Madam President, members of the National Party, my Parliamentary colleagues.
Four years ago this week I was elected to serve my country as a National Party Member of the New Zealand Parliament.
Exactly 1,000 days ago today, my caucus colleagues accorded me the privilege of electing me Leader of this great party, the most successful political party in our country’s history.
And in the past 1,000 days, I hope you’ll agree, we’ve made more than a little progress.
At this Annual Conference, you have justifiably looked back at the achievements of the past year, and in particular you’ve reflected on our best election result ever in the MMP era:
We now have a highly talented caucus, which has grown from 27 to 48 in number.
We won half of the nation’s general constituency seats, and the Party Vote in 36 electorates.
We have a hugely skilled and experienced front bench.
And we have a party that is now poised and ready to assume the reins of office.
But, fellow members of the National Party, having appropriately thanked you all yesterday for your outstanding efforts, there’s another message I have for you about the 2005 election:
That was yesterday.
In 2006, at this annual Conference, we’re not about yesterday.
We’re about tomorrow.
Somewhere in the second half of 2008, New Zealanders will go to the polls.
After nine long years of Labour Governments, boosted by the most buoyant international conditions in decades, the party will be over, the hangover setting in, the scale of the headache becoming throbbingly apparent.
After nine long years, New Zealanders will have to confront the reality that the average after-tax wage across the Tasman, which in 1999 was 20% ahead of the average after-tax wage in New Zealand, will be around 40% ahead.
After nine long years of new studies, new reports, new acronyms, and new committees, virtually none of the key infrastructure – none of the key highways, new power stations, new transmission lines – will have been established on which to build a faster growing economy.
After nine long years, and billions of dollars in extra health spending, the number of elective operations will have changed hardly at all from what we achieved in the late ‘nineties, and the waiting list will still hover uncomfortably close to the 200,000 mark.
After nine long years, the number of bureaucrats in the education system, already up by more than a third since 1999, will have increased further, while the scandal around the NCEA and the waste in the tertiary sector will continue, and 20%, yes 20%, of New Zealand children will still be coming out of primary school unable to read or write.
And after nine of the luckiest years New Zealand has had for many decades, in terms of international trade, the number of New Zealanders on the sickness and invalids benefits, already up 50% on the position in 1999, will certainly be up even further, with working age adults on a benefit of some kind projected to be over 300,000.
And if New Zealanders haven’t got the message by now, and most of them have, then they will certainly have got it by the time of the next election:
Slippery political manoeuvring by Helen Clark and her coterie of turbo-charged political spin merchants haven’t solved any of the serious social and economic challenges that our country must confront.
And they won’t.
Let me be very clear about this:
Teflon-coated politics won’t close the growing gap in relative incomes between New Zealand and Australia.
Armies of spin merchants won’t get hospital treatment for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who need it, or teach young New Zealanders how to read or write.
And lofty political rhetoric, new committees and fancy acronyms won’t get New Zealand new motorways, new power plants, a decent transmission network, or world class telecommunications services.
These things, ladies and gentlemen – the tools for a successful, faster growing economy – are not the product of political spin, they are the result of honest analysis, hard work, clear-sighted decision-making, and businesslike execution.
And by 2008, New Zealand is going to need tonnes of it.
Looking ahead, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility over these next two years.
The opportunity we have is to continue to build support out in the community. Support that will ultimately lead in 2008 to the election of a National-led government.
I’m confident that we’re on track to make the most of this opportunity.
With this opportunity, however, comes a responsibility to the people of New Zealand.
And it’s a straightforward one.
National can’t simply wait for Labour to self-destruct or run out of ideas. Rather, we must strive to meet the high hopes and expectations voters rightly have of us as the party that’s the alternative government of New Zealand.
As I travel up and down the country, I get a consistent message: people are tired of Labour. They’re tired of a government that uses their money on programmes like Working for Families and then expects them to be grateful for it.
They’re tired of a government that’s been in office seven long years yet still refuses to accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong!
