Leader's Dinner Keynote Address

ACT Leader's Dinner. 22 July 2011

Keynote address at ACT Leader's Dinner, 22 July 2011

Don Brash's Keynote address at ACT Leader's Dinner
McHugh's of Cheltenham
22 July 2011

Mr President, board members, John Banks, other candidates, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your warm welcome.  I particularly appreciate it because, in one sense, I’m an outsider — a newcomer to the ACT family.

Of course, in another sense, I’ve always supported the values and principles for which ACT stands, and our former president, Catherine Judd, once memorably referred to me as ACT’s tenth MP (just over a month later the National Party caucus elected me to be leader, so perhaps there’s hope for the National Party after all!).

Tonight I want to talk quite briefly about why I sought to return to Parliament under the ACT banner; about what ACT has achieved over the last few years; and about what we need to achieve over the next four months.

Why on earth did I seek to return to Parliament?  I had an agreeable life, with good income, time with my family (some of whom are here this evening), and time to spend on my kiwifruit orchard in South Auckland.

Well, it’s an easy question to answer.

I was deeply worried about where this country’s heading.

Deeply worried about youth unemployment — 27% among all 16 to 19 year olds, 38% among 16 to 19 year old Maori.

Deeply worried about the fact that, despite a massive increase in spending on our education system over the last few decades, one in four teenagers coming out of school can’t read and write properly.  Teenagers who can’t multiply by 10.  Teenagers who don’t understand how to fill in a job application form.   Teenagers who see going onto the dole, or the DPB, as the only viable option for them.

Deeply worried that 330,000 working age people are now dependent on a state hand-out, with all the social and financial costs of that.

Deeply worried about the fact that this National Government has failed to deal with the fiscal mess they inherited from Labour, so that two years down the track government spending is higher today, as a share of the total economy, than it was in any year of the Labour Government — and the Government is borrowing $300 million every week — the equivalent of $300 for every family of four in the country — week after week after week.

Deeply worried about the fact that, partly as a result of all that government borrowing, the exchange rate has been pushed to a level which makes life extremely difficult for many exporters, so that as a country we are still spending more overseas than we are earning overseas — as we have done every year now since 1973!  With the inevitable consequence that our net debt to foreign investors is now right up there with that of Portugal.

Deeply worried about the fact that, despite the National Party talking grandly about the crucial importance of raising living standards in New Zealand, perhaps even closing the gap with Australia by 2025, living standards today are right back where they were five or six years ago.  And the gap with Australia?  Wider today than it was when this Government came to power.  So that our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our friends and our neighbours, continue to stream across the Tasman, perhaps to return for the occasional holiday.

Deeply worried about the steady drift towards a separate constitutional status for Maori New Zealanders.  Of course Maori culture is an important part of New Zealand culture.  Of course many Maori are on very low incomes, with few educational qualifications, trapped into a life on welfare.  Of course government should compensate tribes which can demonstrate that they were the victims of confiscation.  But that is absolutely no reason to create a Maori Statutory Board; or to retain separate Maori electorates; or to give tangata whenua the right to stop farmers cutting down scrub on their land; or to give iwi a right to veto developments on DOC land.

I strongly suspect that John Key knows what needs to be done.  John Key is the most popular Prime Minister in my memory.  And he’s highly intelligent.  When I was Leader of the National Party, I had no hesitation in appointing him to be my Finance spokesman.  I have no doubt that I can work with him again.

But rightly or wrongly, he holds the view that the Government can go no further than the electorate or his caucus will let him.

My job, your job, our job is to win enough seats for ACT in the next Parliament to enable him to do the things which, in his heart of hearts, he knows need to be done.

We’ve had some success over the last two and a half years.

Most significant of all, of course, is that ACT was a crucial factor in changing the government in 2008.  Many people assume that a National win in 2008 was inevitable.  Quite the contrary.  Had Rodney not won the seat of Epsom and had Winston got just a handful of additional votes, Helen Clark would still be Prime Minister.

ACT was instrumental in getting a three strikes law in place — not the harsh Californian version of that law, but one which focuses on the small number of the most violent repeat offenders in our community and allows them to be locked away for a long time if they persist in violent offending.

In Auckland, Rodney was instrumental in getting the most far-reaching restructuring of local government New Zealand has seen in decades in place within a remarkably tight timeframe.

