Don's personal credo
Mr Speaker, it is a great honour to take my place in this House. I am conscious of its long tradition and indeed of the even longer tradition of the House of Commons, from which this Parliament derives so much of its practice.
It is common for those giving maiden speeches to refer to the electorates which have sent them to Parliament. In my own case, of course, I am a list member. But my political initiation was at the hands of the voters of the East Coast Bays electorate some 20 years ago, and I acknowledge here the contribution which many friends and colleagues made to my progress at that time. While the result in the East Coast Bays electorate in the election of 1981 has been widely portrayed as a defeat for Don Brash, those friends and colleagues helped me win the third highest National Party vote in the country that year, and I will always be grateful for their help.
I want to acknowledge also the voting delegates of the northern region who paid me the honour of a high ranking on the National Party list. Without that support, I would not be here today.
Now my electorate is, in a sense, the whole of New Zealand and I feel very comfortable with that.
One of my ancestors arrived in Nelson in 1842. Another arrived in Dunedin in 1848. I myself was born in Wanganui, had most of my formal education in Christchurch, lived for four years in Canberra and five in Washington, 17 in Auckland and most recently 14 years in Wellington. Along the way, I have been fortunate to see a great deal of New Zealand, and indeed something of the world.
I have been privileged to work closely for a year with Lester Pearson, the former Prime Minister of Canada, and for two years with Robert McNamara, when he was President of the World Bank. I have worked on issues of economic development; in investment banking, in the kiwifruit industry, in commercial banking, and of course most recently I have been Governor of the Reserve Bank. I was appointed to the Monetary and Economic Council by the third Labour Government, and to the Committee on Inflation Accounting and the Planning Council by the Muldoon National Government. I was heavily involved in helping to improve the tax system for the fourth Labour Government, and was appointed as an inaugural director of the Market Development Board, now Trade New Zealand, by the same Government.
So my roots in New Zealand are deep, and I have been involved in many aspects of policy development. I have worked with a number of different Governments over the last 30 years, and while Governor of the Reserve Bank worked with no fewer than seven Ministers of Finance. I think I can say that my relationship with all seven was professional and cordial – at least until I announced my intention to stand for election to Parliament!
While I stood for election with a National Party label more than 20 years ago, I have been scrupulously careful to avoid any party-political label for most of the time since then. I am proud to carry the National Party label again, and I recognise that at the moment the National Party is Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. But I hope that, despite this, I will continue to be willing to acknowledge sound policy from whichever party it emerges.
Mr Speaker, my view of what constitutes sound policy has changed a great deal over the years. Throughout my youth, I was a socialist, no doubt influenced to a substantial degree by two remarkable parents – my father, a Presbyterian minister who went on to become the Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and my mother, trained as a milliner without even a high school education but later a university graduate, and the rock of the family. Indeed, I took it as self-evident truth that to be properly human, and certainly to be Christian, meant to be socialist, favouring a major role for government in controlling the economy and re-distributing its fruits. I was at the time a Christian pacifist, and was very wary of foreign investment in New Zealand.
But like so many others, as I got to understand more of the world my views changed. As Winston Churchill once said “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” And so it was with me.
My socialist worldview first came under stress when I did a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra on the role of American corporate investment in Australia. I started the three-year study convinced – for all the reasons advanced by those who are still opposed to multinational corporations – that American companies were raping Australia. I ended the study convinced I had been wrong, convinced that with very few exceptions American corporate investment in Australia had been hugely beneficial to Australia.
My conversion was completed working on the problems of economic development. I saw with my own eyes the well-intentioned central planning of government after government lead their countries to disaster.
I still believe that there is a crucially important role for government in every society. But it is ideally a relatively limited role, a role which includes providing security from external enemies and those who would threaten our lives or our property; a role which includes providing those public goods which no private market can adequately provide; a role which includes setting ‘the rules of the game’; and a role which includes caring for the needy and those who can not take care of themselves.
