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Still spinning “social investment”

Written By: - Date published: 10:04 am, May 7th, 2017 - 36 comments
Categories: benefits, bill english, class war, national, welfare - Tags: , , ,

People are still trying to pretend that English’s “social investment” is a new idea, and that it is somehow a “problem” for Labour. Audrey Young:

Social investment a dilemma for Labour

The dilemma has been what to say about it. Until now Labour has said very little.

When it was just a name attached to a concentrated effort to reduce the number of teenage mothers on a social welfare benefit there was not much to be said. But it is much more than that now. It is an approach about early intervention based on abundant data that is at the core of Government decision-making about social spending. It is also an approach that National has commandeered as its own and is increasingly using as part of its political branding in this election year.

[Ardern] “It is an idea that pre-dates social investment and it is one that is simply common sense.”

She is right that early intervention has been an integral part of Labour’s approach. To use the lingo, Labour “invested” heavily in early childhood education when it was last in Government.

What differentiates social investment from early intervention is its greater reliance on data to calculate future liabilities to the taxpayer in actuarial terms, to identify people through risk predictors who might be a problem, apply a fix if it has been shown to work, and measure the result. It is targeting to the nth degree and yet the one debate that has barely surfaced from the social investment approach is about targeting. The whole approach is premised on the assumption that targeting is positive and that even more precise targeting is even more positive.

Targeting versus universality was a major issue during the reforms of the late 80s and early 90s when greater targeting was introduced by Labour and National, including the abolition of the universal child benefit in 1991. Only New Zealand Superannuation survived in the broad welfare system.

The targeting debate appears to be over. The main argument now, in the context of social investment, appears to be how far is too far.

The concerns primarily centre around data and whether extreme targeting stigmatises those who become the subject of intervention. At the other end of the scale, there are concerns about who falls through the crack when risk predictors are used to identify targets for state-funded intervention. …

I wrote about how “social investment” is just repackaged “targeted welfare”: Spinning ‘social investment’. To repeat myself, of course no one is going to be opposed to targeting welfare spending where it will be most effective (here’s Labour advisor Rob Salmond writing in support). The difference is that the political left (which created social welfare) take a genuinely constructive approach, and the political right (which has always opposed welfare) is adopting some clever spin to justify reduced spending.

For other commentary, a recent Fabians presentation by Michael Cullen and Mike O’Brien:

Menace of social investment

The government has called its framework of social policy and austerity ‘the social investment approach’! It assumes current settings of economic policy and social outcomes must be held too but interventions can be taken when pressure builds for tweaks and minimal spending to save future costs. We do not respond to a housing crisis with a building programme. We do not alleviate poverty, we respond to vulnerable children by uplifting the child and let the parents flounder. …

Toby Manhire writes:

Bill English’s social investment strategy raises big questions

But as we charge down the data-bedazzled path of evidence-based social policy, there are more than a few reasons to take pause.

The social investment dawn follows the deluge of information that has become available – and crunchable – in recent years. The Dunedin longitudinal study, especially, has provided a wealth of evidence to recreate the Aristotlean “give me a child at seven” maxim in spreadsheet form.

Now, though, it’s “give me a child at three”. Last year a report based on the study and New Zealand government data, published in Nature: Human Behaviour, found that tests of brain health in children as young as three could identify those individuals likelier to in future “account for a disproportionate share of costly service use across a society’s health care, criminal justice and social welfare system”.

That’s great, but also: gulp. Who’s for a team screening of Minority Report? Are we OK with a 45 minute test on every three-year-old’s brain health to pick out the ones that are likely to be liabilities? Consider, by the way, the way that study was presented in the mainstream press: “Future criminals revealed at age three” – a headline as wrong as it is unsurprising.

Beyond the potential of stigma, there are a bunch of other reasons to tread carefully on the road to the data Damascus. English says that vast amounts of social spending have historically been wasted, having had no impact on outcomes.

But can we be so sure about that? We can’t measure everything after all. And while it clearly makes sense to target the most at-risk, might chucking everything into that basket mean neglecting a wider focus on welfare or opportunity or social mobility?

“Social investment” is in many ways just a warmer, fuzzier rebrand of what policy wonks have called the “forward liability investment model”. Does a fixation on minimising future expenditure, while overlooking enhancements in welfare, create a distorted picture?

