David Seymour Address In Reply Speech To Parliament
I rise on behalf of the ACT Party in reply to the Speech from the Throne.
First, I want to acknowledge those we represent.
Thank you to my neighbours in the Epsom Electorate for sending me here again. Serving you has always been my first job. This term, I will keep working hard to build our relationship as your local representative.
Thank you to the 219,031 who gave their Party Vote to ACT. My fellow ACT MPs and I will be your voice in this Parliament. We speak for those who want to make a difference in their own lives, not be fodder for politicians and their grand Government schemes.
We are proud to stand and speak freely in this House. We New Zealanders have elected our 53rd Parliament in a row without violence. It’s a triumph. Barely half a dozen other countries can claim a similar record.
Democracy in Retreat
Unfortunately, while we cherish our democracy, it’s going out of fashion offshore.
I was born in 1983. The first thing I recall seeing on TV, besides Play School, was a group of people attacking a wall. It was covered in graffiti and they celebrated as they pulled it down.
Sometimes you just know something is important, and those images were seared on my young mind.
We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall for two decades. We won, the commies lost. More and more countries turned to freedom and democracy.
Fukuyama said it was the end of history. Helen Clark said we lived in a benign strategic environment.
That was then. Today we watch the wall go back up around Hong Kong.
These are just anecdotes, but there are many to choose from. The wider decline of democracy is a mathematical reality.
Freedom House have studied these things since 1941. They tell us that, since the Global Financial Crisis, democracy has stopped spreading.
Fewer countries practice democracy now than 12 years ago. Those that still do are taking it less seriously than they did then. People decide that our system doesn’t work, so they choose strongmen and populists for leaders.
Dying democracy can be entertaining. At one point the Italians elected a comedian. Not to be outdone, the Ukrainians took a guy who played a fictional president in a political drama and made him their real president.
It’s less funny if we remember the iron law of international relations; the strong do what they can and the weak suffer as they must. We cannot afford to idly ignore this trend unfolding around us.
The spread of democracy is a small country’s best defence policy. If democracy is losing overseas, then we are less safe here.
ACT predicts that New Zealanders will hear a lot more about foreign relations and defence. We will have to spend more on defence to shore up our traditional alliances. We will have to build even stronger ties with our democratic friends around the world.
The question is why? Why are people losing faith in democracy around the world?
There are lots of theories. The internet circulates fake information. Globalisation creates winners and losers. The Russians are interfering in our elections. The media are dying.
So it goes on, but I have a better answer. Democratic governments aren’t solving hard problems for their people. The big promise of western politicians for the last 80 years is this: Let us tax a-third-to-half of what you own, let us regulate what you keep, and everyone will get a decent go.
Too many people feel the big promise has become the big lie. Anyone who looks around the western democracies sees three big problems.
Productivity growth is in the tank. We just aren’t working smarter year-on-year. For some people around the world, wages are actually going backwards. Each year we spend more time following Government rules and less time providing for ourselves and our families.
Demographics are horrible. For as far as the forecaster can see, the number of taxpayers will go down while the number of people depending on them will go up. It’s hard to share the Boomers’ optimism if you can’t afford a home and half your taxes are paying for their healthcare and retirement.
The welfare state as we know it doesn’t work. In every western democracy, there is an underclass failed by state education and trapped by state welfare.
People look at these results and we are no longer the shining city on the hill. The world is no longer moving towards our model, and some are even moving away from it.
It matters for our security, but also because we have the same problems. We don’t confront our problems with real solutions, the Government of the day just throws more money at them. Now that money can just be printed, who would blame them?
Today we look around a world that is getting more dangerous because the values of freedom and democracy are going out of fashion.
It’s perilous and depressing, but what can we actually do about it?
There are not enough New Zealanders to change the world by force, but we can change it by the power of example.
Our country has always been exceptional. We are children of pioneers who travelled further than any other humans for a better tomorrow.
From the bottom of the globe, we must do our part to save freedom and democracy. We must be a beacon of light for a free and democratic future.
We can change the world by example if we have the courage to look into our future and confront our problems with honest conversations about what’s going wrong and what needs to happen instead.
