Address to Labour Party Conference

  • Michael Cullen

Embargoed to 12:00 pm Sunday 2 December 2001

Address the Labour Party Annual Conference

Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna

Fellow delegates,

This conference has been a celebration. For a very few of us a special celebration this week of 20 years in Parliament, for all of us of two years in government. One year from now we need to be celebrating the future as we begin the second term of a Labour led government.

The last time we had been in government for two years we were not celebrating but arguing bitterly. This time, despite all the issues we face, all the challenges we confront, despite the fact that government is never an unalloyed story of triumph and success we celebrate. And our diversity itself remains a source of celebration, not of division.

This is not a matter of chance or luck. It has been the result of a combination of leadership, policy, intelligence and integrity. We shall need all of these over the next year as we face our opponents on the field of electoral battle and as we face, simultaneously, the challenges of a changing world environment.

The message we have to convey is that New Zealand needs strong leadership in this challenging environment. We can afford neither self-indulgence nor mediocrity.
And only a strong Labour led government, a strong Helen Clark led government, will offer that kind of leadership.

Our principal opponents tell us that they are a new National Party. Shamelessly copying Tony Blair’s New Labour slogan – and why not since they copy every idea they have – they try to project this image of a new National Party.

Well, they are about as new as most of my undies. Every member of the front bench except one was a Minister in the Shipley government. Its leader joined National while Rob Muldoon was Prime Minister. He chaired the select committee that pushed through the 1991 benefit cuts. He never queried a single word by Ruth Richardson or Bill Birch as Minister of Finance.

In other words, he was a cheerleader and then a key player in the National governments of the 1990s. And so were all his close colleagues. They come complete with the baggage of the meanness and extremism of those years.

And where are the new policy and the new ideas? On superannuation their policy is to promise no security for the future for those not yet retired. They will demolish our fund and put nothing in its place that gives any long term security. It’s all so dreadfully familiar – a blast from the Tory past, a groove from the Tamaki grave.

Faced with a key test over Afghanistan, Mr English failed dismally. Just like Mrs Shipley when faced with a choice between the national interest and the interests of National, he chose the latter.

Of course, Mr English tells us he is a moderate. He has even gone so far as to question the first article of faith of the National Party – tax cuts for the wealthy is the path to eternal salvation.

But let us not be fooled. The National Party cannot produce a finance spokesperson. David Carter is supposedly being groomed but he’s not even allowed to be in charge of the family business. No one believes he is intended to be Minister of Finance in a National led government.

That place is clearly being reserved for one Richard Prebble. Now Mr Prebble, as we all know, has no articles of faith. In his time he has adopted almost every position on so many issues that he makes people like Gilbert Myles look like models of consistency. But Mr Prebble knows on which side his bread is buttered – and who butters it. And they will expect delivery.

And, as some of us know only too well, Mr Prebble will certainly try to deliver to his mates.

A National-Act government would quickly be pulled to the right – especially with Richard Prebble in the key finance role.

So let us be clear about our task for the next year. It is to look forward to our second term and beyond, to paint a picture of the New Zealand we can build together and to maximise support in the pursuit of that vision.

Let us begin with what we have achieved already. We have provided strong, stable government under Helen Clark’s leadership. We have achieved much, above all implementing our core pledges.

Unemployment has fallen to its lowest level for thirteen years; the current account deficit is its lowest level for seven years. The government continues to run good operating balances. We have passed the legislation for the New Zealand Superannuation Fund which will bring security in retirement for future generations.

We have repealed the Employment Contracts Act. We have reversed the privatisation of accident compensation. We have adopted an active approach to industry and business which has resulted in region after region showing new levels of confidence.

It is no wonder that by majorities of two to one New Zealanders believe our country is on the right track. And we are.

Where we have made mistakes we have corrected them and moved on. Even a Labour led government is not infallible.

Above all, perhaps, we have launched a new sense of partnership. Partnerships with local government which for years was treated as somewhere between semi-criminals and recalcitrant school children. Partnership with Maori in capacity building and genuine recognition and respect. Partnership with community organisations with a new basis. Partnership with business in identifying new opportunities, barriers to growth, and strategic roles. And partnerships with our coalition allies based on mutual respect and the pursuit of common goals.

