CTU speech - DPM

  • Rt Hon Winston Peters
Deputy Prime Minister

Ladies and gentlemen, NZCTU President Richard Wagstaff, members of respective unions – thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.

This might be preaching to the choir, but the importance of trade unions in New Zealand’s historical arch is difficult to understate.

And it is my belief that the current balance of power between employers and workers is pivotal - just as it was in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Ever since the earliest days of European settlement in this country, trade unions have played a critical part in the distribution of power between New Zealanders.

Indeed, some of this country’s early migration can be attributed to the National Agricultural Farm Labourers’ Union in Great Britain.

They encouraged migration to New Zealand, in response to exploitation at home.

Thus, many of New Zealand’s early émigrés came to this country at the behest of a union – and brought those values and worldview with them.

By 1860, New Zealand’s earliest extant union had been formed – the Carpenters and Joiners’ Union, now part of the Building Trades Union.

Unions continued to operate on an ad hoc basis until 1894, with the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

That Act established the Arbitration Court, which would dominate the Trade Union landscape for much of the next century.

From that point, employers were legally obliged to negotiate with unions.

Not many in this room will remember that era, but it was certainly one in which unions enjoyed unparalleled influence over the way this country operated.

Eventually, in 1973, the Third Labour Government disestablished the Arbitration Court and replaced it with the Employment Court.

And for the next twenty years, the powers of unions were steadily dismantled.

First, by the Fourth Labour Government. Then the biggest blow to unions came with the Fourth National Government’s Employment Contracts Act, which came into force on 7 May 1991.

This is an episode of history all too familiar to me, as I left the National Cabinet only five months later.

The very word ‘union’ was not included in that Act. It was obvious that Ruth Richardson and her cohort did not respect unions’ right to exist.

The effect was catastrophic. In the four years after the Act came into force, trade union membership halved.

Many on the right celebrated that decline. And it is true that unions were not always responsible actors.

But the working people of New Zealand were subject to a state of employment anarchy not seen since the 19th Century.

Their interests were no longer adequately represented, and their futures were increasingly cast to the whims of global capital.

Eventually, those excesses were softened by interceding legislation over the last twenty years. Indeed, the current volume of industrial action is unfortunate proof of that.

So where does that leave us now? When this Government was formed, New Zealand First made it clear that we want to see New Zealand’s economy improved, to restore ‘capitalism with a human face.’

You might ask, where does that term come from? In 1968, a heroic but ill-fated attempt to modernize and democratize Czechoslovakia was led by a man called Alexander Dubček.

He called his reforms ‘socialism with a human face’. It sought to challenge the obvious flaws of the socialist system imposed on the Czechoslovaks by the Soviet Union.

We are performing a similar mission in reverse, excepting the happy fact there aren’t any Soviets to invade and crush our reforms this time around.

We envision financial and employment systems which benefit both the individual and the community, whilst preserving opportunities for growth and innovation for wealth creators.

At first glance, those may appear to be innately competing interests, locked in an intractable struggle where the fat cat always wins.

In reality, we believe they can complement each other.

Working people and employers can work together to create outcomes for the betterment of all.

In New Zealand First, we see our role as a responsible arbitrator between those competing interests.

It is obvious that the Labour Party, as the political wing of the wider labour movement, is betrothed to the unions.

Similarly, the National Party is hopelessly captured by the interests of private capital.

This leaves New Zealand First in a unique situation, as a centrist party which can see the arguments of both camps.

We are making sure this is not a right-wing Government, nor a left-wing one.

We preside over a solution-focused, future oriented Government, rooted in tangible facts – not spurious economic theory.

This is why we listen to Trade Unions. This is why we listen to farmers. And this is why we also listen to business leaders.

Everyone has a stake in this country, and that stake should be recognized by comprehensive engagement, not lip service.

Our view of industrial relations and the Government’s role is very clear. Government is the referee – independent and neutral, favouring neither side, but the health of the economy itself.

Persuasion in pursuit of reasonable compromise is what wise Governments should do.

The economic impasse that this country may one day face is not impossible to navigate, but it will require a solution that is brokered between all interested parties.

Unions and workers now face technologically-spurred challenges like ‘zero-hour contracts’ and the ‘gig economy’ that their predecessors could have barely imagined in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These are all creations of multinational corporations, who have prospered in the deregulated environment created by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, and have been allowed to spiral out of control – up till now.

We recognise that all the action we see today is an indirect result of those rapid policy shifts.

Whilst we recognize and respect your organizations’ right to strike, your timing is unfortunate to say the least.

While conditions for much of the workforce deteriorated under the previous Government with stagnant wages and a rising cost of living, you sat on your laurels.

Now, just as right wing Governments and private interests exploit perceived vulnerabilities to exploit their agendas, some unions have attempted to do the same.

Except it won’t work.

Significant change to economies and government cannot occur overnight without massive disruption to the most vulnerable - despite Marxists and Neoliberals’ parallel claims to the contrary.

We are in our first term. If you expect a massive shift in industrial relations in just three years, you are asking for the impossible.

This is not a Government of irresponsible sedition, nor is it merely a modified status quo.

We are open for work, and we are open for business. All we ask is that all parties in the industrial relations equation start behaving the same way.