David Shearer’s brand is of a new kind of politician. Not burdened by the old rivalries, he is touted as the man that can move New Zealand forwards – a consensus-builder rather than a scarred old warrior. The weekend media coverage has been excellent. His Address in Reply this week will consolidate his brand. Here is what I would say if I were him.
During the election campaign, Mr Key told us several times that President Obama had told him that, while the official unemployment rate in America is about 9%, the unofficial rate is 14-15%. I think the point of this anecdote was to tell New Zealanders that we don’t know how lucky we have it in this country, under Mr Key’s administration.
Well, I looked up the ‘unofficial unemployment rate’ for New Zealand, what is called the ‘jobless rate’. It’s 10.3%. Over quarter of a million New Zealanders are out of work and want a job. Many of them don’t count as officially unemployed because they have given up actively looking for jobs that just aren’t there to be found.
Four years ago, in 2007, there were 110,000 fewer jobless Kiwis.
You’ll notice I’m comparing to when the economy started going backwards due to the global recession, not when Mr Key’s administration came to power. I’m not going to pretend that everything that is wrong with this country is Mr Key’s fault. I am here to talk about solutions, not to try to apportion blame.
But it is clear that something very serious is wrong with this country when quarter of a million people are out of work. We have 78,000 young people sitting around doing nothing – they’re not in employment, education, or training. That is the flower of our youth being allowed to wilt away.
Our economy still produces less per person than it did in 2007. And the so-called recovery is so weak that it will take until 2018 to get back to where we were in 2007 at this rate.
We are doing poorly by international standards. According the the International Monetary Fund, we had the 141st slowest rate of economic growth in the world last year.
It is clear that we face big challenges both external and internal.
Internationally, the global finance system is still teetering on the edge of collapse. Cowboy capitalists reaped millions and billions of profits by trading currencies and derivatives, and by advising countries to sell their strategic assets into private hands. They built an economy on debt and fictional wealth, then reached into taxpayer pockets for bailouts when it all came tumbling down.
We are also in an international energy crisis. Petrol prices hit record levels this year and only reduced when the outlook for growth worsened. Every time their is an inkling that a real recovery might be on its way, the price of oil shoots up and smothers it.
Here in New Zealand, we are wasting the potential of 20% of our children by condemning them to live in poverty. We have one of the best school systems in the world but what good is it to kids who are too hungry, too sick, too abused, and too neglected to learn properly? The long-term effect of 20% of our people growing up in poverty is a less productive workforce, higher health costs, more crime, and a poorer New Zealand.
We are running into the limits of this country’s resources. Ever since colonisation, first by Maori and then by Pakeha, greater wealth has come through greater exploitation of the bounty of our beautiful islands and the sea. But we cannot get richer any longer by this path: there is only so much water in our rivers, only so much arable land, only so many fish in the sea. We have to use what we have more smartly, not just hope to find more natural resources to sell.
I was privileged to be elected leader of the Labour Party just over a week ago. I do not have all the answers to these problems yet. Indeed, no one person and no one party can ever have all the answers. But I can tell you today the changes in direction that I will be advocating for my party, for Parliament, and for New Zealand.
I am determined that Labour must become a more humble and respectful party. The public has given us a clear message that we cannot take anyone’s support for granted. We have to earn it. Not just by having good policy but by acting ethically, by keeping to both the letter and the spirit of the rules, and by working pro-actively for the good of the country with the government we can.
When I talk to the public about what they don’t like about the way politics works, they usually say that it is the way we always seem to be fighting, rather than working for the common good. In fact, Labour voted with National on 42% of legislation last term, but I take the point that we need to be more mature in our relationships in this House, and MMP makes that easier.
It is not in my nature to oppose for opposition’s sake. I am a consensus builder. That was why I offered to join the government’s new committee on poverty. Unfortunately, Mr Key turned me down.
You will not see the Labour Party I lead needlessly wasting Parliament’s time. When we disagree with government legislation, we will make that known to the fullest extent but we will not filibuster or use delaying tactics except in the case of truly abhorrent policies. This Parliament was democratically elected and if the government of the day has the numbers to pass legislation, it is not for us to try to frustrate that.