So, to the bemused incredulity of the writers of the National Business Review, New Zealanders feel better about themselves. They are coming home again. We are restoring a belief in our own future, looking forward to the prospect of success, not the fear of failure.

We have dealt with crisis coolly and competently, as with Afghanistan. We have cleaned up where others have failed, as with Air New Zealand. We have chosen sense and sensibility, where others have chosen pride and prejudice, as with genetic engineering.

Those have been the hallmarks of Helen Clark’s Labour led government.

But the work is only beginning and could easily be destroyed. Mr English tells us he will destroy the Superannuation Fund, aided and abetted by the Greens – of all people. It appears sustainability is for the birds and the bees but not for people.

Mr English and Mr Carter tell us they will sell Air New Zealand. Mr English says in order to build roads in Auckland which is a funny policy for a Southlander! Even Auckland doesn’t support that.
Mr English tells us very little else except for hints and nudges and winks on taxes, industrial relations, privatisation and combat planes. His answer to job growth is to build fences to sit on.

But with a front bench that acts like closet punk rockers there can be little doubt that National in power would revert to its previous destructive agenda. If Act is the men behaving badly party National is the boys behind bike-shed party.

Their only hope is that international events will conspire to produce a sufficiently large economic downturn to cause a swing in public opinion. They know that no other scenario can possibly lead them to success.

And nor will that one. New Zealanders are now too sophisticated to believe that a slowdown in the US economy is the fault of our government.
They will not believe that spending rather than saving is the best way to secure the future of New Zealand Superannuation.

They know that the right wing extremism New Zealand followed for years is not where other countries have found success.

It is, then, for us to paint that picture of the future and look forward to the success we can enjoy as a nation. We will build that success on five pillars.

The first is strong leadership. Above all by Helen, but also the rest of our team which has the maturity, talent and experience lacking in the National Party. And, in that respect, let me emphasise and pay tribute to the crucial role Jim Anderton has played in the stability and strength of the government.

New Zealand cannot afford weak governments. We need to convey a clear message that a vote for Labour is the best means of ensuring that does not happen.

Second, our programmes and activities need to be based on a clear strategic vision. A smart active government working in partnership with innovative New Zealanders will build a stronger economy and a fairer society.

The so-called new economy will not replace the old. It will strengthen, deepen and widen much of our traditional economic base.

Out of that base we will spin growth in biotechnology, service industries and a whole range of niche high tech businesses. To that we will add a growing emphasis on tourism,
including adventure tourism, which is part of our branding of New Zealand as a quality destination and experience.

The creative industries will also grow rapidly as we ourselves and others realise our huge potential and abilities in this area. No government has done more to further this sector than the present government.

But to realise all this potential will require getting the third pillar right: the strategic integration of policies. That includes support for business and industry development, investment promotion and attraction, skills development, immigration, the regulatory environment, and trade amongst others. We are the first government in years to take a strategic approach in some of these areas – notably industry development and skills development.

The fourth pillar is inclusion. Successive governments obsessed with inflicting pain to achieve gain – the self-flagellation model of growth – have made us a people averse to change. But continuous change and adaptation is the essence of vitality in the modern world and here our size is an advantage.

People will not buy into that truth unless they can benefit from it. That covers, therefore, a wide variety of government policies. The most important are a clear commitment to articulating and making real our bicultural and multicultural future. Success in the modern world cannot be the preserve of those with white faces. The Treaty demands that - but so does commonsense and the interests of all New Zealanders.

It means also key social policies like implementing a new primary health care strategy, addressing our housing needs, improving our early intervention social services and continuing to lift our poorer regions.

The fifth pillar is environmental sustainability. Conservation is only a part of that for much of the environment will also continue to change. The essence is to preserve choices for the future, not to freeze the past, often in a state, which has already been greatly altered my human impact. Here our policies must reflect both rationality and scientific evidence as well as our differing spiritualities and values.

We should not be embarrassed about those differences. In the end we seek to build a stronger more vibrant economy much less for its own sake but for the opportunities it creates to express our potential and aspirations as human beings, as individuals, whanau, and communities.

That is the historic mission of the Labour Party that we will carry forward in government.