Prime Minister's Address in Reply Debate Speech

  • Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister

 Today is a new beginning. It's a new beginning for you as our Speaker, and I congratulate you again, Mr Speaker. It is a new beginning for this Parliament. It's a new beginning for our new members, and I acknowledge Tamati Coffey and Jo Luxton for your wonderful introductory maiden speeches. I am incredibly proud of each and every one of you and, the fact that you will be joining an already incredible of representatives in this House.

But it's so much more than that. It's a new beginning for everyone who hopes to own a home of their own. It's a new beginning for our children. It's a new beginning for our children. It's a new beginning for our education system and for our health system and for our environment. And on this side of the House, it's a new beginning for a coalition Government.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is a Government that is, yes, both a coalition Government and a realization of the alignment of three parties who, while we come from different perspectives, share important common values, policies, and intentions. At its core, this Government believes that our people come first, that our environment is a precious taonga, and that we must reject the narrow selfishness that has pervaded our politics for far too long.

I want to specifically say to Winston Peters and the New Zealand First Party: I thank you for your decision to back a Labour-led Government. As coalition partners, we know you will bring strong advocacy for all New Zealanders, but especially those in the provinces longing for a Government that gives them a fair go.

To James Shaw and the Green Party, we know that your forthright advocacy for the environment has shifted the entire political discourse in New Zealand. I am so pleased that you now have the ability to keep driving that work and other important work in this Government.

To my Labour colleagues, new and not so new, I am so delighted to be here with you on this side of the House. We have fought long and hard to get here. I know we will make the most of the opportunity, and indeed the privilege, that we have in front of us to make New Zealand an even better place.

It is a new beginning for this most MMP of Governments, but it is founded in the oldest of ideas in our democracy: that a Government represents the will of the majority of our people. We are committed to respecting that will. It can also be a new beginning for the new Leader of the Opposition. I acknowledge the Leader of the Opposition and the important role you have, and I understand the Opposition's desire to defend their record. I would simply remind them that in defending their record they must also defend record homelessness. They must also defend dirty rivers and lakes. They must also defend inequality, and yes, child poverty. So, by all means, defend the record of the last nine years, while we get on with fixing it.

Before, however, I move on to my more substantive comments I do want to reflect on some of the Leader of the Opposition's constant rhetoric in a couple of areas. Allow me to vent some frustrations if you will, particularly around the issue of tertiary education and, more to the point, this Government's policy of extending free education into the natural next step and that is post-secondary.

The Leader of the Opposition has continually claimed that a checkout operator will be paying for others to learn. At what point did the Leader of the Opposition lose his ambition for New Zealanders, that that checkout operator themselves could not aspire to go on to tertiary education? At what point did that checkout operator themselves not have children that they have aspirations for, too? I can tell you that on a checkout operator's wages you'd be hard-pressed to save for the fees required. This Government has aspiration for the checkout operators of New Zealand. We are proud of that, and we stand by them. I say to those checkout operators, having been one myself: "You too could become a Minister of Finance or indeed the Prime Minister of New Zealand."

I also want to reflect on the rhetoric that the Leader of the Opposition has used to refer to lawyers as being the only ones who will take up the ongoing year of free education. Again, this demonstrates to this side of the House how out of touch they have become. One third of school-leavers go on to university. The rest will become our builders, our plumbers, our electricians. This policy is as much—nay, I would say, more—about them that anyone else. It is about furthering education. It is about this Government's belief that education should be about lifelong learning. Education, if we are to succeed, will not be a destination but it will be a constant movement for each and every one of us through our lives. That is why one of the short-sighted decisions of that last Government will be overturned by this one, and that is returning night schools to New Zealand.

Finally, the Leader of the Opposition talked about his willingness to cooperate on child poverty if we continue to collect individual client's data through our social agencies and our NGOs. It sounds like the trade-off that he gave to NGOs as well. The difference here, on this side of the House, is that we have listened to those concerns. Yes, we will be an evidence-based Government. Yes, we will use data in the way we inform policy. But we will not do so in a way that jeopardises individual people's privacy. When domestic violence groups tell you that what you intend to do puts a service at risk, this Government will listen. That is the difference in the way that we will govern.

On education, the Leader of the Opposition made reference to this Government hiding data. Here is a wake-up call. National standards, if that indeed is the data that we're apparently hiding, are neither national nor standard. Our intent is to provide information to parents. But again, we will listen to the evidence. We will listen to our educators. We will do best by our kids, and that means dumping national standards. If you want to talk about hiding data, then there will be a lot of time in this House to talk about what we've discovered in the school properties portfolio, but that time will come.

