Address to NewLabour Party ConferenceDeputy Prime Minister
Eleven years ago the NewLabour Party was formed by principled and dedicated New Zealanders.
It was built around a commitment to ideals that are as relevant today as they ever were: That everyone should have equality of opportunity in a democratic society. Jobs, education and health care for everyone.
NewLabour was an idea whose time had come. It had to be formed. Without it, the simple ideals of full employment, free health care and free education would not have been maintained as political and philosophic goals or continued to be represented in New Zealand politics. If we had not advocated them, no one would have.
In May 1989, when we started out, the government of the day was increasing the costs of heath care, it imposed tertiary education fees for the first time and it was increasing unemployment dramatically and catastrophically.
NewLabour was formed because we rejected all that.
We opposed the sale of strategic New Zealand assets. One of them was the BNZ. Another was Postbank. Now, as the business case is being prepared for a kiwi bank using NZ Post, there is an overwhelming case for a publicly-owned People’s Bank that serves the interests of the people who own it. It should give you all a great deal of satisfaction that the NLP, as part of the Alliance, is in government to advocate, promote and ultimately oversee the establishment of our own People's Bank – the public empire strikes back!
Another of the assets was Telecom. We warned that selling a virtual monopoly amounted to a licence to print money for the purchasers. It has taken until this year – and our involvement in a new Government – for a truly competitive framework to be put in place, and for new entrants to the telecommunications market to emerge. And now nearly everyone agrees that Telecom got away with a dominant market position for far too long. History proved us right.
National, spurred on by ACT, broke up the publicly-owned electricity assets. What happened? The price went up and the lights went out in Auckland.
There is one more asset sale I could mention. If ever the case for public ownership of vital strategic assets was demonstrated, it was when Tranz Rail announced this week that it is planning to chop up the rail network. Suddenly we have the prospect that some vital services could disappear altogether.
I say that if we are required to pump hundreds of millions of dollars of public money into Tranz Rail subsidies or lease payments, we might as well buy it back.
The Government will be in close consultation with Tranz Rail and local communities throughout New Zealand over the coming months to get the best contribution from rail services towards a strategic national transport network in order to achieve both social (ie. public transport), environmental and economic development benefits.
The New Labour party was a pioneer in opposing asset sales. History has proven we were right then and we are right now.
Throughout its history, the NewLabour Party has been a beacon of opposition to the failure of the New Right.
In December last year, when NLP members joined a Cabinet for the first time, it had been twenty-five years since there was a voice at the Cabinet table representing ordinary working New Zealanders.
Rob Muldoon, Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley came and went. They had their chance and they did enormous damage to New Zealand. The per capita incomes in New Zealand fell from somewhere around the average of developed countries to just over 80% of the average. Unemployment went from almost non-existent to affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of working New Zealanders.
Our political opponents have enjoyed active support from powerful and entrenched elites. The elite made itself much richer at the expense of the majority of New Zealanders. The wealthiest ten per cent of New Zealanders became much richer at the expense of the eighty per cent of New Zealanders who were made worse off.
No one should underestimate the size of the mountain we climbed in over-coming that entrenched, self-interested opposition.
I remember well the comments of doomsayers when we first strode away from the then Labour Government. They said we were mad. There was no way the party could survive beyond the next election, we were told.
And in my heart of hearts, I thought they were probably right. Never before had an MP left a major party in New Zealand, stood against it at the following election and won. We knew we were up against history. But we were determined to give it our best shot. "Don't Waste Your Vote – Waste Them" was our famous (or infamous) election advertisement.
We created history when, in 1990, we held Sydenham for NewLabour.
We created history again when, in December 1991, we joined in partnership with like-minded parties and created the Alliance.
Never before in our history, nor in any like country that I know of, has a party been formed to the left of Labour, challenged it at successive elections and succeeded in entering government just ten years after being created.
We should celebrate our success. Sometimes we forget to, because there is so much still to be done. We set very high standards for ourselves – and so we should.
But it’s worth re-counting some of the successes we have been part of.
That single achievement – reaching Government from a position to the left of the Labour Party – is worth dwelling on. It is a unique and historic achievement.
When we started out we faced a two-party First Past the Post system. It’s gone, and the NewLabour Party had a lot to do with sweeping out that old system and introducing MMP. And now in Government, we have helped to make multi-party democracy and Coalition Government work the way it is supposed to.
Let us celebrate the achievements we have secured as part of the Coalition.
We have secured a stable government in the interests of all working people. What was/is the alternative? Jenny Shipley, Richard Prebble and the Business Round Table – that's what!