ACT gave the Government the courage to extend its initially very timid change in employment law to enable all employers to hire staff on a 90 day probationary basis.

ACT persuaded the Government to establish the Productivity Commission along the lines of the very successful Australian model, with former ACT candidate Graham Scott one of the three commissioners.

ACT persuaded the Government to set up the 2025 Taskforce to make recommendations on how to raise living standards in New Zealand to the Australian level by 2025 — and more importantly, to report on progress annually.  (Unsurprisingly, Government decided to wind up the Taskforce before it was due to report shortly before this year’s election.)

I could go on.  These were very worthwhile achievements.

But not nearly enough.  Tragically for our country, the National Party had just enough MPs so they had a majority in Parliament with either ACT’s five MPsor the Maori Party MPs.  This meant that whenever National had something it knew needed to be done, but that it thought might cost it a bit of political capital, they were able to turn to the Maori Party to avoid taking action.

And so we continue to have government spending running out of control.  We continue to have a legal requirement for employers to pay inexperienced 16 year olds the adult minimum wage.  We continue to have an ETS, despite the National Party in Opposition pledging that New Zealand should be a fast follower, not a world leader, in seeking to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  And we have a Marine and Coastal Area Act which risks alienating valuable resources previously belonging to all New Zealanders into the hands of tribal elites.

Our aim in the election in just over four months’ time is to get enough Members of Parliament so that National can only form a government with us.

Let me repeat: our aim in the election in just over four months’ time is to get enough Members of Parliament so that National can only form a government with our support.

Retaining the seat of Epsom is a crucial part of our strategy, and I’m delighted that the Hon John Banks is our candidate in that electorate.  He didn’t quite win the contest for the mayoralty of the super-city, but he certainly didn’t lose that race in Epsom!

He will win that electorate this year, both because he is a first class man, a man whom I greatly admire, and a man who is personally very popular in the electorate; and because the National Party knows that they can’t afford to have the party votes of those who will vote for ACT at the election wasted.

So with Epsom safely retained, the challenge of winning party votes for ACT will be our sole focus.

In part, this is about reminding voters, especially those who want a National-led Government after the election, that giving their party vote to ACT will strengthen a National-led Government.  Why can we say that with certainty?  Because it’s inconceivable that ACT would support a Phil Goff-led Labour Party, or a Green Party, or a Maori Party, or a Mana Party.  Winston might like to play around offering his votes to the highest bidder.  We do not. 

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’d go into a coalition with the National Party: we might choose to sit on the cross benches.  But we’d vastly prefer a National-led Government to any other kind of government. 

So we’ll be making it clear that, at least after this election, the only party we’d be willing to support would be National.  And we’ll be there to remind the National Party of the values it professes to believe in — personal responsibility, limited government, and equal citizenship.

What would we be trying to achieve?

We will have a clear focus on five main themes:

First and arguably most important of all, we want to improve living standards.  Few people feel better off today than they did three years ago, or even six years ago.  Our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbours, are moving overseas, or are tempted to do so.  Those who remain, worry about making ends meet.  Unemployment is still too high, especially for young people.  Retailers continue to go to the wall.

So we will push for policies to raise living standards — getting inane regulations out of the way; reducing lousy government spending; reducing taxes to encourage investment and initiative.

Second, and vitally important for the longer term, we want to free up the education sector and give parents the choice of where to send their children to school. 

It has to be one of the great ironies of our supposedly cradle to grave society that it’s only those on high incomes who have a choice about what kind of education their children get.  Those on high incomes can afford to send their kids to the best schools in the country, whether they be state schools (by buying into the right school zones) or private schools.  The rest of us have a lottery — our children get whatever education the local school provides.  Of course, some local schools are superb.  Too many are not, with the consequences that we see around us every day.

Third, we want to deal to the culture of welfare dependency which sees some 330,000 working age adults totally dependent on a taxpayer-funded benefit.

I heard John Key say in a speech a few months ago that Paula Bennett spends a million dollars an hour on benefits of one kind or another.  Singapore spends $40 million a year on benefits. 

We’re not Singapore and we’re not likely to get a Singaporean culture in New Zealand any time soon. But the present situation in New Zealand is having a devastating effect on everybody — taxpayers who are footing the bill and those whose lives are blighted by dependency.

