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David Seymour: State of the Nation 2024

Introduction

Good morning, fellow New Zealanders.

Today I’d like to talk about the state of our nation, as our new government establishes itself at the start of 2024. It’s a story about the challenges outside our borders, how we can prepare inside them, and the role ACT plays in making sure we do.

I’ve long said that our country has a long term political cycle. Periods of golden weather, like the 60s and early 70s, and the 90s and early 2000s, are followed by growing frustration, like the early 80s and early 2020s. Each time there is a rebirth. Our nation has a great capacity to reinvent itself, each time becoming more inclusive, mature, and prosperous than before.

One day our new Government will be judged. It could be viewed as midwife to another reborn New Zealand, stronger and freer again. Or, it could turn out to be spectator to ongoing decline until another government takes us somewhere else entirely.

As a wise man once said, you get one shot, one opportunity. New Zealanders are ready for change, and if we don’t take care of their concerns, someone else will.

The world outside

Nearly everywhere you look offshore there be dragons, but New Zealand’s Government has been asleep. For three years our Foreign Minister was also the Minister for Local Government, an impractical arrangement, and she barely left the country.

In the outside world, our only ally is ramping up its defence efforts at an extraordinary rate. So are the Japanese and Chinese among other Pacific powers. Our backyard is a contested space, and it’s part of a worldwide trend of democracy in retreat.

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Since the GFC, fewer and fewer countries practice democracy, and those that do practice it less sincerely. The underlying narrative of the last 30 years - that the good guys always win - is fading to uncertainty.

Nothing sums up the retreat of democracy better than the extraordinary presidential election playing out in the United States. I visited over Christmas and asked dozens of Americans who’s going to win. Now, I was in the South, but the most common answer was Trump ‘because life was better before,’ and because he has quote, ‘steel balls.’

‘The court cases?’ I asked them. ‘Oh, they’re just a jack up because he’s winning.’ Now, I don’t want to take sides in another country’s election, but democracy needs trust in its institutions. When half the people think the leading Republican nominee is corrupt and the other half think the justice system is corrupt for saying so, you have a problem of division.

A divided America is bad news for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and all small countries. We will need to be much braver in a more dangerous world.

It’s easier to be brave when you’ve got your own house in order. As it happens, our country domestically is at one of those inflection points we face every couple of generations.

We cannot serve the world by playing small, but that is the well-worn approach of New Zealand politicians this century. In fact, it’s hard to think of ambitious policies made in New Zealand since the year 2000.

Lost decades

The problem is this century’s first two decades were lost decades under Clark, Key, and Ardern. Their governments had three things in common.

  1. They denied problems.

They said there was no housing crisis when ownership rates were in free fall and houses cost ten times income. They said if kids got more NCEA credits, that was the same as more education, even as our students fell down the international tables. They told us population growth was as good as productivity growth. They told us the gradual erosion of liberal democracy was new and enlightened biculturalism.

  1. They governed without values.

They eroded the simple idea that a person can make a difference in their own life. When did you last hear a political leader plainly state that doing your homework, earning a living, making sure your kids go to school, with lunch, and following the law are just your responsibility? These are basic truths but even reading them out has come to sound quaint in a world where your identity matters more than your actions.

  1. They made bad policy.

Without accepting problems or applying values, bad policy is inevitable. At school, students found the curriculum was gutted, while exams were replaced with credits. Tenancy law, employment law, and criminal law all became fuzzier with more rights and fewer responsibilities. Increasing benefits for people who don’t work became a political contest while the responsibility to work became an afterthought.

That’s just a sample of the last twenty years. That’s why it’s time for real change, but you can see not everyone is on board for this.

Time for real change

The media calls this coalition the most right-wing government since the 1990s. Now, I know our friends in the media are excited about the election result and we welcome them cheering us on from the sidelines. But let’s think about the context they’s saying it in.

Since 1999, New Zealand has had two left-wing governments and one very centrist government. We’ve been drifting to the left – sometimes slowly, sometimes faster.

Over the last quarter of a century, the Clark, Key, and Ardern governments have all eroded the simple idea that YOU are the person that makes the difference in your own life. There’s been a cultural shift towards the idea that if there is a problem to be solved, or if life is to get better, the people in Wellington will do it for us.

