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Michael Cullen Speech On Social Justice

Prime Minister Helen Clark, my ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, fellow-members of the Labour Party, tena kotou katoa.

This has been a Conference where we celebrate, we deliberate, and we dedicate and rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of social justice.

That we can celebrate should be obvious to all. The New Zealand we now have the honour to lead is a far better place than the one we inherited. People now take for granted what merely seemed a distant hope in 1999.

Our task for the next year is to tell a simple truth – that the struggle for social justice is never fully won. Each gain that is made can all too easily be lost again.

But let us first celebrate the gains which have been made by the Labour-led Governments over the last eight years. And, in so doing, let us remind ourselves of the next steps we need to take. And let us remind New Zealanders of the threats we and they face to those gains.

As with all good stories let us begin at the beginning. Right at the beginning. For it was in our first term that we introduced paid parental leave. Now we have extended it.

That means a better start to parenthood for many Kiwi families. It means more women can maintain connection with the paid workforce and have more choices in life.

Our task for the future is to extend the length of time that paid parental leave is available. No National government will do that – National voted against paid parental leave saying it was “discriminatory and unfair.”

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Our second great achievement for the early years of life has been to greatly reduce the level of child poverty. When we became the Government nearly one third of New Zealand’s children were being raised in poverty.

That was one of the worst rates of any member of the rich countries’ club, the OECD. National wants us to be in the top half of the OECD on one measure only: GDP per capita. We aim to be in the top half on the things that matter most – and GDP per capita is only one of them.

So Working for Families has dramatically lowered poverty levels amongst children.

But we will have to move to update it from time to time otherwise those poverty levels will start to grow again. And a child raised in poverty is a child deprived of its fair chances in life – especially in a rich country such as ours.

Yet National opposed the Working for Families package. It still fails to state clearly that it will not wind back the across the board increases in maximum rates of $10 per week per child that came into force on 1 April 2007.

Now when you can’t remember how many houses you’ve got, and which one you live in, $20 or $30 a week may seem pretty unimportant. For a lot of Kiwi families it’s crucial.

The third big thing we’ve done in the early years of life has been the institution of an entitlement to 20 hours free early childhood education. As time has gone on it is becoming clearer how successful that has been. It has encouraged new providers meeting the needs of some of the most deprived families, such as the Napier Family Centre in my city. Some 83 per cent of eligible three and four year old children in early childhood education are now enjoying the 20 hours free entitlement.

We need to do more. We need to review regularly the level of payment, especially the sessional payment level. And we should be looking to lift participation rates amongst young children.

National fought bitterly the 20 hours free entitlement policy. They launched their most powerful, attractive and articulate weapon – Paula Bennett - against it. They still refuse to endorse it. But Steve Maharey carried it through.

Like Working for Families the twenty hours free early childhood education entitlement represents a massive attack on the citadel of injustice – and National cannot make up its mind whether to fight back or pretend to run up the white flag of surrender.

When our young Kiwi moves on to school they will find smaller class sizes and more resources thanks to Labour. We have provided close to 5000 additional teachers over and above those required for roll growth. Now we are bringing in a 1:15 ratio for junior classes.

At secondary school we see a whole new qualification system bedding in which provides a far better assessment of student achievement than the old system. Students have the option to try out a Gateway programme to test their interest in particular careers.

Youth apprenticeships are on the way. Both Gateway and youth apprenticeships will need to be rolled out further over time as we seek to ensure we have the trades and technical skills our economy needs.

Both will feed in to the Modern Apprenticeship scheme, one of our flagship programmes. We set ourselves a target of 14,000 active participants in Modern Apprenticeships by the time of the 2008 election.

Well, as at June we were up to 13,838 already. 3549 have completed their training and 10289 are in training. We will almost certainly achieve our 2008 target by the end of this year.

National has tried to white-ant the revival of apprenticeships at every point and to deny responsibility for the catastrophic decline in the 1990s.

And for those going on to polytechnic and university this term of office has seen the institution of interest-free student loans. This was the policy National described as “a calculated and deliberate deception” and still refuses to endorse.

So our young Kiwi enters the full-time paid workforce. And what a change there has been since 1999!

National’s Employment Contracts Act has gone. The deliberate attempt to destroy the trade union movement has been put to one side.

The minimum wage has been increased every year, by at least the average movement in wages. National barely moved it at all in nine years.

Four weeks annual leave has been introduced. National opposed that bitterly.

Above all, we have 362,000 new jobs and an unemployment rate way less than half of National’s average in office. That is why average household incomes have increased in real terms by more than 25 per cent while we have been in office.