Are we always measuring the right things, measuring it correctly, asking the right questions of the data? Might we miss institutional biases? Is there a danger, in the phrase of self-described data nerd Keith Ng, of treating data as a magic lamp that gives us whatever we ask for? What about the implications of outsourcing? Everyone OK with the prospect of eager private contractor Serco as your local social investment banker?

That’s a lot of questions. Sorry about that. But given the magnitude of the vision the government is promising it seems fair enough to ask. …

Directing welfare spending where it will do most good makes sense. But let’s make sure that that is what it is, not an excuse to simply cut funding, stigmatise, and target “undesireables”. National’s record does not inspire confidence, to say the very least. Never mind the hypocrisy of being all over data if they can use if for beneficiary bashing, and desperate to ignore it when it comes to the environment, the housing crisis, their failed education policies, and so on.


For other takes on why the English version of “social investment” should be treated with deep suspicion see Shamubeel Eaqub reported in Data-driven social welfare policy lacks humanity – economist, and Keith Ng in I’m a data nerd and a data cheerleader, but still I fear Bill English’s datatopia, and…

36 comments on “Still spinning “social investment” ”

  1. RedBaronCV 1

    The IRD back when, issued Westpac Bank (& others) a notice of proposed adjustment (extra tax to pay) of some $2.6 bilion from memory.

    I’ll give all this data mining & social investment **** some credibility the day it identifies and puts the type of behaviour behind this sort of tax underpayment, at the top of the list of damaging social behaviours in our community.

  2. Ad 2

    I have a few issues with Keith Ng’s article.

    Ng: “Governance is about making decisions with imperfect knowledge.”
    What a weak-ass excuse against ‘social investment’. What does he expect; a willful use of poor data? English is advocating what a good government should do: always improve data when designing policy instruments.

    “…in policy, data is just an important link in a very long chain…”
    Of course, but making one area of policy execution strong, namely data, is simply going to raise the standard for all other parts of that chain.

    “As data-driven policymaking becomes more sophisticated, the circle of experts is getting smaller, and everyone on the outside is getting left behind.”
    I view English as more interested in the positive and provable results of the social instruments available, including data, not about the policy-making per se. It’s pretty silly to see Mr Ng complain about a specific group of nerds being left behind (I guess including Mr Ng), when the point of English’s framework is to avoid arm-waving and bloated policy rhetoric and to let the facts speak the loudest. You need fewer policy arm-wavers when the facts are clearer.

    “We need to understand what it is and how to use it, or we’ll be at the mercy of data nerds and dumb machines.”
    He confesses to a ‘glass half empty’ approach, noting also that it’s inevitable whatever the government that comes in.

    The political test on English is to keep showing how the results of this approach are superior for people, not just for the taxpayer.

    To me the only useful point came from Bill Rosenberg within the Eaqub article you link to:
    the best way to eradicate social ills is to eradicate poverty. Pay people more.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 2.1

      The best way to eradicate socials ills is to eliminate poverty.

      Not exactly. Social ills respond to changes in the GINI. English’s obsession with targeting victims ignores this fact completely.

      He’d get far better results by testing children for right wing tendencies.

      • Ad 2.1.1

        Rosenberg made that broader point about poverty including poor health, poor education, poor housing, poor social cohesion, as well as poor incomes. GINI is the shorthand for all of that, and his context of course was the Child Poverty Action Conference itself.

    • AB 2.2

      Keith Ng: “…in policy, data is just an important link in a very long chain…”
      Keith is absolutely right in this – what data are you going to collect and what purpose lies behind the decisions you make on what data to collect and not collect?

      Seems to me the data gathered will be to determine the characteristics of those that fall through the cracks. We can then see how these people are different, deficient, inadequate. The underlying assumption is that it’s their fault and we need to identify them early and fix their bad behaviour somehow.

      Whereas what is really important is to focus on the cracks themselves and why we allow them to exist. Ad is being much too kind by implying that data is somehow neutral and is always put to good use.

  3. JC 3

    This is a good article on the lack of benefit to the poor of targetted welfare and the benefits of a univeral system such as a living wage.
    https://thecorrespondent.com/4664/why-do-the-poor-make-such-poor-decisions/179307480-39a74caf

  4. Rosemary McDonald 4

    Comment from a Young Person on the topic of social housing, welfare, public health spending and the like….

    “We don’t have so many people in New Zealand that we can’t afford to look after everyone.”

    Out of the mouths of babes….

