Prime Minister's speech to Labour Party Congress
Rt Hon Helen Clark Prime Minister - Address at New Zealand Labour Party Congress, Wellington Town Hall Wellington, 2.00 pm Saturday 12 April 2008.
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It’s great to be addressing this New Zealand Labour Party Congress in the run up to the 2008 General Election.
That’s because it’s my honour and privilege to be your leader and to be leading our party into an election campaign for the fifth time.
It’s also because I’m optimistic about our prospects.
That’s not because I believe we’ve always got everything right, or always performed as well as we should have.
Nor do I believe there are no problems left to solve after 8½ years in office.
Clearly there are – and new issues and challenges will always come along.
But I stand before you optimistic :
because I believe Labour offers strong leadership to New Zealand in these times of international uncertainty, because I believe Labour has the best plan for the future of our country, and because I believe that we have shown in government that we deliver on our promises and we keep our word to voters.
That’s why I’ve stepped forward to take on the challenge of election for the fourth term of a Labour-led Government.
I believe in what we are doing with and for New Zealand and New Zealanders.
I believe we have made a difference for the better for so many across our communities – Pakeha, Maori, Pasifika, and Asian and other emerging communities.
I am determined that we will keep on making that difference so that every New Zealander benefits from our plan for the future.
Our Labour Government has been able to make a big difference because we’ve looked after the basics.
We must keep looking after the basics, knowing that there are people with big mortgages or paying high rents who are under financial pressure right now. They need Working for Families, they need their tax cut, and they need the cheaper doctor’s fees and early childhood education, which Labour has made possible.
We’ve been committed to growing a stronger economy, better able to withstand offshore volatility, like that being experienced at the present time, and providing more opportunity and security to New Zealanders
We’ve invested the proceeds of growth back into health and education, families, other services and infrastructure.
Our economy has now experienced the longest run of continuous economic growth since the Second World War.
That has to be more than just good luck !
That long run of growth has seen us realising every Labour Government’s dream of low unemployment – indeed it’s among the lowest in the world.
Today, Ruth Dyson and I have announced that the number of Kiwis on unemployment benefit has fallen below 20,000.
That’s the lowest number since 1979 – and our population was a million smaller then.
That’s a decline in people on unemployment benefits of 88 per cent since we came to government in December 1999.
At that time, 161,128 of our people were on that benefit.
On 31 March this year, the number was 19,034.
This big drop has meant a lot especially to those communities who were hurt most by high unemployment – Maori, Pasifika, and new migrant communities.
Now they too have hope for the future.
I believe that the best form of social security is a job, and the right to stand on your own feet and stand tall.
Restoring that right has been fundamental to our Labour Government and always will be.
But we haven’t said that just any job with low pay and poor conditions will do – it won’t.
Our people’s pay and conditions slumped well behind Australia’s during the awful years of the Employment Contracts Act.
We scrapped that Act.
Labour stands for fair labour law, fair conditions, and fair wages.
Every year we’ve raised the minimum wage – and we’ll continue to do so.
It now stands at twelve dollars an hour – and our young people are entitled to it too after a short transition period.
We’ve added a fourth week’s annual holiday to workers’ entitlements.
And now before Parliament we have a bill giving workers rights in law to meal and rest breaks, and to facilities for mothers to breastfeed their babies.
But the best wages will come from having a more highly skilled workforce.
We’ve invested hugely in that – and we must keep doing so.
We believe in apprenticeship training for young people – 15,000 are either in Modern Apprenticeship courses or have successfully completed one.
The numbers in work-based training overall have doubled under Labour to around 170,000.
A couple of weeks ago I visited apprentices at the Red Stag timber company in Rotorua. They included young workers and workers getting second chance education. All were proud of what they were achieving with the company’s support – and they are filling vital skill slots in the work place.
Now we’re moving forward with the support of Business New Zealand and the CTU on an even more ambitious strategy to upskill the existing workforce.
As well, we’ve announced the far reaching Schools Plus policy to support our teenagers achieving more in education and training.
Under Labour’s plan for the future, all our young people will be in some form of education or training until the age of eighteen.
At age sixteen and seventeen, that may mean being in work, but also acquiring a skill.
For our future as a prosperous, first world nation, we need our young people getting more qualifications and skills.
That’s what every family dreams of for their children.
