Pacific Vision Conference

  • Bill English

This conference is part of shaping our nation. It draws together 600 leaders not only of the Pacific island community, but leaders in New Zealand to talk about the nation we can be.

I'll tell you a small story. I came from rural Southland. There are no Pacific Islanders there. The first I met was David Mara, son of today's patron, at school. The first female of Pacific descent I met I married, and that's been a productive partnership.

When I was Minister of Health I had the opportunity to work with the Pacific Island community and many other communities around New Zealand at a time when anxiety about health services was high.

Today, as the Treasurer, I have come with the opportunity to apply the lessons learned from my own experience and that of other Ministers to new future partnership with the Pacific Island community in New Zealand.

I do intend to see the lessons applied. The Government has in recent years established some core principles of social policy which will guide the substantial changes in our interaction with the community over the next five years.

I want to encourage you to come to Government with your ideas and proposals - everyone else does. The growing strength of this community means you must be listened to. You are welcome to push us, challenge us, and work with us.

My experience in Health taught me a number of things.

Firstly that communities have more resources than we think, regardless of how that community looks to us from the outside.

There are few who have no understanding of their disadvantages and no capacity to do anything about them.

The reality is that people who live with economic and social disadvantage every day know how it feels. The problem that Government may be setting out to solve is much alive to them. This understanding is much more sharply focused than the standard public service litany of generalised failure.

Moreover, these communities have a fine grained understanding of the attitudes and the environment which are interdependent with disadvantage.

One of the more moving experiences I've had as a politician was a wish a visit to the Mangere Community Centre a few years ago. I was asked to hand out certificates of recognition to people who had helped in the meningitis campaign. They were a real mixture - students, housewives, unemployed - who went door-to-door talking to families in their own language about how to tell if their children might have the killer disease - more effective than any pamphlet or trained professional. The Government produced a few thousand dollars, but they owned the sense of empowerment and community building.

Secondly, leadership and vision aren't the exclusive property of the elected politicians or the paid bureaucrats.

Time and again in the communities I have dealt with, people with courage and a long term view have been able to lead their community through the attitudinal changes that it takes to make a real difference. Sometimes it can be the most unlikely people. Few communities have no leadership at all, and almost all communities can imagine a better world. If there is leadership present then anything is possible.

I've also learned that the good old days weren't so good after all.

Communities can be trapped by their view of how it used to be. If we're honest, we know that many of the needs in the Pacific Island community was simply ignored by Government.

Our young people are not well served, if all we can tell them is that before they were born things were better. They need to understand our history, but it's important that they are not trapped by it. This applies particularly in our Pacific community. More and more are fia Palagi and they are part of forging a new identity for New Zealand. I'm excited by that. It's the role of our Island born people to preserve the culture they know. The next generation will be Pacific, but in a different way.

Another lesson.

We have to learn that it's a long haul to get there.

If partnerships are going to make a difference then both partners need to be realistic about what can be achieved and how. The best partnerships are based on common expectations and mutual obligations. In the worst, each blames the other for not meeting their unreasonable expectations.

And I've learned that Government cannot fundamentally reshape its relationship with communities, or with this community, unless it changes the rules.

To use an old saying, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette.

I am a member of a political party that, through this decade, has initiated a number of quite controversial changes in health, education and welfare. A number of those changes have been about breaking up rigid, rule-driven systems so that the Government doesn't monopolise the delivery of services, the Wellington way.

In the case of Pacific Island health, we needed to make the funded provider split back in the early 1990s so that Pacific health providers can successfully tender for public money now.

In the case of employment, we need employment law that makes entry into work as simple and easy as possible, and makes discrimination less likely.

Members of this audience ought to know that they can't have it both ways. If you want real change and real partnership then you must argue for change. It's very confusing as a Government to see communities who need real change arguing against it.

How many of you here have thought in recent years that the changes in health for instance were some kind of mad right-wing experiment? Probably most of you. You must consider the benefits for your own people. It is a Palagi conservative government which has been by far the strongest advocate for changes which enable you to be a partner in the delivery of health and other services.

Health also taught me that policy makers need to do what is right because it's right.

When I've been in political trouble closing down big old hospitals down in my electorate in the far south of New Zealand, people who want the money in Auckland are nowhere to be seen. Creating an environment for real partnerships is about a long term vision for the country, not a short term vision for politics.

The final lesson is that any true partnership is based on respect.

I have enjoyed immensely working with so many people in the Pacific Island community who have been able to see what can be achieved and who have been open-minded enough to work with anyone who can assist them.

In turn Government can only get the best out of the partnership if it brings to that partnership a profound respect for the pride that this community has in itself and New Zealand.

For many Pacific Islanders this is an adopted country - but for more and more of you it is your home country. If we really believe that in 20 years time the young people of today will be leaders of this nation, then it is simply not good enough for Governments to put people on committees. The days of this community being grateful for what they get should be over.

So how should we apply these lessons to the future?

A huge amount of money will be spent on Health, Education and Welfare over the next five years. At the same time the proportion of the population which is reliant on other New Zealanders for their income and their Government services is too high.

You are all familiar with the figures, a big proportion of Pacific Islanders depending on benefits and using Government services heavily. We can beat it if we fight the culture of dependency - for instance income related rents sound good, they will trap some of your community to life long dependency, and those who can't get a state house will be greatly aggrieved at their unfair treatment. Two families with the same income will get quite different housing support from the Government.

We can see that there is a gap between where many of our young people are and the way the world is changing. Economic change has left little room for unskilled labour and little opportunity for those who haven't got some kind of education. However I'm optimistic that our young people can jump that gap faster than you think.

In some respects it's all a matter of expectations.

As an Associate Minister of Education I can recall visiting a language nest in Mangere here in Auckland and having discussion with some of the mothers about their children. The expectations they had for their children were no different than I have of mine - a good job, stable family life, good citizens. The next day I went off to a conference where I talked about this to an audience of highly trained professional educators. When it came to question time one person in the audience stood up and told me it was a shame those mothers had such expectations for their children because there was no way children with that background could expect to succeed.

That is the attitude I can change, and many of you work to change every day.

We're so conditioned by concepts of disadvantage that we can easily lose the sense of hope and aspiration.

For too many of those who work in the public sector, the expectation is that if you're poor and brown you're not going to make it. The sharp edge of the desire to help people has been blunted by too many social theories that say poor brown people can't make it. In fact much of the Pacific Island community is successful, in work, in family life, and in creating vibrant and supportive communities.

At the Pacific Business Awards last week one winner put it simply. At 13 I was told I would be a nobody - now I'm a somebody.

The Government accepts that there is real disadvantage, that there are cycles of disadvantage, that economic change can leave people behind.

You know that the world is changing - it's full of risk and opportunities. Our biggest common asset is Pacific pride. I've had the chance to experience it. All New Zealanders should have a chance to see it. That is going to be the core of our success together in the future.

My job as Treasurer is to make sure the economy grows, because that brings opportunity. I want to share in your vision to lift this community into the future. I want to get taxes down, because that rewards work - a family with two children earning $30,000 a year is over $100 per week better off than three years ago. In the future I'd like to do the same again for that family. And I want to see this community take ownership and pride in its social services - as stepping stones to success. I stand with every New Zealander who seeks an opportunity, from wherever they start.

My Government and my party and the Pacific Island community understand each other a lot better than 10 years ago. This can be a productive partnership.

Ia na-uia Fa'afefai.