So, yes, on this side of the House we do have intentions. We have many intentions. I was pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition discovered some intentions on child poverty. It's a shame that it only happened a few weeks ago.

Members, as I always argued during the campaign, winning is not the final destination; it is just the start. It is the moment when the faith that voters and the public have placed in you as a party is actually tested, and it's tested every single day for three years. The Opposition have a role to play in the testing side of the ledger. I know that role well. I know it a little more than I would have like to have known. I know how important it is that we be held to account, that we be questioned, and that we be cross-examined—that we say what we mean and we do what we say, and we be challenged if we don't.

But knowing all of that about the role of Opposition, I want to say this: no one will hold us to account more than we hold ourselves. Every day this team will remind ourselves of why we are here and who put us here. The moment we forget that is the moment that we are gone. Secondly, we intend to challenge this Parliament too. I've often said I would like to do things differently. I'm going to start on a few issues dear to my heart. There should be no politics, for instance, in child poverty and child well-being. It should be a source of pride for all of us to strive to be known to be the best place in the world to be a child. That does mean I will take up the Leader of the Opposition's offer. I will extend to the National Party and to ACT the chance to work together on tackling those issues that matter most. What they do with those offers is, of course, each party's call. But sometimes, in the people's Parliament, Opposition is about more than being oppositional.

We believe there is a larger role we can play too, as the people's Government. We believe in using the power—here it comes—of the State to achieve things together that we cannot achieve alone. We believe in using the power of the State to do things for the common good that the private market cannot, because when you're in the Labour Party with a long history the State is not a dirty word. It was the State that gave tens of thousands of New Zealanders an affordable home. It was the State that put generations of young people through high schools and universities. It has been the State that has protected people from poverty in old age. These are all things to be proud of.

There are moments in time when we recognise that things could indeed be better, and it's time we did that again. There is a difference. We do need to do things together. Of course we will not shy away from our leadership role; nor will we ignore the voice of our communities. We know that many of the ideas and challenges that we face, and the spirit to seize the opportunities of an ever-changing world, actually lies in our NGOs, iwi, educational institutions, businesses, and backyard workshops. Our job is to be a partner, to be an enabler, and to be a champion for good ideas wherever they are found, even if they're found over there. Ultimately though, whenever and wherever we face a new challenge no one should ever be left believing that the problems we face are just too hard. Market failure should not be closely followed by political failure too. That's why it's our job to step in when the housing market becomes dysfunctional. That's why it's our job to step in when our rivers are dying and climate change looms large. Just like it's our job to know that when we act, social return is as important as a financial one. And that is perhaps where our greatest challenge will lie as Government.

Since coming into Government, I and my Ministers have been briefed by officials on almost every issue you can imagine, and I must say, at times, it has been sobering. It is clear from these briefings we are facing almost a decade of chronic underinvestment, and it is also clear that it is far worse in some areas than we even imagined. The chronic underinvestment means our hospitals and our schools are groaning under the pressure of a growing and ageing population. It means our roads are gridlocked and we've inherited a widening gap between what needs to be spent, for instance, on public transport and roads, and what has been set aside by the previous Government. It is going to take my Government time to get these vital services and infrastructure back to where they need to be, but it is a challenge we will take on.

Our country is a wonderful country, but undoubtedly it could be better, and we will do what it takes to make it so. For too long, housing, health, mental health, our environment, child poverty, and the soaring prison population were put into the too-hard basket, and I do want to expand on that. I want to give you one stark example. During the campaign we did not hear much on the soaring prison population, but we need to talk about it as a country now. It is simply not good enough that we have one of the highest imprisonment rates in the developed world and that Māori make up 50 percent of the prison population. It is not good enough that the prison population has gone up 28 percent since 2014—all this at a time when the crime rates are static.

This is a waste. It is a waste of lives, it is a waste of families, it is also a waste of money. I'm also going to be frank. If the prison population continues to grow at current rates, taxpayers will be forking out for a new prison at a billion dollars a time every few years. That previous Government knew it, and what did they do? What did they do? The status quo is not good enough and we will not settle for it. And I happen to agree with the Leader of the Opposition. It is a moral and fiscal failure, but it was also a failure of that last Government.