We want to see our young people do well – and we can do more to give them every opportunity to succeed.
Schools Plus will help young people across our communities, but particularly Maori and Pasifika teens who currently leave education with fewer qualifications than other young people.
All over New Zealand I see secondary schools working to cater for young people’s interests and help them gain a skill :
from the carpentry and media courses at Northland College, to the Services Academy at James Cook High School in Manurewa, and the strong Gateway programmes at Rotorua Girls’ High and many other schools.
Now we are building on that through Schools Plus, including by rolling out Youth Apprenticeships for students from year ten up.
A revolution is going on in education, and I’m confident it will succeed in keeping many more of our young people in the system for longer and achieving more.
That helps our whole country meet its potential.
But this is just one of many new parts of Labour’s plan for the future.
The National Party needs a new script – they are the ones now looking tired and out of touch.
Their hands off, free market approach never worked for New Zealand and never will.
Their future is a failed past.
Labour’s strong leadership on the economy, and our proactive policies of upskilling and investment in New Zealand and New Zealanders do work.
Last month Jim Anderton and I announced the biggest boost for science and research in New Zealand’s history.
It’s aimed at the big pastoral and food sectors, which contribute more than half our export earnings.
But those sectors are under challenge and it can’t be business as usual.
There’s no future in trying to compete with the low cost, high volume producers.
That would put us in a race to the bottom of the ladder.
We must aim to compete on quality with high value products and smart branding and marketing.
The new Fast Forward Fund will support us securing that position in global markets.
Building sustainability into our business models is a key part of that.
And that’s a big part of our plan for the future in its own right.
This Labour-led Government has staked out a position of world leadership in developing comprehensive sustainability policies.
Just a week ago I was at the Progressive Governance Conference in London, with former US President Bill Clinton among others.
He observed that the nations which had made commitments under the Kyoto Protocol had every intention of meeting them, but many had lacked systems to do so.
That was true of New Zealand, but we are making up for lost time.
Our plan for the future must include a cap and trade scheme for greenhouse gas emissions, afforestation and reafforestation, biofuels, and much else besides.
I lay down this challenge to our opponents : Will they be part of the solution to the worldwide challenge of climate change and back the major government legislation now before Parliament, or will they revert to climate change denial in the run up to the election as some of their members advocate ?
The jury is out on their intentions at present.
Another key part of our plan for the future was unveiled this week when I went to China.
Our Labour-led Government will leave no stone unturned to open up opportunity for Kiwi exporters.
New Zealand now has a 25 year old free trade agreement with Australia – and it’s given our economy a tremendous boost.
So did the Uruguay GATT Round, and so will the WTO’s Doha Round if it’s given a chance.
But we can’t sit round waiting for that to happen – it’s dragged on for six and a half years now.
We took a decision to explore new trade agreements which would offer real benefit to New Zealand.
The China FTA is huge for our country – and it’s one of the most important trade deals to be done anywhere in the world this year.
We’ve taken a strategic decision to engage in this way with China.
It’s now our third biggest trade partner; it’s a huge and fast growing economy; and it’s an emerging super power.
It’s in all our interests that China is involved in rules-based multilateralism.
The commitments China has made to New Zealand, and in its WTO accession agreement, shows that it is serious about that too.
The FTA we have signed removes tariffs on 96 per cent of our goods going into China over time. That’s estimated to benefit us by between $US180 million to $US280 million a year.
We also have agreements with China on labour and the environment.
The whole FTA package is of great significance to New Zealand – and I thank the CTU and our affiliate, the EPMU, for their constructive response.
I also thank the very wide cross section of the New Zealand business community which has come out in support of the FTA.
In my meeting with the Chinese Premier he specifically invited New Zealand to play a role in supporting China’s development of a low carbon economy and climate change mitigation.
I believe there is all the opportunity in the world for our smart environmental technology and services companies to take advantage of the new FTA and do just that.
The FTA has not been concluded in a vacuum.
It’s been a hard fought trade negotiation, running over three years.
The FTA must also be seen in the context of work done to build the relationship with China over 35 years of diplomatic relations.
I do believe China acknowledges and respects New Zealand’s independent and principled foreign policy.
That’s why it was important for me to raise the issues of human rights and Tibet in my meeting with China’s Premier.
