Speech to Zonta Club

7 August 2006

Speech to Zonta Club in Christchurch

Madam Chair, ladies,

As most of you know, the National Party got its best result in any election since 1990 last year. 

But as you also know, it wasn’t quite enough to enable us to form a government.  To do that, we’d have needed another five or six percent of the Party Vote, and of course the question exercising party strategists is “How do we get that extra five or six percent of the vote?” 

The same question is asked by media, who tell their readers that National must “move more towards the centre” of the political spectrum, and that Don Brash must learn to compromise more, or be replaced by somebody who will.

Well if we do that it won’t just be me who will be compromising.  We all will.  And I didn’t get into politics to compromise the future of this country.  I love this country, and as I said to my party’s annual conference not far from here a couple of weeks ago, if you want me to push policies that damage New Zealand’s long-term prospects, count me out.

We’ve had far too many policies like that in recent years.

Interest-free student loans for example.  There was absolutely no justification for that policy except as a bribe to win votes for the Labour Party. 

The previous student loan policy did not deter people from doing tertiary studies: when tertiary fees and student loans were first introduced, in the early nineties, there was a massive increase in the proportion of young people undertaking tertiary studies.  

And the previous policy didn’t drive graduates abroad: 94% of all those owing a student loan live in New Zealand, while many of those who have left have gone to do advanced studies or chase much higher salaries. 

It was quite simply a bribe costing nearly $300 million annually.  That money could have been much more effectively spent in other ways.  For example, allowing parents to deduct for tax purposes $5,000 per child for the cost of childcare for all under-fives, as National proposed last year, would have cost less than half the cost of the interest-free student loan policy, and would have been entirely consistent with the principles of a good tax system. 

Or the roll-out of subsidies for 45 to 64 year-olds visiting their doctor.  There may have been a very sound reason to give more money to low income people who need to make regular trips to the doctor, and I would have been all in favour if that had been what the Government had actually done.  But as my colleague Tony Ryall has obliged the Government to admit, only a miserable $10 million of the total annual cost of the roll-out of $97 million will benefit those holding a Community Services Card, with the other $87 million going to those who are by definition not low income or regular visitors to the doctor.

There is constant pressure for the National Party to do similarly stupid things.  For example, I was told recently by a man in this city that the interest-free student loan policy had won the election for Labour, and if National wanted to win in 2008 then we needed to come up with something similar — perhaps like scrapping GST on food. 

Would scrapping GST on food make sense for New Zealand in the long term?  Of course not.  For a start, the thousands of small business people who buy and sell food would be even more hogtied by red tape than they are now — as if their compliance costs aren’t high enough already.  Secondly, it would generate huge political pressure to exempt other things from GST — such as books and children’s clothes and shoes and doctor’s bills and electricity and rates.  Such exemptions may  sound fine, but they too would very greatly increase compliance costs and before you know it the rate of GST would have to go up to 15% or more to compensate for the lost income.  And more importantly, it would mainly benefit those who spend most money on food, which is not the poor, but the rich.  All for the sake of short-term political gain.

So I believe there is no room at all to compromise on the National Party’s basic principles, which reflect our view of what is fair and in the best interests of all New Zealanders.

For example, the National Party is absolutely committed to policies that will increase our rate of economic growth — not because Don Brash is an economist and that’s all he can think about, but because without faster economic growth New Zealand women will continue to die from breast cancer at a rate almost 30% higher than Australian women do.  Because Australian women have better access to effective treatment than New Zealand women do.

And unless we increase our rate of economic growth relative to Australia and the other countries to which our children can easily move, I’ll keep meeting more women like Rosemary Edwards.

I first met Rosemary Edwards by chance at Napier airport.  As we waited for baggage to come off the carousel, she mentioned to me that she was meeting her adult daughter, who was visiting from Australia.  She had three adult daughters living abroad, she explained, and all her grandchildren were growing up Australian.

Our collective failure — and it is a collective failure — to increase our standard of living relative to that in Australia is every day creating new women like Rosemary Edwards, women who have to find their passport to visit their grandchildren.

So while there is of course plenty of room to debate the detail of how best to increase our standard of living, there is absolutely no room for compromise on the need to do so, and while I’m leader the National Party will not do so.

Similarly, while I’m leader the National Party will not compromise its position on Treaty issues. 