Our change in values has resulted in more regulation of how you use and exchange your property, including your own time and money. It’s meant the government is spending more of your money - much of it wasteful - and taxing you more to pay for it.

Since the 1990s, the government has steadily crept further and further into your life. What has been the result?

Education results are going backwards. One in ten working age New Zealanders is on a main benefit. The price of a house is out of reach for most young New Zealanders. Productivity has flatlined.

Accepting reality

If a problem defined is a problem half solved, then Clark, Key, and Ardern’s evasion tells the new Government we must openly accept problems exist. I believe the new Government is refreshingly ready for reality.

We accept that if we don’t figure out how to get kids out of violent homes and into school so they can build their own lives, the costs will be measured in victims and prison beds.

We accept that if we don’t consent building infrastructure and fund it so we have places to live, then a generation will decide they’re not wanted, and live overseas. Politically, we know that Gen-Z will support whichever party makes them property owners, for the rest of their voting lives.

We accept that if government policy doesn’t treat all people equally as human beings, then we will gradually find division becomes the norm.

We accept that if the rate of productivity growth doesn’t increase, then we won’t be able to afford the defence force, the healthcare, or even the holidays of a first world country, and will lose that status.

With a Government that accepts reality, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.

Applying the right values

The sad truth is, the values that made New Zealand strong, unified, and productive have been eroded over the last 25 or so years.

The most important value is that you can make a difference in your own life, and the lives of those you care about. In fact, you are the only person who can do that.

Personal freedom is essential to our collective success. Only a free society unleashes each person’s creative potential, and we simply won’t solve our collective problems while citizens hide their light under a bushel.

We lost decades because too few people stood up to publicly defend these basic values. Worse, too many people are afraid to speak out because doing so means you get labelled or cancelled.

When did you last hear a New Zealand leader – any leader, doesn’t have to be a politician – say the following:

That a person’s hard work, success, and wealth should be celebrated.

That business is a force for good, voluntarily uniting entrepreneurs, investors, workers and customers to achieve together what they couldn’t achieve alone.

That profit is a good thing, because it means people are getting more value from what a business sells than from the resources it consumes.

That higher wages come from higher productivity, not from politicians passing laws.

That lower, flatter taxes encourage people to work, save and invest.

That new regulations should only be foisted on New Zealanders if there is no other solution, and the benefits outweigh the costs.

That if you accept welfare from other taxpayers, certain responsibilities come with it.

That making sure your kids show up to school every day – with lunch – is YOUR responsibility.

That if you break the law, YOU are responsible. Not your mental health, or your workplace.

ACT will continue to proudly defend these values, even if no one else does, because we have to face the root cause of our problems head on.

We are at a turning point. We can put the right values back in government. But we shouldn’t underestimate the massive challenge that lies ahead of us if we try to do so.

There are hundreds of noisy groups who don’t want us to see the right values put into practice. The media will give them a platform every night at 6pm. And it’s too easy for governments to back down in the face of negative headlines.

The forces for more government in your life haven’t gone away. Standing up to them will take courage and initiative.

The good news is that a government that accepts reality and applies the right values can implement better policies. The better news is ACT’s coalition agreement with National and New Zealand First is filled with policies that will make a real difference for a more prosperous, unified, and respectful New Zealand.

Delivering on real change

I want to thank the quarter of a million New Zealanders who put ACT at the Cabinet table for the first time. You’ve empowered us to build a freer country with more opportunity for the generations to come.

ACT’s Ministers are wasting no time delivering on the real change that you voted for.

Brooke van Velden as Workplace Relations Minister has repealed Labour’s so-called “Fair Pay” Agreements and restored 90-day trials for all workers. Now she’s got her sights on simplifying our health and safety laws and clearing up the law around contractors. In short, she is making it easier for one New Zealander to offer another New Zealander a job.

Nicole McKee as the Associate Minister of Justice is going to repeal Parts 5 and 6 of the Arms Act which is causing clubs and ranges around the country to close, review the firearms registry to find out whether it’s actually improving public safety, and rewrite the Arms Act to focus on public safety and simplify the red tape firearms owners face. She’s also going to bring back Three Strikes to ensure the worst criminals get longer in jail, and she will make our anti-money laundering laws simpler.