I am satisfied that the Premier listened to the views I expressed and responded courteously.
We will maintain our human rights dialogue with China.
Indeed we will strengthen it as the Premier invited us to do.
The FTA with China is all about planning for our future – a future where we in New Zealand are ambitious, entrepreneurial, and outward looking.
Opening up trade, and increasing investment in education, skills, and innovation, are critical to that future.
But so are modern infrastructure and lifting our savings.
Our government has a huge forward programme of investment in the transport infrastructure – across road and rail, and in public transport.
In Auckland alone, the evidence is plain for all to see, with the new North Shore busway, double tracking the Western rail line, upgrading stations, and new motorway connections. Much more is to come, including electrification of the Auckland rail system.
The level of investment in the electricity transmission and generation sector – much of it in public ownership – is very significant. We are prioritising renewables – that’s the way of the future too.
The telecommunications infrastructure is modernising fast – following our major legislation of 2006.
Increasing competition is leading to lower retail prices for telco services, and the broadband market is growing strongly.
Our plan for the future will include new initiatives for high speed internet access – so critical to lifting productivity and to enhancing education, healthcare, and the quality of our citizens’ lives.
And on the subject of infrastructure, a critical decision was announced yesterday by Cabinet Ministers, David Parker and Clayton Cosgrove.
They turned down a bid for a forty per cent foreign ownership stake in Auckland Airport.
They did not believe the benefit to New Zealand of conceding that stake was substantial and identifiable.
I support their decision.
The National Party and Act have made it plain where they stand. “Sell it off !”, they cry.
This is a defining issue.
In Labour, we support special scrutiny being applied to bids for foreign ownership of strategic infrastructure on sensitive land.
Some years ago, our government bought back an 80 per cent plus share of Air New Zealand after its privatisation had failed.
National opposed that too.
Yet Air New Zealand today with strong government support is playing a vital role in promoting New Zealand tourism in association with New Zealand’s sustainability brand.
We’ve bought back the rail track throughout New Zealand – and we’ve been negotiating to buy the services too.
National says – “do that, and we’ll sell it again”.
We have a vision for the future of New Zealand which sees New Zealanders in control of their destiny – and not as a small pawn in the plans of others.
Everything we do is aimed at strengthening New Zealand’s ability to compete successfully on the world stage.
And that’s why KiwiSaver is such an important part of our plan for the future.
It’s important for individual New Zealanders because it gives greater security in retirement and helps with the deposit for a first home.
It’s important for our economy because it builds up our nation’s savings.
Because of our poor savings record, we’ve had to import other people’s savings.
KiwiSaver gives greater depth to our capital markets – that’s good for New Zealand.
By Easter more than half a million New Zealanders had signed up for KiwiSaver.
That’s half a million New Zealanders planning for their future – like the young couple who came in to meet me with their new baby recently.
They signed their baby up for KiwiSaver because they want him to be in a more secure financial position than has been possible for them.
KiwiSaver with its personal tax credits and employer contributions is a very attractive scheme.
But there’s a catch : KiwiSaver’s future – like New Zealand Superannuation’s – is only guaranteed under Labour.
The National Party says Labour spends too much on retirement income and savings.
What does that mean ? It can only mean cutbacks to KiwiSaver and New Zealand Superannuation – making life for the superannuitants of today and tomorrow much less secure.
National doesn’t plan for the future – it dreams of a past which sold New Zealanders short.
And that leopard doesn’t change its spots.
Over many years they ran down our health system, our education system, our public housing, our police force, our family services, and our infrastructure.
We’ve been reinvesting heavily now for eight and a half years.
That’s why there are now :
thousands more teachers, doctors and nurses, twenty hours free early childhood education a week for three and four year olds. Like me, you must be meeting the families saving $80 or more a week from this policy. Cheaper doctor’s fees for all age groups, saving everyone a lot of money when they are sick.
We have to keep those critical investments going.
They not only build a stronger, healthier society – but they underpin our plans for a wealthier, more productive economy and higher living standards too.
It’s true that real household income under Labour has risen on average by 25 per cent – that’s over and above inflation.