That doesn’t in any sense make us anti-Maori: on the contrary, I’m very keen to find ways to make it clear that we’re pro-Maori, just as we’re pro-non-Maori. 

I’ve become aware that there are some obstacles to Maori development which are specific to Maori — one of them being the peculiar laws which deal with the sale of Maori land.  We need to find ways to remove those obstacles to Maori development.

But if New Zealand is to be a successful democracy in the long-term — one where every citizen has the same rights and privileges, as promised in Article III of the Treaty — we can’t justify retaining separate racially-based electoral rolls, we can’t justify racially-based wards at local government level, we can’t justify racially-based representation on district health boards, and we must stop perpetuating the myth that there are somehow two separate sovereignties in New Zealand, Maori and the Crown.

There may be room for debate about the timetable for rolling back these racially-based systems.  Separate Maori seats have been in existence for almost 140 years: another few years isn’t going to make much difference, and if a short delay enables us all to move forward together, then fair enough.  But there surely can’t be any room for debate about the end goal, and with Parliament already having three times as many Maori MPs as there are Maori electorates it seems clear that the need for separate Maori electorates has long gone. 

Or the principle of giving parents the right to choose what school their children attend.  It has to be the most extraordinary — and tragic — irony that while we like to think of ourselves as having an egalitarian education system, the harsh reality is that only the well-off have any choice about where their children are educated.  Only well-off parents can afford to buy a home in the zones of the best schools, or send their children to private schools.  Low income New Zealanders take whatever the throw of the dice gives them — sometimes a good school and sometimes a very mediocre school; sometimes a co-ed school and sometimes a single sex school.

We all know that kids who are lucky enough to go to a good school get an enormous benefit — as I did in this city.  We also know that kids who are trapped in a school with second-rate teachers — or even a school whose reputation is poor — suffer a life-time penalty.  And that is even more true today with NCEA: most employers haven’t the faintest idea what an NCEA qualification means, so they’re even more likely to judge a potential employee by the school he or she went to.  And the kids who went to Christchurch Boys High, as I did, or St Margarets, or Rangiruru, or Burnside High, as no doubt some of you did, will be preferred over the kids who were not so lucky.

The National Party is absolutely committed to giving parents more choice in this area, and at the last election we had clear policies to make that possible.

So to repeat: while I’m the leader the National Party will not be compromising our core policies to win votes.  I choose the harder road of doing my level best to convince you why those policies are right for this country.

I made the mistake of compromising on a principle once, when Parliament debated the civil union legislation.  This was a conscience issue for all National Party MPs, with some of us voting against the legislation and some supporting it.

I voted for it at the first reading on the grounds that I favoured allowing the law to recognise the right of gay and lesbian people to formalise a commitment to each other, and could not see how that damaged the institution of marriage.  (Heterosexuals, myself included, have done enough damage to the institution of marriage already.)

But then I allowed myself to be talked into opposing the legislation at later stages on the grounds that the matter should not proceed without a referendum.  (Ironically I was talked into this by a clergyman, who assured me that there were hundreds of thousands of people who would vote for the National Party if I changed my position in this way.  I was reminded of the Devil tempting Jesus — all He had to do was to bow down to the Devil and all the kingdoms of the world would be His!)  Well, I just ended up confusing everybody.  I won’t be doing that again.

It is above all important to be honest with the electorate about what policies do and do not mean.

We had a classic piece of gross dishonesty when the Labour Government promised to introduce a minimum of four weeks annual leave.  Most employees were ecstatic — even those who already enjoyed four weeks leave saw the likelihood of getting an extra week of leave.

But nobody admitted that that extra week of leave would be bought at the cost of lower wages.  Everybody implied that the cost of the extra week of leave would be borne by the government (in the case of public sector employees) or by employers (in the case of private sector employees).  Workers just saw it as one big bonus. 

But the hard fact is, if you take a week’s production out of the economy, incomes will be less than they would otherwise have been, and that certainly means wages and salaries will be lower.

If the Government had said “We’re going to force you to take an extra week of holidays and in return you’re going to get lower wages” — which would have been honest — the public reaction might have been very different.

Labour is also totally dishonest on the subject of privatisation.  Yes, I know, even mentioning the word has become dangerous to one’s political health.  Labour endlessly repeats the mantra that National is driven by ideology on this issue, but of course it is Labour which is driven by ideology.