We won't settle for the status quo on housing either. We are under no illusions that the dysfunction in our housing market does indeed have deep roots. But New Zealanders deserve a home of their own—they should not have to pay extraordinary amounts of money to get one—and we have already acted. We heard for years from the former Government that helping New Zealanders into the housing market by banning foreign speculators from buying existing houses was too hard—that it would breach our international trade agreements. Well, guess what? It was all possible. Our Government, within days of gaining office, has banned foreign speculators from buying houses. It was the right thing to do.

It does go to prove what can be done with energy and a desire to get things done, and it shows that things can be done differently, and I promise you that things will be done differently. But it means meeting a massive social deficit with investment it deserves, and then we will reap what we sow. I'm talking, for example, about the social return we'll see from making that first year of tertiary education or training fees-free. I'm talking about the social return we'll see from lifting student allowance and living costs for students. I'm talking about the social return we'll see from requiring all rentals to be warm and to be dry so that our families are healthy and well. I'm talking about the social return we'll see from the winter energy payment, from Best Start, and from increases to paid parental leave. Because, after all, what better investment is there than investment in children, in families, and in homes? But the public does not just expect us to make investments. They expect us to right wrongs. They expect us to even out the playing field, to stand up in the space that exists between what should happen and what is happening.

That is why we committed to reviewing our mental health services and making sure that people are getting the help and the care that they need when they need it. That's why we will hold an inquiry into the abuse of children in State care. That's why we will lift the minimum wage and it's why we'll bring fairness into the workplace. It is even why we inflation adjusted Teina Pora's compensation today. And that is why we will tackle child poverty.

Poverty is what a person is left with when all other options are extinguished. Now, I've often talked about it being a motivation for my entry here into Parliament and into politics, and it's been what has kept me here too. I am happy for this Government to be measured on what it does for children, which is why we will legislate not just the measures we will use for poverty but the targets to reduce it too. And we do that using a bill that I've had in the ballot for probably about six years now, to prove that we've long held the view that we need to measure and target child poverty.

I am also happy for us to be held to account, to show the public where we are now and where we have moved. I also want every one of those Māori seats, for instance, that we are honoured to hold, to ask us at the end of three years: what have you done to improve housing, what have you done to give our kids better prospects, to lift whānau out of poverty and to build the relationships we need to do all of that together? It is an honour to lead a party in a Government that holds all of the Māori electorate seats and has the largest representation of Māori in any Government in our history. My pride is only matched by my sense of enormous responsibility to our tangata whenua. It will be our relentless focus to support Māori across the motu to achieve whatever they set out to.

There is a new beginning here too. The Hon Kelvin Davis will be our first ever Minister for Crown / Māori relations, working alongside Nanaia Mahuta in her role as Minister for Māori Development also. The role that the Hon Kelvin Davis holds will look ahead as the major Treaty settlements come to an end and we move to the next phase, where we seek to see whānau, hapū, and iwi thrive and prosper.

We're not only looking for better relationships, better outcomes for our kids, better social returns, we are also looking for better financial ones too. We have set ourselves some rules when it comes to financial management. We called them the budget responsibility rules, and they exist for this reason: we know, and we have always known, we cannot achieve the outcomes we aspire to for New Zealand without a thriving economy. But we've also never believed that a thriving economy required some of the trade-offs that the last Government seemed happy to make. We will not make progress by suspending problems. We'll not make progress by standing back and waiting for problems to go away. That is why we will resume contributions to the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, because that fund has been an unqualified success and we intend to make the most of it.

It's why we are absolutely committed to resolving the housing crisis and taking a multitude of steps and levers to make that happen. That's why the mass Housing New Zealand sell-off ends. That's why there will be a housing commission, there will be KiwiBuild, and there will be a tax working group. These measures aren't a means to an end themselves. They are part of our solution because New Zealand deserves a different, better kind of economy: one with higher incomes, one that is more efficient, one that is more productive.

Over the past 30 years the share of the economy going to wages and salaries has declined by billions of dollars. But have we seen the more robust economy that we were promised? Instead, we have a GDP per capita that is barely growing. We have too many kids who are unemployed now. Our economy has become geared towards speculation and extraction, rather than value-added exports.

I want to see an end of the race to the bottom on wages. You can only go so far working longer and longer, harder and harder, squeezing more out of your workforce. Low wages aren't simply a problem for low-wage workers, though. They're a problem for businesses. They're a problem for the economy as a whole. I want us to have the kind of economy where businesses are able to compete on innovation, on offering the best product, not by keeping wages low.