As I travel up and down the country, I also get a consistent message about our party: there are high expectations out there of National.
Voters expect that, as this three year term progresses, National will actively explain why it deserves to be trusted to be the next government of New Zealand.
They want to know about our vision for the future, and they want to know what the next National Government will do in key policy areas.
This conference is part of that process.
There are, in my judgment, two fundamental tests any voter will use to assess the relative merits of a political party.
They can be summarised as “trust” and “direction”.
Trust. It’s not a long word. It’s not difficult to say or to spell. But for the Clark/Peters Government, it sure is a hard word to live up to.
Shortly after the election, we all became aware of the most flagrant breach of the electoral law by Labour grossly over-spending its legal limit, and using taxpayers’ money to fund their infamous Pledgecard in clear breach of the Parliamentary rules to boot.
Just this week we’ve had the latest chapter in the Taito Philip Field saga.
I don’t intend to dwell on this today.
I simply make the point that New Zealand politics has been free of corruption for many decades – in a way that’s almost unique in the world.
And now we have a Prime Minister who’ll turn a blind eye to allegations of serious corruption – who’ll actually contrive to ensure that allegations of corruption against a member of her Government are not investigated because holding the baubles of office has become more important to her than the preservation of the integrity of public life in this country.
Is it any wonder the public doesn’t easily trust politicians?
In making up their mind about whether or not to trust a political party with their vote, my sense is that people ask themselves one question.
Does the party have the leadership, and the strength in its ranks below the leadership, to make the huge number of weighty decisions voters of necessity put in the hands of their elected officials?
Let’s look at leadership for a moment.
In my view, New Zealand needs a leader who has both a vision for New Zealand and the ability to craft policies designed to achieve that vision.
A leader is not someone whose sole focus in life is about self-preservation, or who’s more concerned about how he’ll look in the history book than about what’s in the best interests of New Zealand.
A leader is someone who celebrates the fact the team has bench strength at every level. A leader is not intimidated by the fact that others will one day have the ability and drive to assume the top mantle.
A leader admits mistakes and learns from them.
A leader is not someone whose first port of call in a storm is to find some defenseless bureaucrat or police officer to blame, and then abandons them to carry the can.
A leader does what’s right, not what’s convenient, or what the focus groups tell him or her. By definition, he or she leads, and does so with an appropriate sense of determination, vision and courage.
I can and do provide that style of leadership and it’s a style this country desperately lacks.
And I do it supported by the strongest, most able, caucus this great National Party has produced in its 70 year history.
The support for this Parliamentary team is provided by a Party organisation that’s been the foundation of our great party since its inception, but one we’ve constantly sought to enhance and refine.
In the last couple of years, we’ve changed the constitution of the Party more fundamentally than at any time in our 70 year history, and we now have a structure which is admirably suited to the needs of a modern political party.
So we have the leadership, the Parliamentary team, and the party organization. We have a team this country can trust.
The second question that voters ask of political parties relates to the direction they propose to take the country in. What are your policies? What’s your vision?
There are always those who believe the only way we can win the Treasury benches is by trying to “out-Labour Labour”. If Labour wins office by taking $25,000 in tax off a successful hardworking Kiwi and bribing five voters with $5,000 each, perhaps National has to up the stakes, and take $30,000 in tax off a successful hardworking Kiwi and bribe five voters with $6,000 each – or six voters with $5,000 each?
But that way surely lies disaster. Not only do we erode the spirit of personal responsibility and self-reliance on which this great country was built, but ultimately those who are more and more heavily taxed to finance the political bribes decide they’ve paid enough, and either arrange their affairs so that they can substantially avoid tax or leave for places where they can pay much less tax. And of course plenty of affluent New Zealanders have done exactly that.
Or perhaps we need to out-bribe Labour in some other way. I was told just a few days ago that Labour’s interest-free student loan bribe had probably won the election for Labour and that if National wants to win next time we have to think of something similar – perhaps like abolishing GST on food.