And now, to help the average Kiwi prepare better for retirement we have KiwiSaver. It started only four months ago on 1 July. As of just over a week ago KiwiSaver has passed the 250,000 mark. That’s over 250,000 Kiwis getting an upfront kickstart of $1000. That’s over 250,000 Kiwis getting a matching tax credit going into their savings of up to $20 a week with the first lump sum payment after 1 July next year. That’s a huge number of Kiwis in employment getting a matching contribution from their employer - some already and the rest starting from 1 April next year.

KiwiSaver is a programme that is about building our future, owned by us, for us. A more prosperous and secure retirement, more savings to fund our own development, less reliance on foreign capital.

And National opposed it and continues to oppose the enhancements made in this year’s Budget. As Bill English said, with chilling memories of the 1990s when New Zealand Superannuation was cut three times, “retirement income provision in New Zealand is now too generous”.

For retired New Zealanders our first action in office was to restore the floor of New Zealand Superannuation cut by Bill English and National to pay for tax cuts.

Since then we began the cheaper doctors’ visits and pharmaceuticals with our senior citizens. We boosted elective surgery in the crucial areas of hip replacements, knee surgery, and cataract operations.

We’re well through the largest hospital building programme in New Zealand’s history.

And, of course, we have set up the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. A Fund which at 30 June stood at $13.06 billion and by 1 July 2011 is projected to have $27 billion.

A fund that National opposed. A fund that National called a “con”. A fund that Mr Key has said is a reason why we can borrow more.

Mr Key is very keen to borrow more. This man is a money trader, a foreign exchange speculator whose horizon is measured at most in months. He prefers to gamble our future by borrowing to fund his promises.

And now Mr English, once the Southland conservative, has joined him in the borrow or bust brigade. They’ll tell you they’re borrowing for anything except the real reason – to fund whatever tax cuts are necessary to buy office. And Mr English has the hypocritical cheek to talk of an election lolly scramble!

So let’s look at their record. They never cut taxes on the lowest income earners. They never cut taxes on savings. They never cut taxes on the business sector. They did cut taxes on the dead in a fit of emotional empathy!

We’ve cut taxes on business. We’ve cut taxes on savings. We’ve cut taxes on families. We’re introducing tax credits for research and development. We’re going to use the tax system to encourage New Zealand business to expand offshore.

And next year we’ll address personal taxation. Four tests will need to be met – we’re not going to pay for tax cuts by increasing borrowing; we’re going to make sure any tax cuts don’t lead to a cut in social services; we’re going to have to ensure that there is a fair and just element in any tax cuts; and we’re going to have to be satisfied that any tax cuts will not add to the imbalances and pressures in the economy.

At those four tests Mr English started foaming. And in doing so he didn’t realise he had turned himself into a mad ideologue who had only one thought, one idea, one purpose in life.

Which brings us to National’s big problem, its Key problem one might say.

Let’s put aside Mr Key’s casual mendaciousness.

Let’s pretend he really didn’t know where he lived in 2002.

Let’s pretend he didn’t know what his views were on the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Let’s pretend he didn’t know what National’s position was on the war in Iraq in 2003.

Let’s pretend he didn’t now what his own position was on the war in Iraq in 2003.

Let’s pretend he still doesn’t know what his position is.

Let’s pretend he doesn’t even know there is a war in Iraq.

Let’s pretend he doesn’t know what is in any policy document released by National.

Let’s pretend he always believed climate change was a serious issue.

Let’s pretend all of that and much more.

What we cannot pretend is that he presents no threat to all that we have achieved. We cannot pretend he represents a new and vigorous source of innovative policies and ideas to deal with the problems of the future.

For what we have here is another hollow man, another bought and paid for tool of those who want then to buy our country, a Don Brash with the sole additional virtue of being able to walk a plank.

Do not believe that National’s bitter opposition to the Electoral Finance Bill has anything to do with principle. They have millions in the war chest and are terrified they won’t be able to spend it. They have all the belief in freedom of speech of a drunk in a wine cellar.

But their real problem was best summed up, with patent disappointment by a New Zealand Herald editorial, which noted that National was doing very well until it started announcing policy.

Because none of those teasing glimpses of National’s policy positions told us anything new or anything attractive. They had all the allure of me in a spandex bikini.

What we learnt was that National believes in asset sales. What we learnt was that National believes in increasing the cost of going to the doctor and getting pharmaceuticals. What we learnt was that National believed it was a good idea for the private sector to own the public schools.

What we learnt indeed was that for all the smiling flip-flops to adopt Labour’s positions on issue after issue National had really been adopting the position so clearly outlined in the Hollow Men. One should say anything to get into power and then do whatever you wanted afterwards.

So our job over the next year is to remind New Zealanders that National cut New Zealand Superannuation in the last year they were in government and now believe, in their own words, that retirement income provision is too generous.