The quid pro quo, however, is that we expect the government to pay greater respect to Parliament too. I do not want to see ministers fleeing the chamber ahead of their questions during Question Time, or using petty procedural points to avoid giving proper answers. The public expects and deserves better. I want to see an end to legislation being dropped in front of the House at the last minute and rammed through under Urgency before the public and its elected representatives have proper time to consider it.
In short, I am committed to leading a Labour Party that pays greater respect to this institution and the voters who put us here, and I call on my fellow MPs to do the same.
I have often told the story of my political epiphany. When I was travelling on the back of a truck in Africa, eating melons and throwing the skins over the side, and then I realised that starving children were fighting in the dust for those skins. I worry that New Zealand is becoming like that. A few people have most of the wealth, and the rest are expected to fight each other for the scraps.
I believe we will not become wealthier – both economically and spiritually – by trying to give more to those who already have plenty. The Labour Party I lead will not borrow, as Mr Key has, to give tax cuts to the rich, or to bailout private investors, or to subsidise profit-making businesses.
Labour will not tax working people on every dollar they earn while a few make large tax-free incomes from speculation. Taxes are a necessary part of life to pay for the public services we need but I believe in a fair deal for everyone, not a system that is set up to benefit the elite.
And I also believe that we have to make better use of the money that the government spends. The current government has increased spending by $14 billion a year, even while cutting government revenue. This has lead to record deficits made worse by international economic crises and natural disasters at home. I am committed to getting the best out of every dollar the government spends.
That means ending spending that doesn’t make sense – like highways whose costs exceed their benefits and building for-profit prisons when the prison population is falling. It means not subsidising water for profitable farming businesses. It means cutting down the number of ministers and the number of ministries and government agencies that exist primarily to make it appear as if the government is acting, rather than producing any meaningful work. It also means ending the effective taxpayer cost that occurs every time someone exploits a tax loophole and leaves the rest of us to carry more of the burden.
To this end, I am today proposing a cross-party commission to examine government spending line by line and eliminate wasteful spending, and another cross-party commission to examine tax loopholes and eliminate them.
Having cut useless spending and tax loopholes, Labour will advocate for increased spending where it is worthwhile. We call for getting young people off the dole and using the money saved to subsidise apprenticeships. We will boost investment in housing to reduce health costs and ultimately create a more productive society. We will push investment in a less oil-dependent transport system to insulate us against future shocks. And, I will personally argue that every spare dollar should be plowed into science because this country will only become both richer and sustainable if we become more clever first.
Finally, Labour will continue to stay true to its founding ideal: that every person who wants to work should be able to get a fair day’s work with decent conditions and for a fair day’s pay. Work should enhance our dignity, not be an act of exploitation of the have nots by the haves. Labour does not view wages as merely a cost to business to be reduced whenever possible, as National does. We know that the wage you earn is the livelihood with which you support your family and give your children the start in life they deserve.
We will oppose any moves by National to drive down wages further than they have already fallen under Mr Key’s watch. We will protect the right of workers to negotiate for fair pay rises. We will continue to argue that workers are an asset, not a cost, to business, and they deserve fair pay. We do not agree that workers have to lift their productivity before wages can rise – productivity increases have been outstripping wages for decades and the share of GDP that goes to workers here is much lower than in Australia and other comparable countries.
We know that, in truth, higher wages is the route to higher productivity, not the other way around, because higher wages will keep more of our best people in New Zealand and encourage businesses to investment in productivity enhancing capital. I call on Mr Key to acknowledge that fact too, and join with Labour in working to raise wages, rather than working to cut them.
I will end by congratulating the Prime Minister on winning a second term. A great trust has been placed in him by the people of New Zealand. I call on him not to waste it. Not to implement short-sighted firesales of our strategic assets or introduce laws that will reduce the job security and wages of New Zealanders. If he is content to let this country drift for three more years, to leave a quarter of a million New Zealanders out of work, and act only to protect the wealthy, then Labour will oppose his government.
But, if he is willing to think of the long-term. To face the big problems head-on. To invest in our future, rather than selling it. To make New Zealand, once again, a country that people come to, rather than flee in record numbers. And to make the smart choices now that will build a better New Zealand in the decades to come. Then, the Labour Party I lead stands ready to help.