It was a Labour Government of which Helen Clark was Deputy Prime Minister which sold many of the government’s most valuable assets, including Telecom.

It’s a Labour Government led by Helen Clark which now pretends that all sales of government assets are undesirable and are absolutely forbidden, even though of course Meridian Energy has just sold assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and Landcorp continues to sell farms.

It’s the Labour Government which, for purely ideological reasons, returned the Auckland Central Remand Prison to state management, even though every objective observer will tell you that under private management that prison had better results in every respect than the state-run prisons.

It’s the Labour Government which, again for purely ideological reasons, adamantly refuses to use private hospitals to reduce hospital waiting lists, even where to do so would reduce suffering and pain, and be cheaper to boot.

The National Party takes a totally pragmatic view towards privatisation.  We know that almost every study done on privatisation around the world, including New Zealand studies, shows that privatisation usually benefits the taxpayers and the consumers of the country undertaking it. 

Yes, there were a few cases in New Zealand where, with the wisdom of hindsight, government assets were sold a bit too cheaply.  But there were also cases where assets were sold at huge benefit to taxpayers: those who bought the Development Finance Corporation and the government’s entitlement to the central North Island forests, for example, suffered huge losses by doing so and spared taxpayers from having to carry those losses.

The National Party is not in favour of selling all government-owned assets.  It is clearly not a good idea, for example, to sell a natural monopoly like Transpower (and in retrospect there must be some doubt about the wisdom of selling Auckland International Airport for the same reason). 

It’s not a good idea to sell any more of the state-owned generators until the regulatory regime around the power industry is sorted out.  But that does not mean that we should commit to owning all of the generators forever: it surely doesn’t make much sense for the government to own three competing state-owned generators.  In due course, after the rules are sorted out, it may make sense to sell one or more of those generators and invest the proceeds in fixing up the country’s road network.

I have to concede that no political parties have been totally honest about healthcare, and this is surprising because, in being less than fully honest, we’ve created unrealistic expectations which we’re bound to disappoint.

What do I mean?  Let me explain.  In New Zealand, we allocate almost everything by price — we allocate food by price, housing by price, clothing by price, cars by price.  But we’ve decided, for reasons I both understand and agree with, that we should not allocate access to hospital care by price.  We want that available on demand and without any charge to the patient at point of use.

But of course demand for anything which is “free” always and everywhere exceeds society’s capacity to supply.  So we are forced into rationing or queuing. 

We see rationing most clearly with Pharmac — you can have that medicine because it’s cheap but not Herceptin because it’s too expensive, and yes, as a result of that decision, some women will die.

We see queuing most clearly with the hospital waiting lists — nearly 200,000 sick and suffering people waiting and waiting and waiting — and then facing a Labour Government cull of the kind we’ve seen all over the country in recent weeks.

We desperately need a more responsive health system, with more health professionals and fewer bureaucrats, able to use private providers as well as government-owned hospitals.  But all political parties need to be more honest with the electorate about the limits to what is possible, and I’m determined that the National Party will be.

Madam Chair, just over four years ago I left a very satisfying (and certainly very well-paid) job at the Reserve Bank to enter Parliament.

I did so because I wanted a fairer New Zealand and a New Zealand able to meet the reasonable aspirations of our citizens — able to provide Herceptin to the women who need it, able to give the many Rosemary Edwards in our country some hope of seeing their grandchildren growing up as Kiwis.

That’s still what drives me, and after seven years of Labour Government there is a huge amount to do.

It isn’t fair that a young person who has one Maori ancestor can get preferential access to university.

It isn’t fair that the highest effective tax rates are paid by those on low incomes, trapping them into long-term, inter-generational, dependency.

It isn’t fair that people who have worked hard and paid taxes all their lives wait for month after month on hospital waiting lists.

It isn’t fair that law-abiding citizens have had to give up reporting many forms of crime to the police because we’ve under-resourced our police for years.

It isn’t fair that some kids can get access to the best schools in the country while others pay the penalty of a life-time of lower income and restricted employment opportunities because of the way the zoning system works.

I’m frankly not interested in being Prime Minister of New Zealand unless I have a mandate to change these things.  At the age of 65, I don’t plan a 30 year career in politics.  For a number of personal reasons, I would love to get out of politics.  I’m committed to this role only because I believe that, together, we can make New Zealand a fairer society, and one to which our children will want to return.

2006-08-07 00:00:00.Long.
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