Karen Chhour has a big challenge turning around Oranga Tamariki. She plans to repeal section 7AA of the OT Act which has led to children being removed from safe, loving homes because their caregivers are the “wrong” race. She also plans to improve the rights and responsibilities of caregivers to give them more autonomy and make it easier for caregivers to offer safe and loving homes for children.

Andrew Hoggard as Associate Environment Minister will improve Farm Environment Plans so they’re more cost-effective and pragmatic for farmers, stop the implementation of new Significant Natural Areas, and begin replacing and reforming Labour’s anti-farming freshwater regulations.

Simon Court as Undersecretary to the RMA and Infrastructure Minister will be supporting the critical task of replacing the RMA and developing new infrastructure funding and financing tools, including PPPs.

Think about this for a moment, because it’s an achievement of everyone here. Finally, there is a genuine rethink on resource management law after two lost decades of kicking the can down the road. And a key voice at the table is an ACT MP who is a civil engineer steeped in free market principles. That is real change.

As Minister for Regulation, I will introduce the Regulatory Standards Act which will ensure that new restrictions on using and exchanging your property will only be made if the problem is defined, the benefits outweigh the costs, and property rights are respected. The Government will establish a Ministry of Regulation which will assess the quality of new and existing legislation and regulation. And it will carry out regulation reviews in sectors like the primary industries, finance, early childhood education, and healthcare occupational licencing, and clear out laws that are sapping Kiwi ingenuity.

In education, the Government will reintroduce the successful partnership school model and allow any state school to become a partnership school. We’re going to get kids back to school by centrally collecting and publishing attendance data and taking enforcement action on truancy. And we’ll restore balance to the New Zealand history curriculum, moving away from the idea that colonisation is to blame for all our problems.

As Associate Health Minister I’m responsible for making Pharmac the modern, efficient medical-tech agency it deserves to be, so Kiwis get their pharmaceuticals like it’s a first world country.

As Associate Finance Minister I’m responsible for cost control. Needless to say, we have our work cut out for us.

Treaty Principles Bill

This week Christopher Luxon asked me to be Associate Minister of Justice, responsible for the Treaty Principles Bill. Ahead of Waitangi Day, I’d like to set out why ACT is advancing a Treaty Principles Bill.

New Zealanders want to ensure that the wrongs of the past are put right and that every child has equal opportunity.

In recent decades, we’ve been told that in order to solve these problems we must become a ‘Tiriti-centric’ New Zealand where there are two types of people in partnership - tangata whenua (land people) and tangata tiriti (Treaty people) - who would each have different political and legal rights.

This is not only untrue, it is incompatible with the fundamental democratic value that all citizens are equal under the law. This divisive idea has been fuelled by unelected bureaucrats and judges promoting a ‘partnership’ interpretation of our founding document.

I have a very simple belief that each of us are united by something much greater than any kind of history or culture - that is, universal humanity. The same rights, the same dignities for every person. And that is what has driven all the good movements in human history – votes for women, the civil rights movement in America, and the end of apartheid in South Africa, along with the rights of people of different sexualities to be themselves and marry as they wish. That's what I believe.

And when it comes to the Treaty of Waitangi, we as a country have a simple choice to make. We can either believe that the Treaty of Waitangi created a partnership between races, as some say, or we can believe that it delivers what it says itself in the Māori version: nga tikanga katoa rite tahi – the same rights and duties. That is the fundamental question.

If you believe that the Treaty is a partnership between races, then you have to believe that tangata whenua have different rights and duties in New Zealand from tangata Tiriti. And that means people get different positions in government, they get treated differently in the workplace, they get treated differently based on who their ancestors were, not on what they do today and the character of their own behaviour.

Or you can believe that we are all equal and that each of us should have a chance and a choice in life to be the best that we can. My belief is that the latter way is the only way forward for any society. Every time we say that people have different rights based on ancestry, we breed resentment. And more importantly, we create the idea that which group you're a member of is more important than your basic value as a person.

Many of the worst events in history came from group first, individual second, thinking. ACT is promoting a proper debate on the Treaty principles, and our Treaty Principles Bill would be a law passed by Parliament that says the Treaty says what it means and means what it says.

We take the Māori text and we take what it literally says: that the government has the right to govern. There is one government. Some say Māori didn't cede sovereignty. The reality is there's five million of us on these islands and the practicalities of living together means there must be one law and Government. That's the first article.

