Making a difference

  • Robyn McDonald
Senior Citizens

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here today at your AGM.

The last year has created huge changes in my life.

Over 12 short months ago, I was being considered as a candidate for the general election.

Now I am your Minister for Senior Citizens. A sobering thought.

I want to tell you why I entered politics.

I wanted to Make A Difference.

All through my life, that is the philosophy I have followed.

It is why I belong to New Zealand First.

And why I support Winston Peters.

New Zealand First created history last October.

And thankfully for New Zealanders, were placed in a strong political position by our voters.

We made a difference to the election result.

We made a difference when we negotiated the Coalition Agreement and formed the new Government.

We are continuing to make a difference as we change the policies of previous governments.

I believe the Budget will stand out as an humanitarian document - helping New Zealanders in practical, but not excessive ways.

Before I joined New Zealand First, I was disenchanted with Government.

As so many New Zealanders were.

Our voices, and our concerns were not listened to.

We had no real input to policies that impacted on us!

And now, New Zealand First, thanks to our many supporters is able to change that.

Working within Government is dynamic and exciting.

It provides me with opportunities to make the very difference I have been speaking of.

It is unfortunate that the focus currently is on recent issues in the media rather than on the policy changes we have initiated.

These are changes for the benefit of New Zealanders.

They are New Zealand First making a difference to this government.

Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, making a difference also means being human.

You will understand that I have had a steep learning curve in the political arena.

Less than 12 months from acceptance as a candidate, to a Minister of the Crown, has been a demanding learning curve.

My personal experience after my Ministerial overseas visit with the media coverage of the costs was a difficult time, both personally and for my family.

But I have learnt from that experience.

I accept the concerns of New Zealanders about the costs of my travel.

And I apologise to New Zealanders for that cost.

Being new to the political "system" means that we have tended to accept what has gone before.

By that I mean, the level of entitlements for Ministers and MPs.

Those entitlements are currently entrenched within "the system".

And I stepped into that "system" without considerable thought. There is no excuse for that.

But it is something I now intend to change.

When I travel again, the costs will be considered and they will not be beyond what is reasonable.

I do believe my overseas visit was important for my portfolio responsibilities, and I will discuss that a little later.

But I acknowledge the concerns of New Zealanders about expenditure by parliamentarians.

Such expenditure does need more accountability.

To that end, I will work closely with my colleague Hon Tuariki John Delamere, with his review of ministerial entitlements.

I also believe we should look at the suitability of the entitlements of former MPs.

In my view, it is a privilege to serve on behalf of New Zealanders.

To expect financial rewards and entitlements as of right after such service, is not acceptable.

New Zealand First hears the concerns of New Zealanders and we will take action.

We believe in making a difference in politics and policies today.

It is not about rhetoric, it is about taking action.

I hope that New Zealanders will be able to look beyond the current coverage and see what we are already achieving on your behalf.

At the election, we were determined to be the conscience of the next government.

We intend to, and are, putting the heart back into policies.

That means listening to New Zealanders and working through issues to achieve consensus.

It means also looking after the needs of future generations - our children and our grandchildren.

What we put in place today, will be the basis for our society into the next millennium.

New Zealand First is very concerned about the social issues we are having to face as a nation today.

And also on our ability to help all New Zealanders, in particular those on low incomes.

In this year's Budget - as I said earlier, New Zealand First will make a difference.

We will be clearly defined as "the new conscience of government".

We have been offered a unique place in history, but we must deliver results.

And we will.

The Retirement Savings Scheme Referendum in September is creating positive and healthy debate.

I support compulsory superannuation.

I am convinced the current scheme is not sustainable.

It is a burden and we need to deal with it now, for the sake of future generations.

New Zealand First believes we need a long term solution to retirement income.

I do believe the arguments against the scheme are premature.

I say: wait until the details are released before making your decision.

As a woman, I do not want to see women disadvantaged with the new scheme - I am confident that they will be taken care of.

The questions raised are being addressed by the Design Team.

And the scheme will, I believe, be fair to all.

The fact we have to face is, that without a change to current policies, taxes will have to be increased.

In the long term, it will be a burden on New Zealanders - my children, your grandchildren, and it will affect our economic growth and performance.

I can assure you that we do not intend the new scheme to affect those already on the New Zealand Superannuation.

We envisage a gradual and phased changeover spread over a period of years.

We believe that the scheme, when it is presented, will provide a tangible and realistic alternative for superannuation.

The surcharge was also factored into the affordability of National Superannuation.

The surcharge is ageism - a tax related purely to how old you are, and as such, totally unacceptable.

It has penalised you for being retired and wanting to look after yourselves!

New Zealand First gained agreement to have the surcharge removed next year.

It was indefensible and it goes.

In my role as your Minister, there are a number of further policy areas which I am very interested in pursuing.

I am very concerned about the lack of health education and promotion programmes targeting older people.

I believe we need to work in this area for a number of reasons.

Being healthy means a better quality of lifestyle for older people.

It also means keeping independent for as long as possible.

Focusing on this area also means that we can incorporate healthy living into our positive ageing initiatives.

