It’s great to be up here in the Bay of Islands. It never fails to amaze me how beautiful this country is but also how distinctly different the top of the north is from the bottom of the south, where we had my own regional conference two weeks ago.
As always I would like to acknowledge our incredibly hard working President Peter Goodfellow, and members of the Board, your regional chair Andrew Hunt, all of my parliamentary colleagues but most importantly all of you who have joined us for this weekend.
The bottom line is we can’t do what we do as a Party and as MPs without your input and your constant support.
We’re not only the biggest political party in New Zealand, we are the luckiest – to have the members that we have – and we’re going to need you more than ever as we head into 2020.
When I’ve spoken at other regional conferences this year I’ve given a detailed overview of how our economy is tracking and I’ll come back to that in a bit (spoiler alert – it’s getting worse) but I wanted to do something a bit different here because in five days’ time this Government will deliver their second budget. It has already been one of the most intensely spun budgets we’ve seen with the Labour PR machine in overdrive.
This Budget, we’ve been told, will be all about wellbeing, and apparently that means it will be unlike anything New Zealand has ever seen before.
Well I’m not buying it.
Let’s start by looking at what budgets do – fundamentally they are the way in which governments set out the choices they have made on how to best use our taxes to improve the lives of New Zealanders, now and into the future.
As part of doing that budgets also report on how the economy has been performing, and how Treasury thinks it will perform over the next few years, because that tells everyone how much money the Government is going to have available to spend.
Every Government focuses on how it can best improve the lives of New Zealanders and while each Government will have its own views as to how best to do that, slapping a wellbeing sticker on the front of the Budget doesn’t make that any more true for this Government than for any other.
National’s focus is on improving the lives and the futures of everyone lucky enough to live in this incredible place we call home. Labour likes to talk about intergenerational wellbeing.
So let’s have a look at what that actually means.
We’ve already seen what wellbeing means to the Government and they’ve told us how they measure it.
According to their framework you can see how much wellbeing you have by how many friends you make, how many clubs you join, or how well you get along with your neighbours.
Apparently it’s about measuring your sun and moon feelings, and improving your locus of control, and understanding your ability to be yourself.
I have no idea what that means, and outside the Wellington bureaucracy, I’m not sure anyone does.
Wellbeing for this Government seems to be about giving good looking race horses’ tax cuts, while increasing the cost of living on hard working Kiwi families through higher petrol taxes, higher prices and higher rents.
When Grant Robertson was asked to define what Wellbeing meant to this Government he said:
“For me it’s about people being able to live lives of purpose and meaning for them and we as a Government are supporting the capabilities of people and communities to do that and support them to live lives that give them fulfilment.”
I do not know what that means either.
In the midst of these grandiose statements we are seeing New Zealand in real terms going backwards on the metrics that matter:
- there are fewer jobs,
- there are more people on a benefit and needing hardship assistance,
- there are huge increases in the numbers of people without housing,
- more people are missing out on elective surgeries
- and there is more strike action than we’ve seen in decades.
It’s becoming clear that the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality and I think we should expect more from a Government that tells us it is focussed on transformational wellbeing rather than vague, virtue signals.
Today I want to make it absolutely clear what improving wellbeing means for National.
It won’t surprise you that we’re a bit more ambitious and optimistic in our approach to wellbeing.
It’s derived from what we believe every New Zealander expects living in this land of opportunity.
It means actually making a difference for New Zealanders, not just talking about it, and holding ourselves out to be measured on the results.
I think if we were to ask most New Zealanders what the critical aspects of wellbeing were for them you wouldn’t need Stats NZ to come up with a 140 indicators or measure their moon feelings.
I suspect the answer would be something pretty simple like:
- having a job and somewhere to live,
- being able to pay your bills,
- world leading health and education for our families,
- having freedom and choice
- being safe and loved
- and it would mean protecting and preserving our stunning natural environment for the future.
That’s what National believes in.
To do this we have to have an economy where opportunities are abound, new jobs are continually created and incomes are rising.
It means ensuring small businesses around New Zealand feel able to take a chance and create an opportunity for others. It means ensuring that the Government allows you to keep more of what you earn at the same time as keeping your cost of living down.
It means fewer kids with parents on benefits because we know kids have better life chances if their parents are in work and are earning. That means targeted investment into some of the most vulnerable households in New Zealand to change lives one by one if necessary.
Improving lives to me means fewer people needing to go to hospital, and if they do then they get the best treatment available to them, and in the shortest time possible.
It means, frankly, more doctors, nurses and midwives – and not backroom bureaucrats.
And it means increasing access to elective surgeries, faster and broader cancer treatment, more immunisations and raising more healthy kids.
Wellbeing to me means people get access to mental health and mental wellness services in the way it works for them.
We know this is an evolving area of science and research and that every day counts – which is why we invested in 17 cutting edge pilot programmes to help move that along which this Government cancelled in favour of a working group.
Wellbeing to me means kids across New Zealand are taught by motivated teachers who are the best and the brightest.
It’s about ensuring every kid has the toolkit to succeed in this ever changing world – so numeracy and literacy yes, but also digital literacy and financial literacy.
For me, you improve lives by stopping criminals from offending and young people at risk from ever going down that route.
That’s early interventions into high risk New Zealanders and encouraging rehabilitation for offenders who meet the criteria, but also holding to account some of our worst and most serious criminals.
These aren’t just things we talk about, they’re the sort of interventions I was part of in the last Government.
With targeted, evidence driven interventions, we have shown we can reduce crime, improve wages, prevent victims going through trauma, have healthier kids, keep potential offenders out of jail, grow the economy and stop preventable deaths all without taxing New Zealanders more or increasing debt.