That’s what ACT does, and it’s why ACT has grown so rapidly in difficult times. ‘The only one speaking any sense,’ is what ACT MPs hear over and over again.
The problem is our Government does not offer positive practical solutions to our problems. Instead, we are experiencing our own version of democratic decay. We have our own brand of South Pacific populism, powered by smiles and slogans.
The COVID period shows a laundry list of Government failing to act effectively or efficiently.
No country entered the COVID period with greater advantages than New Zealand. There are some countries that are more remote. There are some with lower population densities. There are some with younger populations. There are some that are wealthier. There are some with better culture and institutions.
No country on earth can match the full package of advantages that New Zealand enjoyed in facing COVID-19.
We have been sold the myth that we went hard and went early, when we had more time than most. We were the 63rd country to register a case.
We were told the policy was ‘test, test, test’ when in reality the Government had the capacity for only 1500 tests per day.
We were told there was no shortage of PPE when health professionals, including constituents I represent, were on TV every night saying they had none.
We were told to be kind while absurd rules separated fathers from watching their firstborn, or even wives being supported through a miscarriage.
We were told it was illegal to go out when no such legal instrument actually existed.
We were told that butchers or greengrocers might give us COVID, but dairies were fine.
I have constituents told they cannot return to visit their dying relatives because it would harm public health, yet the Minister of Health said testing border workers was a ‘big lever to pull.’
We are told RSE workers cannot come to help with the harvest, even though their countries have no COVID and the Australian Government is hoovering them up.
We are told the Government’s contact tracing app will help isolate any outbreaks. The sad truth is, not enough people scan in for it to work at all.
And so it goes on. At every turn, the Government’s response has been like an episode of Dad’s Army, but we were protected by vast oceans and the spirit of our people.
Most importantly, we are about to enter a new world of COVID. Let’s call it COVID 2, The Vaccine Edition.
This month, the giants of the pharmaceutical industry have put their reputation on the line. They told the world they will deliver vaccines imminently and by the million. They’ve said their vaccines will be over 90 per cent effective.
The question is how this Government will navigate COVID 2.
Will our approach to risk be, none? Will we remain closed off to the rest of the world until they have forgotten there even was a pandemic? Will Government decision making remain murky and unpredictable with business forced to guess what the policy might be next week?
That can’t be the best we can do.
Imagine if the Government took an open, transparent and proactive approach to managing COVID in a world with a COVID vaccine?
Imagine if it published scenarios to answer questions such as:
When does it expect to get the vaccine?
How long will it take to distribute and apply it?
How will the Government decide it is safe to reopen the borders?
Will it reopen them to safe countries first?
The thing is, the world is about to drastically change, and our Government hasn’t tried to communicate how it will navigate this new world.
There’s no briefing paper, not scenarios set out, nothing. Flying blind is an injury to so much business, but the insult is this Government doesn’t even feel the need to tell us what their plans are.
Then there’s the economic management. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that our incomes will be lower in 2025 than in 2019. Government will spend nearly half of all money earned. Debt is ballooning.
Make no mistake, we squandered our natural advantages in the COVID period and mortgaged our future to boot.
This can’t be as good as it gets.
Imagine if we were truly world leading instead of just lucky?
So, how should we address COVID 2?
The ACT Party has been saying since July, we need to adopt five principles
- Have a purpose built multi-skilled, public and private sector Epidemic Response Unit like Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Control Centre. The Ministry of Health are lovely people, but they’re a policy shop not up to the multi-faceted operational role that is managing an epidemic response.
- Have Government as the referee, not the player. The role of Government is not to run everything but to set clear rules so we can safely prosper in this environment. In a world with COVID vaccines, we will need clearer and cleverer rules to take advantage of the vaccines’ protection.
- Proactively manage risk. We’ve been isolating people from COVID-riven countries alongside those from countries that haven’t had a case for months. It’s nuts. A world with COVID vaccines will make risk management even more important.
- Use better technology. We can take bigger risks if we have better contact tracing. So far the Government has been technophobic, with its hopeless tracing app being completely ineffective.
- Compare ourselves with the best. We have lived in a state of state-induced fear. The Government has repeatedly told New Zealanders they are lucky not to be the worst. We should be comparing ourselves with the best.