Would that make sense in terms of New Zealand’s long-term prosperity? Of course not. It would hugely increase the compliance costs in the GST system, would open the door to demands to exempt lots of other goods and services from GST – adding still further to the complexity, and almost certainly increasing the rate of GST – and would forego a large amount of revenue for nothing but short-term political gain.
Let me be very clear: I’m determined to see National win the next election, but if you want me to do that by doing things which will damage New Zealand’s long-term interests, count me out and find another Leader.
There will be four strong pillars to the nation that the next National Government is intent on building and these will be reflected in our policies.
First, we must have strong economic growth and policies to encourage that growth – lower taxes to encourage New Zealanders to get ahead under their own steam; much better infrastructure, especially in transport and electricity; lower compliance costs; greater encouragement for research and development; and a culture of aspiration and enterprise.
Second, we must have a first-class education system, delivering a high standard of basic literacy and numeracy to all those in primary school, appropriate qualifications at secondary and tertiary level, and a high level of parental choice about where their children are educated.
Third, we must have a safe and secure community – a community where law abiding citizens everywhere can go about their daily lives free from the fear of being a victim of violent crime; a community where police resources are adequate to deal not just with the most serious violent crimes but also with the thousands of property crimes which currently seem beyond the capacity of the police to deal with.
Fourth, we must have a safety net so that all those in genuine need are supported by the community – but a safety net which no longer provides a hammock to the thousands of working aged adults who should be making some kind of contribution back to the community which supports them.
And those four pillars will have a foundation, which is equally important:
It’s an old and very simple concept called One Law for All – a belief that all New Zealanders, regardless of background or ethnicity, are equal before the law.
As you will recognise, the four pillars and the foundation of the New Zealand the National Party is committed to building haven’t changed since the election last year. There’s absolutely no reason why they should have changed.
There will of course be other parts of the structure – well before we go into the next election, for example, we will have a strong policy on health, making it clear that National is committed to getting better value for the enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money spent on healthcare, and won’t hesitate to use private providers where that can improve health and reduce suffering.
We will likewise have a strong policy on the environment to make it crystal clear that, while National is strongly committed to increasing our growth rate, we will never do that at the expense of our environment.
Ladies and gentlemen, New Zealand currently has a government that thinks that this is as good as it gets.
The next government of New Zealand, the next National Government, will be committed to doing much better.
In recent weeks, many of you will have watched the appalling, gut-wrenching, coverage of the death of the Kahui twins.
That coverage serves as a reminder of just how much more we need to do to create a society where every New Zealander starts life with a decent chance of fulfilling their potential.
How much more we need to do to free some New Zealanders from the sub-human underclass of drugs and booze, criminality and despair.
How much more we must ask of our education system, our police, and our courts.
How much more our tax and welfare system must do to create a culture of aspiration, ambition, and participation that embraces all New Zealanders.
None of us in this room today should be complacent about how difficult the task that lies ahead will be.
Nine years of Labour’s wasteful spending and bloated bureaucracy will take time to fix, but fix it we will!
I think forward to my vision of what New Zealand could be like after two terms of a National government in 2014, about the time my youngest child will be leaving university.
One of my favourite quotes comes from an American called the Rev. William Boetker. It’s so good it’s often mistakenly attributed to Abraham Lincoln.
I want to quote it because it sums up National’s philosophy:
“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
”You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage-payer.
”You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
”You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man's initiative and independence.â€¨
“You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
I’m confident that, were Mr. Boetker alive today, he would want to extend his comments to include women as well, and were he a New Zealander he would be a member of the National Party!
As you prepare to leave this conference today, I want to leave you with this thought.
70 years ago a group of New Zealanders concerned about the country’s future under a Labour Government joined together, members of the Reform and Liberal Parties, to form the National Party.
It’s a party that for 70 years has survived and prospered and served our country well.
It’s a party that knows that together we can achieve a better New Zealand and a party that won’t give up until it’s delivered it.
It’s a party that knows how to win.
So my message to you today is a simple one.
We have the team, the policies and party support.
Together we can and we will win, so let’s get out there and do it.