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Maxim Institute - Real Issues No. 331

Real Issues No. 331 - The Speech from the Throne

Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 331 11 December 2008

The Speech from the Throne


Maxim in the media 2008 Global Accountability Report

The Speech From The Throne

The new Parliament opened this week, and amid the traditional pomp and parliamentary theatre, the new Government's programme was unveiled. The Speech from the Throne (read for the Queen by His Excellency the Governor-General, but written by the new Government) sets out the Government's legislative priorities and vision, and kicks off the traditional replying debate.

On the new Government's agenda are probationary periods for employees, tax relief, changes to KiwiSaver, national standards in education and a review of the emissions trading scheme. In the longer term, the speech promises reforms to criminal justice, the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act, and further investment in broadband and infrastructure projects.

Nothing in the Government's wish list comes as a surprise to those who read its pre-election manifesto. And it is equally true that the Government has a mandate to implement those policies on which it campaigned. While many of the policy changes are badly needed, the use of urgency to rush through legislation before the Christmas break shows an indecorous and imprudent disregard for the process of Parliament. We should be concerned about process regardless of whether we agree that the particular policy changes are good ones.

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Take the probationary employment legislation. In principle, probationary employment periods are a good idea. They enable risk-taking, letting small business owners take a chance on someone secure in the knowledge they will not be made to pay for the chance they have taken with an expensive protracted legal battle if things do not work out. This allows vulnerable workers, like those with a disability, those with previous criminal convictions or low skills, to get their foot in the door -- a chance at a real and solid future. That said, however good the Bill is, it should not be rushed through without proper consultation, or a chance to hear and heed dissenting voices in the wider public. Robust debate and thoughtful consideration cannot be short-cutted if we are to have the best legislation possible. Proper process also means that we the people are more likely to accept the laws as legitimate and feel a sense of ownership and acceptance of them, if we can see that they have been through a fair process and that dissenting opinions have been heard and engaged with.

We have a process for a reason -- and in recent times there have been too many examples of it being circumvented in the service of political expediency. Our country is waiting for someone to call a halt to what constitutional law expert Professor Jeremy Waldron calls 'parliamentary abuses'; it is time we learnt our lesson, if we want good legislation we need to allow the time that is required to make it.

The tax legislation, which will reduce tax rates from 1 April 2009, was clearly spelt out before the election. In the hard economic times which our country is now facing, some relief for battling Kiwis is welcome, and there is further good news in that tax rates will be reduced in a stepwise fashion by 2011. But the tax structure itself requires a deeper overhaul, not just minor tinkering with rates and thresholds. Recent moves have made it more complicated, as it has been used to alter behaviour and favour particular sectors in society, rather than pay for needed services. We need a vision of government as servant, not master; protector, not dominator, able to exercise wise, prudent and restrained stewardship of the public purse. Simple tax cuts, helpful in themselves, will not address the substantive issue, which is contingent on a government sticking to its proper job, believing in civil society and trusting ordinary people. Recent governments have conspicuously failed to do this, preferring to prod people with a tax system that is now in need of reform.

National Standards in literacy and numeracy, along with 'plain English' reporting for parents, is also on the agenda. National standards give parents a yard-stick and teachers a goal. Clear expectations and clear reporting of progress can only be a good thing, and national benchmarks are long overdue, as is the repeal of the Electoral Finance Act, which the speech rightly describes as 'a yoke on free speech.' That yoke cannot be broken soon enough.

The Government's wider focus would seem to allow further room for trusting people and allowing them to grow. The Speech from the Throne sets out that: '... my government will not seek to involve itself in decisions that are best made by New Zealanders within their own homes and their own communities.' Instead, endorsing a '... belief in the capacity and right of individuals to shape and improve their own lives.' Further, the speech also balanced the traditional conservative emphasis on freedom and aspiration, with an equally traditional commitment to stewarding the social fabric in areas like youth development. The speech also said that the government would '... take seriously the importance of the obligations and ties we each, as citizens and as communities, have to each other.'

The rhetoric is good, but the reality must match it. If the government is breaking yokes on free speech and reducing the tax burden, it must match these goals with a real and firm commitment to providing an environment where communities can deal effectively with issues such as poverty, disconnection, family breakdown, drugs, the weights of dependency and hopelessness which drag down so many of our people. It must follow through on its promise of 'a brighter future' for all, and match its commitments to them in the speech with concrete action to give more decision-making power and agency to communities, more support and independence to civil society, more protection to community cohesion and more leadership communicating to people a vision which encourages them to take their responsibilities of citizenship seriously.

In its programme, it should be driven not only by a desire for growth, but an equal and matching sense of solidarity and a respect for the common good. There are promising signs of such a sense in the speech, but as we have learned the hard way, talk is cheap. Action must follow it. Issues like family breakdown and the strength of families in general, have taken a back seat to economic issues -- perhaps understandably in the current climate. But family ought to be a cornerstone and not an afterthought, especially if we are to address the many social issues we face. The fostering of a cohesive and generous society should be at the heart of the Government's vision, not an auxiliary to economic growth or productivity gain. The speech promises much. The Government now has to deliver.

Read the Speech from the Throne

Read 'Parliamentary Recklessness: Why we need to legislate more carefully'

Read Maxim Institute's report Is it Just Tax? The shaping of our society

Read Maxim Institute's policy paper on educational standards



Comment from Maxim Institute on a range of topics has featured in various media this week.

On 5 December, Maxim Institute's Policy and Research Manager, Alex Penk, was featured on Newstalk ZB Wellington's hourly news in relation to Treasury advice to focus taxation policy on the long-term instead of a short-term financial stimulus package, suggesting that we should rely more heavily on consumption taxes like GST to facilitate a cut in income taxes.

Greg Fleming, Maxim Institute's CEO, was interviewed on the 10 December on Sky TV's Prime News programme about the possible merger of the Families and Children's Commissions. While Ruth Porter, Maxim Institute's Communications Manager, discussed the proposal with Bill Ralston on RadioLIVE.

Listen to the interview on Newstalk ZB

Listen to the interview on RadioLIVE

Read Maxim Institute's media release on the proposal


The One World Trust has just released the 2008 Global Accountability Report. Global organisations face unique challenges in how to ensure they are adequately connected to the people and communities their work most affects. This report looks at a range of global corporations, not-for-profits and inter-governmental organisations such as UNICEF, Goldman Sachs and Unilever, and assesses them on a number of measures, like transparency. It finds that there is much more that organisations could be doing to increase their accountability. According to the One World Trust: 'While there have been advances in extending principles of accountability at the global level, the results of the 2008 Report reveal that even the highest performers have only basic accountability policies and systems in place.'


'My Government views economic growth as the platform upon which a stronger New Zealand will be built. It views political leadership from this Parliament as essential to achieving that goal. But it is under no illusion about who the real builders of a stronger economic future will be. The true builders of that future are not sitting in this Chamber today. The true builders of that future are the millions of New Zealanders working in the homes, the businesses, the industries of our country. It is they who make this country strong. It is they who have placed their trust in us their Parliament. And it is they, our fellow New Zealanders, that my Government will ever seek to serve.'

The Speech from the Throne

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Maxim Institute's regular email publication, Real Issues, provides thought-provoking analysis of developments in policy and culture in New Zealand and around the world.


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