But I'm under no illusion that this why we need to do things different. We need to build partnerships that involve the Government, business, employers, and employees, and we need that now more than ever. Astonishingly, a child born this year may well live to see the year 2117. It's a huge challenge to imagine how different that world might look—a world where robots have left billions without work, perhaps, to take just one popular dystopian example. But a more optimistic point of view might ask: if so many people today are doing jobs that hadn't even been heard of 50 years ago, is it not possible that in an automated world that the opportunities will be as wide as those that followed the factories and the mills and the industrial revolution? And is it not possible that a Government that takes an active role in exploring those future possibilities might help transform our economy to take advantage of them and make sure they are widely and fairly shared?

This Government believes, without question, that it has a role to play in asking these questions, and looking ahead and formulating ideas for a changing world. We did it with the Future of Work; we'll keep doing it as a Government.

And those ideas must extend to every challenge of our future, particularly the ones that future generations come up against. The environment, for example, is in too precarious a state for us not to take action. We cannot afford one more degree of warming—not if we want to, hand on heart, tell our Pacific neighbours that we did everything that we could to not just be advocates, but that we ourselves took action on the challenge that is lapping at their feet and at ours. So yes, under this Government there will be a zero-carbon Act. There will be an independent climate commission. There will be action on climate change. This will not be done by edict. It will be done instead in careful consultation with communities, particularly those that will be affected, and we'll ensure that we assure them of the just transitions that are needed.

But, of course, as much as change will have to happen simply to ensure that we protect the environment, there's also undeniably enormous economic impact. This administration has committed to exploring economic possibilities for green economic transformation, and I acknowledge James Shaw and the Green Party for the work I know that they'll do alongside us in that area.

We've also agreed—all of us in this governing arrangement—that New Zealand needs to measure success differently. We need to move beyond narrow measures and the views of value and broaden the scope and definition of progress. Our economic strategy will focus on how we improve the well-being and living standards of all New Zealanders. This Government will develop a comprehensive set of environmental, social, and economic sustainability indicators to better show how we are going as a country. It will be world leading, and it will make us a Government of transformation. There will be a clear focus on sustainable economic development: supporting regional economies, increasing exports, lifting wages, reducing inequality, and there will in that be talking, listening, and proposing.

You know, I think when New Zealanders voted for MMP it was clear that they had had enough of change being pushed through without discussion and consultation. I would suggest that one of the messages of MMP was on just that. So I warmly welcome that this election's evolution of MMP has brought us to a necessary culture of cooperation. Every sector of New Zealand society—every party, every organisation, every individual—can play their part. We've had, as the saying goes, nine long years to watch and weigh our options. We take up our role now with clear plans, with clear strategies—strategies we will communicate with New Zealanders every step of the way.

It is possible. It is possible for us to have the kind of debate that brings New Zealanders with us. But I do acknowledge that New Zealand has changed. It's not quite the place it used to be. Some people feel more isolated and less connected. It's possible for us to live in our own familiar pockets and have very little experience of the lives of other people in cities and towns, suburbs and communities. The less well we know one another, the easier it is to make false assumptions and have less inclination to support one another. I believe the kind of Government we have just formed is a good example of the kind of cooperation we need to see more of. And perhaps there is no better thing to help us find common ground than knowing what we are capable of.

We aren't afraid, as a nation, of problem solving, even if our solution is different to everyone else's. We are fair minded. So now, with all those values in mind, we need to have a plan: one we can feel proud of, one we can get behind. This Government has a plan. We do not just have intention; we have a plan: one to build a better New Zealand with decent homes for all, with the schools and hospitals we need, with an environment we can cherish, and with decent, well-paying work for our people—one we want to build together.

I cannot fix the housing crisis alone, but we can together. I cannot end child poverty alone, but we can together. I cannot generate higher incomes alone, but we can together—together, alongside NGOs, businesses, council, iwi, and other community groups. Each and every one of us has a role to play in building a better New Zealand. I've always said that I believe what unites us is stronger than what divides us, and the campaign only confirmed that to me.

So here is my final promise to all New Zealanders. Whether you voted or not, and no matter who you voted for, I will be a Prime Minister for all, and this will be a Government for all. I hope we can focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us, because there is so much to do. We can be better, we will be better, and this is our chance to prove it.