Our job is to remind them that under National the cost of health care to the average Kiwi kept going up and they have opposed every move we have made to bring it down.

Our job is to remind the young that under National tertiary fees exploded and they have opposed every move we have made to control them.

Our job is to remind ordinary workers that under National working conditions were savagely attacked and National has bitterly opposed every improvement we have made.

Our job is to remind people that National wanted to go to war in Iraq and Labour kept us out and National still can’t tell us where it stands.

Our job is to tell KiwiSavers that we created their savings scheme and National has voted against it at every opportunity.

Our job is to tell New Zealanders that we stopped asset sales. We bought back the rail track. We bought back a controlling interest in Air New Zealand. We built that little green car that’s giving the big Aussie tanks a run for their money. And, given half a chance, National would start flogging off assets again.

And we have to tell New Zealanders that if they are looking for new ideas, if they are looking for the experience that knows how to make new ideas work, if they want a government that believes what they believe, then they need to vote Labour.

For we are the party of the future, as much as we are the party of past achievements and present performance.

We are up for the big challenges, the new challenges that New Zealand faces.

There are many such challenges. I want to mention just three.

Obviously the greatest by far is climate change. We carry no baggage of disbelief on this matter. With David Parker we have the intellectual horsepower to address it.

And address it we must. The evidence is now overwhelming. If we are to present ourselves genuinely as a sustainable nation, guardians of our environment, and contributors to the greatest challenge facing humanity in the first half of the century we must take a bold leadership role.

This will require intensive coordinated world-leading research in the agricultural sector, much greater emphasis on energy efficiency, a continued growth in public transport, the use of economic instruments such as emissions trading, and gaining greater value from each tourist rather than simply growing numbers.

Of course what little we can do in New Zealand will only affect sea levels by a centimetre or two at most. But if we do not walk the talk we will both fail to transform our economy and face the risk of new non-tariff barriers proliferating against us.

Nor can any one nation stand aside from what must be a shared endeavour. Over the next year we have to see through the conclusion of the process we have launched to put in place the legislation for our emissions trading scheme. But that is only the beginning. Following through on a much broader range of issues will be essential.

The second great challenge I would like to touch upon is how to achieve our ambition that all our young people fulfil their full education potential, develop their skills, and move into satisfying and valuable employment.

Much work is going on at the moment involving a wide range of ministers. What we will need to do is to build on initiatives such as Gateway and the new Youth Apprenticeships pilot scheme to build a richly textured set of pathways from school to employment which is centred on the needs of each young person.

Still too many – especially but not exclusively young Maori males – are achieving well below their true potential. This is a loss to themselves and to the nation as a whole.

Through both these two challenges there runs a strong thread of issues which have an important Maori context. Achieving a sound and enduring basis for the relationship between Maori, as New Zealand’s first peoples, and the rest of we later arrivals in this land remains the third great challenge I wish to touch upon.

It covers issues ranging from changes in agriculture and forestry, through indigenous flora and fauna, to sustainable water policies, the management of the natural environment, the foreshore and seabed and much more.

It has been complicated by some recent Tribunal rulings of which we must take careful note and by the growth of conflicting cross-claims which threaten the forward momentum we seek.

It will neither be solved by assertion of some form of historically frozen sovereignty in isolation from the rest of us or by the pretence that we are all exactly the same.

We need to think more carefully, and, in the absence of mutually incomprehensible slogans, about how to achieve a way forward which gives due weight to differing views of the world while not allowing those views to prevent us living together in peace and progress.

Fellow delegates, eight years of a Helen Clark led, Labour led government have delivered great social and economic gains to all our people. But there are still too many for whom we need to deliver more.

And this will always be so. The work of a social democratic government is never done. The natural way of the world is to move in the opposite direction to the way we wish to go, towards greater inequality.

For out of chaos, disorder, conflict, repression, and injustice we seek to create a better world in which we can give full expression to a belief in innate equality and social justice. And as soon as we stop then all begins to move back again to a state of nature.

That is why we go forth from here reconfirmed in our resolve to continue the struggle for a better New Zealand, the struggle to build on what we have already done.

Let us not underestimate the task. No New Zealand government has been re-elected for a fourth time since 1969. No Labour government has been since 1946. We face an immensely well-resourced opposition which is desperate for power since another defeat would spell the end for their entire front bench.

Our advantages are simple. We have, easily, in Helen Clark the best leader. We have a strong organisation. We have the best policies. We know that because Kiwis tell us they don’t want them changed. We are renewing our Caucus and Government. We know how to make MMP work. We have delivered on all our major promises.

This a Labour Party and a Labour Government that can stand tall and proud. We are true to our traditions, true to ourselves, true to New Zealand.

Let’s get out there and go and earn that fourth term.


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