Will we transform our approach from getting lucky to getting smart for COVID Part 2?
That is in the Government’s hands. Our job as an opposition is to give constructive criticism when necessary and make helpful suggestions where possible.
Unfortunately, COVID is just an acute example of Government failure.
It’s no surprise that we have a productivity problem. The real miracle is how much gets produced in spite of Government policy.
This Government will do anything to stop people producing. It doesn’t know where wealth comes from.
Some people think productivity growth doesn’t matter. Well, it matters to people like Bella Powell. It matters to a 15-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis who needs drugs that are funded in other countries but not here.
I hope the Prime Minister will keep her election campaign promise that this Government will do a fulsome review of how Pharmac operates. It is long overdue, but no funding model works if we don’t have the funds available.
Pharmaceuticals alone are enough reason to raise productivity.
Employers are good people. They get together investment capital, a product, and customers to create jobs. You might think that this would be a good thing, to be encouraged.
Yet this Government treats employers like a cash cow for carrying out the social policies they fantasised about as students.
Minimum wage increases beyond what current productivity growth can sustain, and during a lockdown.
Five more sick days for no obvious reason than it is a way for the Government to reward some of its voters at someone else’s expense.
A new public holiday for purely political reasons.
As a young man who runs a very successful ice cream shop in Christchurch recently told me, these changes will cost his small business $150,000 a year.
He asked the Prime Minister, what can I do, should I employ fewer people or raise my prices and lose business so I employ fewer people?
Now the Government wants to bring back national awards, where a whole country gets their wages negotiated in Wellington.
They want the unions to negotiate with a national employer group, to set wages for a whole industry for the whole country.
The first problem is, there’s no national employer group to negotiate with. The second problem is that this isn’t the 1970s. The economy is more complex and jobs vary more than they did then. The third problem is that the national award scheme didn’t work in the 1970s anyway.
We got rid of it because the economy was suffering under the weight of the bureaucracy and unfairness of paying every worker the same regardless of the difficulty of their work or the effort applied to it.
Then they tell us they want to raise income tax. They tell us it’s okay because it will only apply to a small percentage of earners. Since when was it okay to pick on people if they were in a minority?
Well, it seems that it’s okay to pick on a minority if they’re successful.
No wonder we have a productivity problem with the values of this Government. We tell our kids to listen to their teachers, do their homework, get good grades that turn into qualifications that turn into jobs. We tell them to save some of their income and invest it carefully to secure their futures.
The Labour Government tells them that if they do that, they won’t just pay more tax, they’ll pay an even higher tax rate. It is tall poppy syndrome in the tax code and it’s little wonder we struggle to raise productivity when this is the culture our Government promotes.
Then they go after the sectors.
Farmers are the only New Zealanders whose job is to be conservationists. They look after their land because it’s their livelihood. They already have local rules and regulations to deal with outliers as they improve their local environment.
But, oh no, this Government wants to impose impractical, top down, nationwide regulations that would fail any cost benefit analysis, if this Government applied it.
Then there’s energy and resources. Government policy seems determined to prevent New Zealanders exploiting natural resources.
The announcement that oil and gas exploration will be banned will not reduce carbon emissions. It will likely increase them. And it sure has damaged the economy and global confidence in our institutions.
So much of our valuable minerals lie tied up in parts of the DOC estate that have no conservation value, while DOC cannot afford to look after those areas that require conservation. It’s nuts.
As for getting permission from the EPA for relatively straightforward projects, forget it. Best to try your luck in Australia.
Then there’s our global links.
Foreign investors want to send money and know-how to this country. When they do so it raises productivity. It beggars belief that we have a Government department, in the form of the Overseas Investment Office, to try to stop them!
What’s worse, this Government has erected new barriers to foreign investment under the fog of COVID-19.
Then there’s new technology.
I have students from the University of Auckland come to me and say, we can do amazing things for New Zealand with genetic technology. But, oh no, our medieval and superstitious laws mean as soon as we want to take it out of the lab they’re better off moving to California.
Financial technology is much the same. You can’t do peer-to-peer lending under our laws, as Harmoney has found. Over and over, we find that interesting, high-paying, globally connected jobs are just too difficult to create here.
