The Coalition Government - A Fresh Perspective

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking to you today. (adlib)

I'd like to talk to you tonight about my perspective and experience of the Coalition Government and MMP.

There has been much hype since the signing of the Coalition Agreement. The media and many others have kept us up-to-date with their views - mostly from the outside looking in. Never more so than over the last week.

And certainly we politicians have provided enough side-tracking incidents to keep a controversy-focused media and the public's attention on the periphery, rather than on what actually happens inside Government - policy development, community consultation, select committees, legislation and so on.

From my perspective there are great things happening in Government and we are working well together. I know my relationships with National Ministers Simon Upton and Jenny Shipley are in good health. In particular as a fellow woman parliamentarian, I have a mentor in Jenny Shipley.

As I see it, the challenge for Government is to get the information out there about the work going on, and to be disciplined and work as a team. Otherwise we give the media a ready excuse to focus on the controversy and not the work.

I believe this Coalition Government has been very successful in balancing the need to maintain a strong economic base with a more focussed outlook on our social policy too.

There is still some way to go, but the recent Budget highlighted what we plan to achieve over the next two and a half years. We have already implemented some of our priority policies and the results are starting to come through.

The economy is recovering as expected. Just last week the Reserve Bank's projections showed a strong pick-up in economic growth over the next couple of years. Equally encouraging is that the pick-up is projected to be broad-based, sustainable, and non-inflationary.

GDP figures from last Friday show much stronger growth for the June quarter than expected by the market, and business confidence has risen for two months in a row. These are not the results of a Government in crisis or 'meltdown' as some would have it. I was also encouraged by the latest Quarterly Employment Survey. It gives pleasing news, particularly for young people.. Due to the increase in both hourly earnings and hours paid for, average total weekly earnings increased by 3.7% in the year to May 1997. This is the largest annual increase since November 1990.

And the good news isn't just in economic growth. I am proud of the focus New Zealand First and the Coalition Agreement has brought to social policy development.

For example, total education spending climbs to almost $7 billion in 1997/98, almost a 7% increase on last year.

Not all the answers lie in the sector based ministries though. I believe the role and valuable contribution of our population-based Ministries, such as Youth Affairs and Women's Affairs are often overlooked, so I'd like to touch on that briefly also.

New Zealand has led the world in many areas of social change. We have introduced some innovative legislation to help tackle some of our most pressing social problems.

A good example of that is the Children, Young Persons and their Families Act. It attracts a lot of criticism in this country, and yet it is held up internationally as an excellent piece of legislation.

We are also fortunate to have an army of people working in the community, in local government and in central government agencies committed to making a difference in a variety of ways.

Often those people don't get the public acknowledgment they deserve. I have met some of them here today. Without them there would be many more young people and families without the support they require.

And I have to say, that it is those people working at the grass roots that can make the difference.

Government does have an important role in the provision of social services and in the economy. But, ultimately, the state is not a parent.

The State can't provide the vital nutrients of love, affection and support.

Only a family can provide these basic building blocks.

And around those basic building blocks there must be support from the community. The youth workers, the teachers, the health professionals and the government agencies - along with the parents - can make the difference. But there has to be co-ordination, cooperation and communication.

In the late 1980's New Zealand had the foresight to set up a range of social policy Ministries focussed on specific sectors of the population. We realised that not everything could be contained within the mainstream departments and Ministries. Much better results could be achieved by policy agencies able to provide government with contestable advice about specific population groupings.

So now, for example, we have a Ministry of Youth Affairs which looks holistically at the issues facing young people. And we have a Ministry of Women's Affairs for the same reason.

The contribution of population based departments improves the quality of policy decisions. They enable government to take into account the various circumstances that exist in people's lives - rather than expecting a generic approach to deliver the results.

I have to say there are some Ministers who prefer not to hear the contestable advice provided by the population Ministries. But the fact remains, that without their input we are at risk of pursuing policy decisions with only part of the information before us.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs is charged with facilitating the participation of young people in their communities. We have various ways of enabling their input in to central government; student reps in schools, the Youth Parliament, focus groups, NGO forums and the like. There are also a number of youth councils operating at the local level seeking to find solutions to local issues.

One example of youth contributing to the policy process is the 1994 Youth Parliament. During that Parliament the issue of the drinking age was debated. The youth MPs debated all of the health and social issues associated with alcohol consumption, and, on balance voted to lower the age at which young people could purchase alcohol. Their final decision informed the Ministry of Youth Affairs' submission to a committee reviewing the liquor laws.

The Ministry and I therefore have expressed support for a lowering of the drinking age to 18 years.

We have taken a harm minimisation approach - taking account of what's currently going on in the lives of teenagers and seeking to minimise the harm that can come from abusing alcohol without having regard for the consequences.

Recently a new advertising campaign began. It asked viewers the question: "Where's that drink taking you?".

The campaign was developed with young people - allowing their input and constructive criticism. The result is a series of advertisements that are honest and thought provoking.

Now, I know that some people don't agree with my stance on the drinking age, but I believe that youth participation and consultation is one of the keys to addressing social issues. That means not just providing information to young people, but it also means allowing young people the chance to provide their information and perspective to us.

That avoids the situation of policy makers on The Terrace guessing what might be going on in the real world.

Sadly, a number of older people have a rather negative view of younger people. Younger people often have an equally strong reaction towards older people.

It's amazing however to see perceptions change when different generations have the chance for communication.

I recently heard a seventeen year old describe with excitement the amazing stories she had heard an elderly person tell.

It was intriguing to see the realisation in her, that older people did have a life and they did have something that she could learn from.

Most weeks New Zealanders see stories in the media about youth. But more often than not the stories fail to show positive role models or highlight the great things that young people are getting up to. They prefer to focus on some of the less palatable issues.

We do have to be brave enough to recognise and address the issues that affect young people, but we must avoid the trap of only focussing on the difficulties and problems. What does it say about our expectations for youth? If we present young people with the facts and options, then they are likely to make the right choice.

But how do we present those facts and opinions?

Let's ask the young people.

MMP is one way of getting more youth involved in the decision-making process. MMP has delivered a parliament that better reflects New Zealand. There will always be New Zealanders who are forthright or controversial, and of course, young, old, Maori, Asian, Pacific Island. Today they are in parliament - where they ought to be.

MMP has also brought compromise on policy issues. That's hard for some people to swallow because New Zealanders are such an "all or nothing" people. When we go in for the scrum or the tackle we do it without compromise - its all or nothing. I think that rugby mentality has carried over into our political expectations.

But the fact is, that as we approach the year 2000 there is a place for compromise, rather than dogged extremes on either end of the political spectrum.

So, let's make MMP work!!

Lastly, I'd like to say that the West Coast has an enormous amount going for it - physical beauty and amazing people. A lot of positive stuff can happen if we're all pulling in the same direction - you can make it happen and the people I have met here today have echoed that. And with the same will to all go in the same direction at a national level, then I believe this country has a great future ahead of it.

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