Working for families has made a big difference to seventy per cent of our families with children – and I get wonderful letters from people telling me what it means to them. Like this one:
“Working for families has meant the difference for me and my son in being able to eat decent food and not having to stress any more about when I can juggle the budget in order to buy food. Any day I run out of a food item, I can just go out and buy it. This might not seem much to someone who has never had to struggle, but I can tell you for me it is HUGE. Thank you so much for looking after the families in this country.”
There are also many families who see a number of Labour policies working for them. This letter spells it out:
like to take this opportunity to say a personal thank you
for the changes your government has implemented that have
made a huge personal difference to my family. I currently
have an interest free student loan. Last year, my partner
and I purchased our first home using the Welcome Home loan
scheme. We have two beautiful daughters who attend
pre-school with the support of the child care subsidy, as I
am currently studying a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. We
receive a weekly support from Working for Families. I can
honestly say that if you had not been elected, buying our
home and studying nursing would have absolutely not been
possible for us. We have also just signed up for KiwiSaver.
I know financially life is only going to get easier for us,
and I will reflect back on this time and be truly grateful
for the opportunities we have been given. In the future, I
plan to look at the ways we can give back to a society that
we have received so much from.”
I feel proud to hear feedback like that because it tells me that our policies are working.
But there’s a catch for our families – these policies are only guaranteed under Labour.
National won’t commit to KiwiSaver, or Working for Families, or 20 Hours Free childcare, or cheaper doctor’s fees, or mortgage assistance.
In fact, its reckless policy of borrowing for tax cuts would increase mortgage interest rates and make housing affordability problems much worse.
Labour acknowledges the financial pressures on many hardworking Kiwi households.
The programme of tax cuts we will announce in this year’s Budget will help relieve that pressure – while we also commit to maintaining our vital investments in health, education and other services.
And our plan for the future does include initiatives for more affordable starter homes.
Not enough are being built – in effect there’s market failure.
House prices have levelled off and fallen back in many areas – but not enough to give many families a chance of home ownership.
The plan Labour is working on aims to make the dream of owning your own home realistic for young couples again.
In Labour’s plan for the future, the Kiwi family, young and old, is central.
It’s for the Kiwi family that we invest in the strong economy which will boost living standards and in the key services like health and education which underpin them.
Ours is a message of hope.
New Zealand’s best days are ahead of us, not behind us.
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
There’s still so much to do.
But we’re making a lot of progress on many fronts – whether we are talking Treaty and Foreshore and Seabed settlements - with Michael Cullen and iwi now setting a fast pace; or Pasifika unemployment going under five per cent; or our commitment to inclusion and making all our communities feel valued for their unique contribution to our country.
And that taonga unique to New Zealand, te reo Maori, has a new channel at Maori Television broadcasting in it three hours every night.
Internationally we can hold our heads high.
We’ve maintained an independent foreign policy.
We’ve focused on peacebuilding, not war, in troubled nations.
We were staunch on Iraq, as we are on nuclear free New Zealand.
We know National would have buckled under pressure.
We are part of the solution to the huge climate change problem – not in denial about it.
We are increasing our development assistance to poor nations – particularly our South Pacific neighbours.
We are building broadly based relationships around the Asia-Pacific, which include improving our trade access.
All up, we’ve got big plans for New Zealand – building on our country’s positives – not dwelling on or salivating over the negatives.
Yes, we’ll ensure that the serious violent criminal is put away for a long time; but we don’t want low risk offenders clogging up prison beds, and we want better rehabilitation and less recidivism from the prison system.
Yes, we’ll deal with youth crime like tagging; but we’ll build youth potential too, and not regard every teen in low income suburbs as a potential criminal.
Yes, we’ll work for non-violent families, but never in a way which penalises good and caring parents.
Yes, we recognise that there are families, children, and young people at risk from poverty, violence, and disorders, and we will work with NGOs to meet their needs. That’s why we’ve announced that for community based agencies, we’ll pay 100 per cent of the costs of the essential services they contract to provide.
The opposition sees New Zealand’s glass as virtually empty.
I see it as far more than half full.
Of course there’s work to do – there always is.
People’s aspirations are rising – and they should.
Our plan for the future has to enable our people to fulfil their dreams of a life in New Zealand which offers fairness, opportunity, and security to all.
On our record to date, we know we can achieve that.
Our job now is to campaign with passion and energy to continue the work we have begun in the service of New Zealand.
I’m up for it ! I know you are too.
Let’s just do it !