This is what wellbeing is to National.
Better Public Services
I also firmly believe that wellbeing shouldn’t just be measured on good intentions and feelings.
We believe in targets. Measures. Results.
You will have heard us talk about our Better Public Services targets which we know were driving real results in areas that actually make New Zealand a better, safer, healthier, more successful country.
Don’t just take my word for it.
The State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes – the most senior of our public servants – said in 2017:
“Better Public Services targets deals with some pretty important and complex stuff. Issues like ensuring kids are safe and healthy. Getting them into education. Reducing levels of crime. Getting people off benefits and into work. Making it easier for people to access public services they need”
“But the gains are there to see. More kids are getting immunised. Fewer kids are being physically abused. Participation in early childhood is on the increase. About 40,000 fewer working age people are receiving benefits compared with three years ago. That’s a whole bunch of things that change lives.”
And we set ourselves targets in areas like environmental protection, climate change, R&D spending, export markets and so on.
And in the immortal words of Rachel Hunter, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it was working.
Just take the number of people on benefits. Under National it was declining steadily and we saw 70,000 fewer people on benefit when we left office than at the height of the GFC.
There are now 13,000 more people on benefits than when this Government took office. Because they’ve gone soft on sanctions and they’ve made it easier to stay on a benefit and not look for work.
There are now fewer mums being registered with a maternity carer than when we left office.
We saw 10,000 new jobs a month being created, well more than population growth – that has more than halved and now falls well behind population growth.
We don’t know the comparison on a number of the other measures because the Government has stopped reporting on them – whether it be measuring how many kids avoid physical abuse, or kids achieving at a National standard, or even knowing how accessible government services are to New Zealanders.
I want the single mum in Porirua – who is struggling to get ahead under this Government due to increased petrol prices, more taxes and higher rents – to know that we are focussed on providing her child the best start to life.
I want the parents of at risk children to be assured our focus is on preventing and mitigating those risks to ensure they have the best possible chance at life.
I want the victim of a crime to know their Government is doing everything it can to stop people from becoming victims in the first place and holding their offenders to account. That we’re using the data and knowledge we have to target interventions and to stop them offending in the first place.
These are the sorts of things we were actually doing in Government and we were standing up to be measured on it.
Because despite what the Left want to tell us, it’s not about how much money you can spend. It’s about the difference you make.
New way of working
So it’s not true that this is the first budget to focus on how the Government is working to make the lives of New Zealanders better and it’s certainly not true that until now the only measures of success have been economic measures.
The Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance have also claimed that for the first time they are getting agencies to work across silos on common goals and yet the two pre-budget announcements the Prime Minister quoted in her speech yesterday as examples of this new way of working, surprisingly weren’t the failed KiwiBuild or fees-free flagships of this Government, no she was silent on those, instead the two examples she talked about are both extending funding for programmes National set up.
The first was Housing First. A truly innovative and successful initiative aimed at working with the long term homeless. Funding for that was first put in place by National in the last Government.
This Government has now extended that funding which is about as big an endorsement of the success of what we were doing as they could make.
The second package the Prime Minister wanted to talk up yesterday was on family violence.
You’ve all probably heard me speak many times as Justice Minister about how family violence was my top priority, and in fact the new family violence laws the Government has claimed were actually developed and introduced into Parliament by me.
In the Budget funding recently announced, the core components of that package were just extending funding for the very successful cross agency initiatives designed, developed and rolled out by National.
Again, I welcome the endorsement of our work and yet oddly enough I didn’t hear any mention of that in the Prime Minister’s speech.
I want to finish with a few words on the economy that underpins all of this.
Because while it is almost becoming unfashionable to say so, economic growth is the most important aspect of living standards. Not for its own sake but because of what it provides – jobs, incomes and the revenue to pay for everything a Government might choose to do.
Grant Robertson in his pre-budget speech quoted from Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England so let me do the same:
He said, “Economic growth has been among the greatest gifts given to us, as individuals and societies.”
“It is now pretty well-established that growth is a vital ingredient, indeed pre-requisite, for meeting many of the broader societal objectives many would view as important to our longer-term health, wealth and happiness.”
National knows that a strong economy is vital to ensuring higher living standards for Kiwi families and that’s why we unapologetically continue to focus on what John Key used to call making the boat go faster.
It’s pretty simple. Kiwis cannot get ahead if the economy isn’t creating new jobs or if the cost of living is rising faster than incomes.
The dividend of a strong economy is better healthcare, better schools, more roads and more police.
Unfortunately, the strong economy the Government inherited has slowly weakened over the last 18 months. When the Government came to office, the economy was growing at about 4 per cent a year. It’s now estimated to be at just 2 per cent.
While there are global risks on the horizon, they largely have not happened yet and they certainly cannot explain the dramatic fall in GDP over the last 18 months.
The fact is the Government is slowing New Zealand down because it has no economic plan and so much of what they have done has decimated the confidence of our businesses and hung out a closed for business sign to investors around the world.
That is why business confidence is still at rock bottom, it’s why job growth has actually declined this year, it’s why economic growth has almost halved and it’s why more Kiwis are once more leaving for abroad.
It’s why tax revenues are down $600m from forecast this year alone and it’s part of the reason this Government has now had to admit they can’t live within their own debt targets as they promised at the election.
A strong economy, supported by a Government that encourages businesses to grow and invest, is the key to improving the lives of Kiwi families.
For our part National won’t spend our time and the money you give us on working groups and spin – our focus in the future budgets we deliver will remain, as it always has, on effective measures to improve the lives of New Zealanders now and into the future and real measures to hold ourselves to account.