None of these policies raise productivity. This Government is so focused on dividing up the pie for its own political advantage instead of growing it.
This cannot be as good as it gets.
Imagine if we decided instead to make productivity growth our main goal. Imagine if we asked what the barriers to investment jobs and growth are, and set about systematically dismantling them.
This term, ACT will reintroduce the Regulatory Responsibility Bill. The productive sector of this country cannot afford for Government to keep making dumb laws with no problem definition, no cost benefit analysis, and no protection of property rights and freedom to trade.
We could and should go further. We should say that investments originating in friendly, democratic, OECD countries do not have to comply with the Overseas Investment Act. They should be screened only for security threats.
Imagine if we set out to create the world’s friendliest regulatory environment for innovation?
This Government was originally elected to fix a dysfunctional housing market.
I thought housing might change the Government in 2017, when even the beneficiaries of high house prices were getting nervous. I knocked on door after door where people said ‘I’m pleased my home value has gone up, but what about my kids?’
I recently saw a tweet that summed up how badly Labour have failed on housing.
The working class ask if housing can be affordable again.
The National Party says: No.
The Labour Party says: No. Heart emoji. Rainbow emoji. Aroha.
The Government’s flagship solution of Kiwibuild was so disastrous it almost feels unfair to bring it up. The disaster was so predictable.
Then they went after foreign buyers.
Then they wanted to subsidise some buyers.
Now they want to extend the so-called brightline test for a second time.
The cost of sections in Auckland has gone up 900 per cent in the past 25 years. That’s the problem. It’s too hard to get a section consented and services connected to it under our current policies.
Kiwibuild was doomed to fail because it did not solve that problem. Why would anyone think builders could build an affordable home on a $700,000 section just because they were employed by the Government?
The common element in all of this Government’s housing policies is that they’re not interested in solving the shortage. They don’t want to make it easier for the private sector to build homes. They only want to make sure the limited supply goes to people who might vote for them.
This can’t be as good it gets.
Imagine if we had honest conversations about housing and confronted the real problems. Imagine if, instead of trying to blame one generation or the next, we accepted that our policy settings make it too hard, too slow, and too expensive to supply new homes, and set about fixing them.
Our land use planning is broken. Our infrastructure funding model is broken. Our building consent model is broken.
Then imagine if we set about solving the problem with real solutions.
We should take the Productivity Commission’s report Better Urban Planning and replace the Resource Management Act for urban settings.
We should take Infrastructure New Zealand’s City and Regional Partnership Model and create a 30-year partnership.
We should remove councils from the role of building consents. There’s no good reason to think that a Council would know whether a building was being built properly.
If we took those steps, then we could solve one of the big problems all western countries are facing.
Nobody really wants to spend their life fighting their parents or their children. But we risk getting into a spiral where young turn on old with new taxes to take what they see as theirs.
The property market is only half the problem.
The unsustainability of healthcare had superannuation are plain to see every time the Treasury publishes a Long-term Fiscal Outlook report.
The problem is our policies don’t work for the looming demographic crunch. When every couple produced four new taxpayers, retired for a few years and shuffled on, the current system worked.
Now it doesn’t and a demographic crunch is coming.
This can go one of two ways. We can grow and produce our way out of the demographic crunch, or we can set about an intergenerational civil war for decades to come.
Every western democracy is facing this problem. Generational conflict was the background music to Brexit.
This can’t be as good as it gets.
Imagine if, instead of the current Government’s obsession with redistribution, we decided to confront the crunch and address it with policies focused on building and growth. In short, our policy should be for the next generation to build like the boomers.
The Welfare State
We have a welfare state that is a total failure.
Most of those who are doing well, would do perfectly well without it. If the welfare state disappeared from the Epsom Electorate, we would get together, fundraise for our schools, support our neighbours and look after each other.
To us, it is just a cost. We wouldn’t mind if it gave everyone in our country a fair shot, but it does not.
We see 300,000 working-aged adults on welfare.
We see a prison service with some of the highest recidivism rates in the world.
We see an education system with some of the most unequal outcomes in the world.
And what does this Government do?
It takes advantage of a crisis to raise benefit levels, further narrowing the gap between staying home and working.