Too many New Zealanders see ageing as a negative.

Of course it is not.

It is a natural process which is affected by our attitudes.

I want to see New Zealand society celebrate being older.

And valuing senior citizens for their skills and contributions.

Life can indeed begin at retirement!

We will have the International Year of Older Persons in 1999.

It will highlight the contributions made by you to our country.

I look forward to seeing many positive and inspirational programmes being organised in anticipation of 1999.

The present Retirement Income is also an area that I am investigating.

We are aware that there is a low take-up of supplementary forms of assistance by superannuitants.

Such assistance obviously needs to be more widely promoted so that it can be accessed by those in need.

This, in turn, would further support our approach of helping older people remain in their own homes and independent for as long as possible.

I see the new Super Centres introduced by the Department of Social Welfare, as playing an active role here.

They can help to better inform people about ways in which they can access assistance.

If you are eligible, you should know about it!

A more positive approach to retirement is also supported by the Government's "Coalition Agreement".

In it, we stated that our general policy direction will:

"ensure that retired persons live in the relative comfort and dignity that their age, experience and previous labour clearly justifies, and that they are not discriminated against but encouraged to contribute their knowledge and endeavours to the general community."

Currently, we have a number of government agencies looking at ways to develop and implement strategies to promote positive ageing.

The Prime Ministerial Task Force on Positive Ageing was established last year.

It responded to concerns raised by the need to prepare New Zealand for an ageing population.

These concerns are fully supported by statistics.

In the five years to 2001, the population over the age of 65 is expected to increase by over 25,000 people.

And by the year 2031,over 20 percent of the entire population will be in that age group.

Such an increase in the number of senior citizens will have a huge impact on government policies.

Particularly in health, retirement income and community support service provision.

Planning for an older population needs to start now.

We need to have positive ageing widely promoted.

And such promotion will improve the lifestyle of our current older citizens.

The Task Force on Positive Ageing is expected to report back to the Government at the end of June.

It will be advising us on a strategy for ensuring that policies developed by different agencies are co-ordinated in a coherent way.

Especially in monitoring the needs of an ageing population, and promoting and supporting positive ageing.

The Department of Social Welfare has responded to the need for a vision.

And is implementing a Positive Ageing Strategy.

I am committed to their stated objectives.

They are reflected in the Coalition Government's direction in this policy area.

Our key strategies include encouraging and supporting older people to stay independent for as long as they are able.

Valuing our senior citizens is essential.

Their contribution to society must be recognised to be facilitated.

It should be at the heart of all our policies concerning you.

Without you, organisations relying heavily on voluntary work, such as Citizens Advice, Meals on Wheels, simply could not function.

I want to work closely with organisations such as Grey Power, to ensure that Government policies and programmes are not just concepts but a reality in your daily lives.

We are already seeing positive initiatives including the "Super Centres" concept, and the Keeping Independent Now (KIN) Programme.

Facilitating participation in community activities is a key issue in your remaining independent well into retirement.

My recent visit overseas was very fruitful in the discussions I held with key organisations and officials.

After the Consumer Affairs Conference in Paris, I met with the OECD Director of the Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Directorate.

The OECD of course, gives us our benchmark standards for our social and economic issues.

It gives us a way to see how we are doing compared to other developed countries, and is invaluable in promoting policies of value in our country.

We discussed the study they are undertakiing of issues impacting on older people in OECD countries.

They were going to particularly focus on social issues like retirement income and health.

I was able to point out several key issues which we are looking at in New Zealand, and suggest that they include them in their study.

The issues included elder abuse and neglect, continuing education for older people so that they can take up other opportunities and discount cards.

They incidentally were very interested in a discount card concept, especially the idea of standardising it across European borders.

I am pleased to say that they will now include them in the study.

Their report will be very useful for us to compare our national performance with.

Each nation is facing the same issues as New Zealand, in the senior citizens policy areas with increasing aging populations.

The exchange of information on policy initiatives and programmes means that we do not have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak.

Our overseas counterparts were very interested in our programmes such as:

the pilots on elder abuse and neglect, the Police Volunteers programme and the development of intergenerational programmes.

We will find ways of co-operating with senior citizens to maximise their resources.

And also with organisations such as yours, to improve the overall lifestyle for seniors.

It is most important to me as your Minister, to listen to your views and concerns about policies impacting on you.

I know I cannot resolve every issue and concern overnight, but I am hoping to use the results of our meetings to enhance current policies or develop new responses.

Other benefits from the Coalition Agreement for you and the nation will be extra spending in health, education and other social services.

Policy work such as that which delivered these initiatives continues, as we make further progress.

Finally, on compulsory superannuation. I urge you to consider all the issues on their merit when the Retirement Savings Scheme details are released.

And to exercise your right to vote. We want to know what New Zealanders think about the issue.

But most of all, I hope you will vote to enable your children and their children to have a comfortable, independent retirement.

We are having a healthy debate but the critics are too hasty in their opposition.

They should wait for the Design Team to complete their task.

My thanks to you for this opportunity to talk to you and I look forward to working with you as your Minister.