The second article says that we have a right to tino rangatiratanga: self-determination. Now, some people say that only applies to Māori. We argue it should apply to everybody, for a number of reasons. One, as I said, we're all human. Two, many people who are Māori also are proud of many other whakapapa from around the world. So, it seems crazy to try and divide the right to self-determination and property to only apply to some citizens.

We believe that should apply to all, and that's backed up by the third article, which says that we have nga tikanga katoa rite tahi: the same rights and duties.

Our Bill means Parliament would legislate that those are the principles, and that means that we are not a partnership between races. We are not people who have to look at our family tree to find out how we fit in. We're all New Zealanders with the same basic rights and with that platform constitutionally we can get stuck in to tackling the real problems and challenges that New Zealanders face.

Now, here’s the challenge to those who disagree with the Treaty Principles Bill. The arguments we are hearing so far won’t work.

Don’t call anyone who disagrees with you racist. What you say is not only untrue but saying it cheapens the word.

Don’t act like some sixteenth century priest saying we’re not allowed an opinion because we’re not experts. The Treaty fits on one page and we can all read it. Everyone is allowed to hold and express an opinion.

Don’t say, or even hint, that there will be violence if you don’t get your way.

These arguments pave the road to division. Take those arguments off the table and try dialogue like adults.

Instead, you could just answer this: If the Treaty is a Partnership between the Crown and only Māori, then what is the place of a child born in this country today who is not Māori? Are they born into second class citizenship as Tangata Tiriti, where some roles in public life are not available to them because they have the wrong ancestors?

If the answer to that is yes, then where are the successful societies that treat people differently based on their ancestry? What is your model for the future of New Zealand based on those Treaty principles?

If the answer is no, then we have a bright future, but it requires casting off the divisive notion that the Treaty is a partnership between races, between tangata whenua on the one hand and tangata tiriti on the other, and embracing the Treaty as a commitment to all New Zealanders having freedom under the rule of law.

Leaders in Māoridom who have the ear of the young need to ask themselves: are they dealing with the issues responsibly, or simply inciting baseless racial resentment? It is an important question.

Conclusion

Our country has lost two decades this century. We cannot lose another. Thanks to governments that denied reality, eroded our values, and put in place poor policies, we need real change.

New Zealand has become more divided. Social services are dysfunctional. We risk losing the first world status we take for granted if we don’t have the courage to change.

The good news is we have a government prepared to accept reality and solve problems, with policies based on the right values.

That allows us the paradox of optimism. Yes, things are bad, globally, locally, on nearly every front. But the courage to take problems head on, armed with the solutions to solve them, puts a spring in our step.

We’ll need it though, because we face a massive challenge in shifting the values in government and delivering real change. A number of groups stand in the way.

We have a media who seems to be shocked voters picked the wrong team. Their indignity knows no bounds, and the familiar patterns that are eroding media credibility overseas are on show here. If I was a God fearing man, I’d pray for them, but I’m afraid they’ll have to look inside themselves for earthly salvation.

You will have noticed we have a public service, or at least a very few of them, in the habit of writing unflattering advice and mailing it to the opposition or the media. As Brooke van Velden has elegantly said, they are not letting us down, but the majority of professional and committed public servants sitting beside them. I should add that the fact three out of four leaks have been ACT policy shows who they fear the most.

Then there’s a parliamentary opposition who have little interest in honouring the institution. We saw it in Labour’s multiple and demonstrable lies during the campaign, and they’re the ‘responsible’ coalition partner. The Greens’ purge of environmentalists will be complete when James Shaw announces his retirement, leaving them with an identy crisis brought on by identity politics.

Making real, positive change in this landscape can seem like impossible odds.

There is only one force great enough to tip these odds in the favour of quality policy, and that’s you. The people in this room, watching at home, and up and down this great country of ours who share the basic values it is built on.

The value that individual people, given freedom under the law, can make a difference in their own lives and the lives of those they care about.

You are the humble New Zealand battlers willing and able to do the hard yards – to build valuable businesses, raise great kids, and contribute to the tapestry of our culture through language, ideas, and art – thank you. You are the champions of New Zealand’s story. ACT stands for you and our goal is to shift power from the government departments and politicians in Wellington back to you, your family, and your business. I hope you’ll come along for the noble, challenging, and essential ride.

Thank you.

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