I was once told by a prominent Maori leader that, in her opinion, the only way to deal with Maori unemployment was to totally eliminate the dole.  I don’t think that’s realistic, but we should surely make it clear that anybody who turns down two job offers loses their right to the unemployment benefit.

And there should surely be some time limit on the DPB — perhaps six years, to ensure that a parent can receive that benefit until her youngest child reaches school age.

Fourth, we want to ensure that New Zealand honours the Treaty of Waitangi in its entirety — not just the bits which suit a radical Maori agenda. 

You’ll recall that Article I of the Treaty involved Maori chiefs ceding sovereignty to the Crown — so we are one nation not two.

You’ll recall that Article II of the Treaty involved the Crown in return guaranteeing to protect property rights — something the ACT Party believes in very strongly — and it’s on that basis that we’ve always supported compensation being paid where it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that confiscation of property took place.

And you’ll recall that Article III of the Treaty was a promise that all New Zealanders — no matter their ancestry, no matter when they or their ancestors arrived in New Zealand — would have the rights and privileges of British subjects.  No legal preferences for any race.  No separate Maori electorates.  No Maori Statutory Board for the Auckland Council.

And finally, we’re committed to continuing to push for policies which ensure New Zealanders are safe — safe in their homes, safe in the street, safe wherever they go.

In the last year or so, there are some signs that the crime rate may be beginning to fall somewhat.  I’d like to think that our Three Strikes policy may have had a positive effect on helping to achieve that reduction.

But there’s much more to be done.  I believe that some of the most constructive things to make us safer lie in our policies on education and youth rates. 

People who get a good education and have a secure job may still get into trouble with the law, but the evidence suggests they are much less likely to get into trouble than those who face a life without the rewards — financial and other rewards — of a steady job.

So better education, and allowing young people to accept a job at whatever wage an employer thinks they are worth, is important in making us all safer.

But I have no doubt we need to do more, and right now we’re consulting with experts in this field — including the Sensible Sentencing Trust — to ensure that our policies in this area are sound.

Mr President, John, if we fail to get the votes needed to ensure that ACT can make a major difference to the policies of a National-led Government, I believe that the future of our country is bleak.  A country which gradually unwinds and becomes rather like an over-sized version of Fiji — relatively poor, a place of simmering tension between races, a place where people fight to increase their share of an ever-diminishing cake, a place which people seek to leave as soon as they can find another country to take them.

And that would be the ultimate tragedy because it doesn’t need to be like that.

We have a beautiful country, rich in natural resources — richer in natural resources than almost any other country in the world.

We have a country founded on a Treaty which guarantees the protection of property rights and the legal equality of all citizens.

We have a country where, for all their faults, politicians and bureaucrats are almost entirely devoid of corruption.

We have a country where we resolve our political differences with the ballot, not the bullet.

We have a country which has produced some extraordinary sons and daughters:

  • the woman who fought for New Zealand to become the first country in the world to give women the vote;
  • the boy from Havelock School who went on to split the atom, win a Nobel prize, and be described by Albert Einstein as “a second Newton”;
  • and years later the second boy from Havelock School who, not to be outdone, led the team that put a man on the moon;
  • the beekeeper from Tuakau who became the first person to conquer the world’s highest mountain;
  • the woman from Wellington who was the most decorated of all the women in the Allied forces in the Second World War.

We in the ACT Party want New Zealand to be a country where people are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves, but where those who, through no fault of their own, have stumbled upon hard times, are supported through those times and actively encouraged to again have the dignity of self-reliance.

We want New Zealand to be a country where government seeks to expand the choices our citizens have, not close them down.

We want New Zealand to be a country where there is a business environment that attracts the investment that will boost productivity and incomes in New Zealand, so that Kiwis enjoy living standards every bit the equal of those in other developed countries.

 We want New Zealand to be a country where we ensure that every child has access to a first class education by providing parents with choices about where their children are educated.

 We want New Zealand to be a country where everybody has access to good quality healthcare because we are getting value for money in healthcare spending.

We want New Zealand to be a country where people respect the rights of others, and are kept safe from those who would abuse those rights.

 We want New Zealand to be a country where people have equal rights under the law, regardless of race. 

And we must be a country where, in spite of the diversity of our community, we share sufficient common values to bind us together as a nation.

This would be a country to which our children and grandchildren would want to return.

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Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.