I believe that people are for the most part in a better position to make decisions for themselves and their families than any politician or bureaucrat can. This argues for the maximum amount of freedom for the individual, subject to the freedom of one individual not adversely affecting the freedom and well-being of another individual. This leads me to favour relatively ‘small government’, with correspondingly moderate levels of taxation, not too much government involvement in areas like labour market agreements between consenting adults, an absence of import restrictions, freedom for parents to choose which schools their children attend, and ‘light-handed’ regulation generally.
Having said that, I want to live in a society where those who are unable to provide for themselves are assisted by others. The challenge is to ensure that providing that support does not destroy the morale and self-respect of those who receive it, or unduly restrict the freedom of those who provide it.
So today I stand before you as a loyal New Zealander, proud of what New Zealanders have achieved over many decades in so many walks of life.
I believe New Zealand is a sufficiently small and cohesive country that we have the capacity to build on what we have achieved to date: to create a society where every child is loved and cared for; where every child gets the best possible education; where every person has access to quality health-care; where every person, irrespective of skin colour or gender, is valued in their own right; where differences of opinion are tolerated and respected; where everybody who wants a job can get one; where able-bodied people are not demoralised by subsisting for months and years on taxpayer hand-outs; where our elderly live in safety and dignity.
But I also admit to being deeply worried. In 1960, as I was finishing my under-graduate studies at the University of Canterbury, the standard of living in New Zealand was closely similar to that in Australia, indeed perhaps even a little ahead of that in Australia. By 2000, Australia’s GDP per capita was about one-third greater than that in New Zealand, meaning that on average every man, woman and child in Australia was better off to the tune of some $250 per week than the average New Zealander.
The Budget presented by the Minister of Finance in this House just over three months ago spoke of the desirability of lifting our economic growth rate, but included a projection based on unchanging trend growth in productivity at 1.5 per cent per annum – leading to a gradual reduction in GDP growth over the next decade to some 2 per cent annually.
I accept that this projection should not be taken too seriously. I accept that the Government would like to increase that projected growth rate. But alas, there is not much sign that policies are in place that will achieve that faster growth rate.
I worry that, unless we are able to increase our rate of economic growth, the kind of society which all members of this House want in New Zealand simply will not survive.
I am not talking here about some abstract concept which concerns only economists, statisticians, and policy-makers in Wellington. I am talking about our ability to afford first-world health care – where those who contract cancer in New Zealand have survival prospects at least as good as those in a similar position in Australia, and where 15-year-olds with a broken collar-bone do not have to wait in hospital for six days for an operation, in vain. I am talking about our ability to afford first-world education, where all children are able to learn and grow to their full potential. I am talking about our ability to afford decent housing. I am talking about having opportunities for well-paid and stimulating employment. I am talking about our ability to avoid a steady increase in income inequality. I am talking about our ability to fund an appropriate level of armed forces, even to compete effectively in international sporting events. I am talking, Mr Speaker, about our ability to survive as an independent country. All of these things are at risk without a higher rate of economic growth.
Of course, we do not want growth at any price; we do not want growth at the expense of environmental degradation; we do not want growth at the expense of those distinctive things which make us New Zealanders. But we clearly want growth, or at least we want the things which growth can bring.
As a country, we have been spending more than we have been earning for almost 30 years – running a current account deficit in the balance of payments, in other words, for almost 30 years. That is strong evidence that we want more of the things that growth provides. Indeed, our desire to enjoy the good things of life has been so strong that today we have borrowed more from foreign savers, relative to national income, than any other developed country in the world – and that by a substantial margin. Economists tell me not to worry too much about that, because most of the borrowing has been done by the private sector, and will come to an end when we New Zealanders decide we have taken on enough debt. But I admit to being uneasy.
This is not the time to score political points, but I worry greatly that there is nothing in prospect to deliver the faster rate of economic growth that New Zealanders clearly want.
I pledge to oppose vigorously policies which seem likely to hinder faster growth, and will seek every opportunity to advance policies designed to encourage faster growth, so that when it comes my time to leave this House the gap between our living standards and those in Australia is closing, not continuing to widen. Only then will I be confident that our children and grand-children will want to remain New Zealanders.
Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.