discussion and involvement. We need to look ahead now to how that might be done. With the best will in the world, it’s hard to see how our current arrangements reflect the identity of 21st century New Zealand !

Our platform for a third term will also see New Zealand forging new trade and economic links with countries important to our future.

This month we are likely to conclude a free trade agreement with Thailand. Next year we will begin negotiating one with China. These moves are all about growing opportunity for New Zealand goods and services to be exported profitably, so that we can lift living standards at home.

Later this month I will go with the Australian Prime Minister to a summit in Laos with the ASEAN Leaders. Free trade agreement negotiations are also expected to be launched there. Taken together, ASEAN’s ten countries and Australia and New Zealand have a combined population of over half a billion people, and a GDP exceeding $US700 billion. There are new opportunities for us in the region, and for us to deepen our economic co-operation with Australia.

As well, we’re stepping up our efforts in India – which is projected to be the world’s most populous country within the next three decades.

As New Zealand looks west to East Asia and beyond with our government’s Seriously Asia strategy, so India’s official policy is to “Look East” as far as New Zealand.

Yet we have barely scratched the surface of India’s potential to generate high value tourists and students, or of the potential for collaboration with its dynamic technology sectors.

Our third term agenda will also see New Zealand accepting its international obligations to be a force for sustainable development and for a more peaceful world.

Now that Russia is ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, it comes into force and requires us to meet our commitments. There are costs, but there are also huge benefits. We are positioned to be at the forefront of change, as tackling climate change will drive technology shifts in our economy and society.

Those countries and those companies which embrace the change required will benefit first and benefit most.

Already Meridian Energy, an S.O.E., has become the first company to complete an international sale of Kyoto credits.

Kyoto not only makes environmental sense – it offers good business opportunities too.

I’ve no doubt that a third term in office would see us continue to be heavily engaged in peace and security work offshore.

I’m proud of what New Zealanders have done on our watch, all the way from the Solomons in the Pacific, to East Timor in Asia, and to the Middle East. In Afghanistan we helped make the elections possible. In Southern Iraq we brought basic services to devastated communities.

Under Labour, New Zealand has moved in line with international mandates to bring support and relief to troubled places – and long may that be the case.

The Pacific with its many vulnerabilities is absorbing a lot more of our attention these days – and the effort we are making is worth every cent we invest – from basic education in the Solomons, to sustainable economic development and public service support for Niue.

Next year will see a major review conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. New Zealand will be working with other non-nuclear states to urge the nuclear-weapons states to move to disarm. This will be a hard task in the current climate where the focus is on counter-proliferation rather than disarmament – but we must advocate for what we have long believed – the need for an end to the nuclear arms race.

And let’s be clear; under a Labour-led government, there will be no revisiting of our nuclear free status.

It won’t be gone by lunchtime or by any other time.

It is a foundation of our foreign policy and of New Zealand’s advocacy for a nuclear free world.

It’s part of the uniqueness of New Zealand. Let’s celebrate it, not seek to undermine it.

And while we’re celebrating, let’s celebrate the pride we feel in our culture and heritage – the things that mark us out as special:

the amazing achievements of our filmmakers, sweeping the Oscars in Los Angeles this year, the new award winning film, In My Father’s Den, based on Maurice Gee’s novel, and enthralling audiences around the world, our musicians, who’ve got New Zealand behind them and are taking our music to the world, our visual artists, reflecting the sights, shapes, colours, textures, and perspectives of New Zealand, and this week’s hugely symbolic event, the return from France of an unknown warrior to a tomb of permanent remembrance for all whose loved ones and forebears died overseas. So many of our families were seared by those events.

This is a time to be proud New Zealanders.

After a long hibernation, our country is stirring.

Kiwis returning after years away tell me they can’t believe the difference.

New Zealand is alive, it’s creative, its diverse, it’s interesting, it’s principled, it’s successful – whether you’re talking economic and job statistics, educational achievement, crime figures falling, international initiatives, sports, or arts and culture.

But it’s only a start – a good start- and we don’t want the clock turned back.

There are still families and older citizens struggling; our incomes are still too low; and there are many things we need to do to improve our services, infrastructure, and the quality of our environment.

So our party can’t rest on this journey. We can’t be complacent, we have work to do.

I want to acknowledge all those who’ve made it possible for us to be a good and strong government – starting with every single person who makes up this great party, from the grass roots voter and member to the MPs and Ministers. We couldn’t do it without you.

Jim Anderton has been a tower of strength to me and the government – and I thank him and his Progressive Party for their steadfast support.

United Future’s commitment to stable government has been a critical feature of our second term, and I thank Peter Dunne and his MPs for the open way in which they have dealt with us.

The Greens have also provided support at critical times on issues of great importance to our party.

I also thank New Zealand First for its willingness to work with us on a solution to the issue of foreshore and seabed which honours the interests and mana of all communities.

But on this issue my overwhelming thanks got to Labour’s Maori Members of Parliament who have stood staunch on what they consider to be the best interests of their people – our people – and taking New Zealand forward together.

By this time next year, my wish is to see New Zealand celebrating the return of a Labour-led government.

But there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and we have some hard campaigning to do.

I have no doubt our opponents will be well funded – by those who don’t like government with a human face, and never will.

I’ve no doubt our opponents will scrape the bottom of the barrel for every bit of mud they can find to throw – we’ve had five years of that.

But they’ll mount no challenge on the key issues – the basics, the things which matter most to New Zealanders.

Because they can’t discredit our record:

a growing economy and rising living standards much lower unemployment, rising education standards, better access to healthcare falling crime rates, and a creative, energetic, and dynamic nation, confidently taking its place in the world.

That’s why I’m facing the next election with confidence; that’s why we’ll present bold agendas to move New Zealand ahead; and that’s why I invite our supporters and members throughout New Zealand to rally behind our re-election to a third term.

© Scoop Media

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