We have changed the Cabinet rules to ensure that parties in Cabinet can retain their integrity and vote according to the policies they placed before the people at the election – even if that means from time to time that we vote against our coalition colleagues from within the Cabinet. That is unprecedented in a Westminster form of parliamentary democracy. The world has not ended and MMP is more secure and accepted now than at any time since the referendum in 1996.
We secured a $20 a week increase in superannuation and in the minimum wage. Income related rentals will be restored for state house tenants this year.
We have established the Ministry of Economic Development. For the first time in a generation there is a developmental dimension to economic policy. The Government is entering partnerships with regions and with industry.
We have a long way to go after the damage done over the last twenty-five years to revitalise the regions and transform the industrial base of New Zealand.
But as I keep saying, one bad day in government is better than a thousand good days in Opposition.
There are challenges ahead. The Queen's Speech set out the Coalition government's commitment to institute a new system of paid parental leave in the term of this government. We are now in urgent discussions as to the form and timing of paid parental leave. We pay tribute to the persistence of Laila Harre. She has pushed this onto the national agenda. Generations of New Zealanders will one day record that Laila Harre took the first major steps to destroy the fiction that paid work and life-creation must be kept separate. It remains our expectation that paid parental leave will be in next year's legislative agenda.
Laila Harre is also working hard to increase the minimum wage for young workers.
But overarching these important and practical policies, our philosophical ideals have never been more important – free health care, free education, full employment.
After everything that NewLabour has been through over the past eleven years it is crucial that we direct our energy as effectively as possible towards achieving the goals that still lie ahead.
It is indisputable that far too much of the energy and effort of our NewLabour team has been sapped by trying to run two parallel operations. Our activists have only a certain amount of time, energy and money to expend at the local, regional and national level. We should not be duplicating effort where we don’t need to.
That is why I have believed for a long time that NewLabour should merge into the Alliance at this conference.
A mass movement requires accountability at all levels. Yet the sheer effort required to keep NewLabour going in parallel with the Alliance has meant we have ended up with a small group of NLP members at a national level making all the decisions. Sheer exhaustion has too often left the membership out of the loop. That is not in the best interests of democratic movements like ours!
NewLabour is not asking the other constituent parties of the Alliance to do the same. That is a decision for them to make and they are sovereign parties in their own right.
But it is the right decision for NewLabour now.
NewLabour will always occupy a special and important place in New Zealand’s political history. That has been secured by you and all who have travelled the hard political road together.
There will always be a special badge of honour for the staunch and courageous people who followed me into the wilderness in 1989. Special thanks are due to those who were founding members of the NLP Council and who have continued to play leadership roles throughout our history - Matt Robson, Laila Harre, Liz Gordon, Matt McCarten, Jim Flynn, Jim Bennett, Paul Piesse, Ivan Finlayson, Barry Gribben, Petronella Townsend, Mary-Anne Mechen, Dion Martin and Dave Macpherson.
And special mention too should be made of those who were founding members and who have been long-standing national leaders of the NLP – Moira Lawler, Sally Griffen, Dennis Rockell, Vernon Tile, Robert Hawke and Gerard Hehir.
They stayed loyal throughout the good times and bad.
True loyalty is often the hardest of political virtues to display. It’s easy to be loyal when times are good. True loyalty is displayed when the going gets tough. Loyalty is not sycophantic or uncritical. It is practical co-operation in support of a cause greater than oneself. We have been privileged to share the joys and sorrows of such an adventure.
I want to pay tribute to the fiercely committed activists who stayed loyal and built and sustained NewLabour.
Many of them are no longer with us. Some have died. Others have left overseas.
Brian Healy, Sally Mitchell, Dave Alton and so many others whose names cannot be listed for they are too many and just listing them – many are here today – almost devalues their contribution. You, and they, know the truth. That is enough.
Andrew Ladley was the NLP constitutional lawyer at the start and drafted the NLP constitution. He was my legal advisor during my fight with the Labour caucus.
My Wigram team - including my wife Carole, Jeanette Lawrence, Liz Maunsell and Phil Clearwater - has also been unfailing in their support, as has been my extraordinarily effective electorate secretary Alan Hayward.
Many of the staunchest have never sought office nor reward, but they have turned out year after year.
It is to them and the genuine, hard-working New Zealanders whose interests they have fought for, that I would like to dedicate the achievements of NewLabour in coming this far.
The journey, however, has really only just begun.
In an article in the New Zealand herald today I am accused of taking a gamble and putting all of our eggs in the "jobs machine, regional development basket". This is not, of course, entirely true, but if the contribution of the alliance to New Zealand's future is to help re-build our social and economic health as a nation, that won't be at all bad.
And if full employment, in a technologically advanced, fair, dynamic and culturally vibrant independent nation state is not enough for you, then you are hard to please.
For me, this is as good as it gets.
Now, we have work to do. Let's get on with it.