It sends unskilled and often illiterate former prisoners down the road with $300 and says ‘please don’t go back to your gang mates.’
It closed down charter schools for a day and reopened them with only two changes. Now, they don’t have to reach engagement or achievement standards, but they do have to use union contracts and jump through the Ministry of Education’s hoops.
The Government that says it puts children at the centre of everything puts unions at the centre of education.
This cannot be as good as it gets.
Imagine if we retooled our welfare state.
Imagine if we used electronic income management to manage long term benefit dependency, making sure the money goes to the kids and we break the cycle.
We already do it for youth beneficiaries, why do we neglect the younger children of older beneficiaries?
Imagine if we made prisons places of learning, with early release dependent on educational attainment?
Imagine if we said that education funding belongs to the parents, and they can use their share of the funding to purchase the education best suited to the child, public or private, from a student education account?
Imagine if every child got a tailored service off an open and competitive market, that helped them reach their unique potential.
That would be the policy of a country that wanted to lead the world.
I should mention the naked political power grab that is the Government’s promise to remove the Full Representation rule from the Electoral Act.
At present, a party that wins a seat gets its full representation. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer is in Parliament because of the full representation rule.
Electoral laws should only be changed to solve a real problem for all New Zealand. It beggars belief that this Government wants to change the electoral laws to solve its political problem that the Maori Party is back.
Parties that win a seat must continue to get their full representation. People who give their Party votes to such parties must have their votes count, not be extinguished by a selfish and partisan Labour Party abusing its power.
Whether it’s COVID or productivity or the welfare state, a few things are clear:
The way things are can’t be as good as it gets.
We can imagine a better way.
It takes honest conversations to make progress.
But perhaps the biggest problem we face in New Zealand and across western democracies is not healthcare, welfare, education, productivity or COVID-19. It’s that we can’t speak freely and exchange ideas without being cancelled, de-platformed, censored or ostracized.
In this House we have freedom of speech. I personally have so many enemies that I needn’t worry about offending a few more. I guess that’s one form of protection.
But so many people feel keenly that it is risky to express their views.
I don’t know if it’s the internet, helicopter parenting, or smaller family sizes meaning we grow up with less rough and tumble, but there is something cultural going on where people feel they will be shouted down or worse if their opinion diverges from the accepted norm.
The only thing that can make it worse is the Government legislating against free speech.
They say they want to ban ‘hateful speech.’ The problem is deciding what that is. One person’s satire is another person’s offence. One person’s hate is another’s sincerely held belief.
There’s just no way of deciding what hate speech is without forcing one person’s prejudices on another.
That’s why free speech is the ultimate minority right. Those who are in the mainstream don’t need the protection of free speech. What they say is already accepted. It is those who are different who need the right to think their thoughts and speak their mind without fear of mob rule.
It’s a freedom that allows us to work through our problems as a society. It’s also a freedom that makes us human. Only humans each have unique thoughts. Denying the right to express ourselves denies our humanity.
That’s why freedom of expression must be defended more than any other freedom in our Bill of Rights.
In the last parliament, ACT stood alone for freedom of speech. The only difference in this Parliament is that there’s ten of us. Last time the Government threatened to restrict speech in New Zealand, but wisely backed off from doing so.
Let me be very clear that ACT will fight any move to restrict freedom of speech in this House. We are outnumbered here. The Government could choose to force such restrictions through Parliament. But they are outnumbered in New Zealand. If the Government restricts free speech, ACT will campaign to the people for a Citizens’ Initiated Referendum to overturn the restrictions.
The free and democratic world must awake from the slumber we’ve been in since the Cold War ended. We have real problems, and we don’t just need to solve them. We need to show that democratic countries can solve them.
We need to raise productivity, build homes, make the welfare state work for those who need it most, and confront our demographic problems.
We need to realise this can’t be as good as it gets.
The South Pacific populism of smiles and slogans won’t cut it.
We need imagination and honest conversations. We need the courage to look into our future and confront our country’s challenges.
Then we need to put forward real solutions. If we get it right, we’ll be a beacon of light to the world.
We will do our part to save freedom and democracy for the world, by way of example from the bottom of the earth.
That’s what our country needs, and what ACT is here to deliver.