    • Karen 4.1

      +1 Rosemary. It is appalling that a country like NZ has so many people living in poverty and so many struggling to get adequate health care.

      “Social investment” is a misnomer to make it seem that only those who really need help get it, but in truth it is a deliberate plan to cut spending on social services while pretending that you are being innovative. Many people who need help but don’t fit the criteria will miss out.

      Keith Ng is right about the problems with relying on this data to make all your funding decisions. This government wants to balance their books and, unlike Ad, I am absolutely sure that they will manipulate data make it seem that they are adequately funding social services when they are actually cutting back.

      The Nats are always trying to stigmatise the poor and disadvantaged – they will use this approach to do it even more.

      • Rosemary McDonald 4.1.1

        The YP who made that comment would quite happily kick the arses of the few who exploit the welfare system…but their own brief experience on the Jobseeker benefit a few years ago gave this intelligent person a glimpse of the malevolence of MSD. Those with fewer coping skills would be quickly ground to dust.

        “Keith Ng is right about the problems with relying on this data to make all your funding decisions. This government wants to balance their books and, unlike Ad, I am absolutely sure that they will manipulate data make it seem that they are adequately funding social services when they are actually cutting back.”

        I am pretty sure this has happened with Ministry of Health Disability Support Services over the past few years. I try, but I have neither the time nor the data analysis expertise to properly investigate it. I suspect that in order to fund Boomer age care, access to funding for those with long term impairments (usually under 65) has been made more difficult….to the point there is (despite the fact there is not supposed to be… de facto means and asset testing for core services. There has always been the expectation that family will provide what was loosely termed ‘natural support’…a concept that the HRRT largely debunked in the Atkinson decision of January 2010. The subsequent Part 4 amendment to the PHDAct of 2013 actually legislates to make family ‘in the main’ responsible for the care of disabled family members…in the context of funded supports.

        First they came for the disabled….

    • Tuppence Shrewsbury 4.2

      what a naive comment. Are we going to get Bryan Gould to start a bank so he can start making money out of thin air to pay for all this “caring”

      • ropata 4.2.1

        austerity is evil, we are a rich nation, equality is possible and it was the kiwi way until the corporate sociopaths took over.

        but the nats campaign to divide society and stigmatise the poor obviously works for you

    • AB 4.3

      “We don’t have so many people in NZ thst we can’t afford to look after everyone”
      I think one of the unstated purposes of our current immigration settings is to make that no longer true.

  5. ankerawshark 5

    I am a great supporter of the evidence of the Dunedin study and the useful information it gives us, including being able to identify kids at risk when they are 3 years old. The trajectory of those kids is poor and if there is any intervention that can ensure they have better outcomes, then I find that impossible to disagree with. The evidence from the Dunedin study is as good as it gets.

    BUT the is equally good evidence about the effect on poverty on children and it turns out growing up in poverty is highly damaging. Just in terms of health outcomes it turns out those kids brought up in poverty, even if they miraculously turn things around for themselves and “do well” they still have the same poor health outcomes later in life.
    SO why not do both??? I think we have a moral duty to our children to do so.

  6. Keith 6

    National have wound down social assistance/welfare to those who are broke and in need. of that there is no doubt, be it housing, health, both mental and physical, education and basic money to live off or an ability to escape the trap they are in.

    I use the term “welfare” carefully because if you are a housing investor you are getting shit loads off the tax payer whilst you line your own pockets. As are business with their subsidised rates and taxes.

    But you have to hand it to the Nats, to cover their tracks they dump a massive amount of words on the subject such as data reports, minority reports and targeted assistance based on all manner of dubious inputs to give the appearance they care. Then the media, who have notoriously short attention span give up trying to decipher it and the opposition who cannot articulate what is wrong with National approach to welfare also give up and sound all grey and unconvincing.

    Call it what is is. If you are poor or born with something wrong, National dont care.

  7. Wayne 7

    This sort of article seemingly ignores the MOU between Labour and the Greens.

    They have committed themselves to government spending at 30% of GDP (pretty much the present) no new taxes, surpluses and reducing government debt. So very similar settings to National. I imagine Labour/Greens will not offer tax cuts, not even threshold adjustments, so they will have maybe up to $2 billion extra spending (as compared to say $1 to 1.5 billion with National).

    So then the debate is reduced to “we can do it better”. With the MOU, can there really be a revolution in the way government works? That is, spend basically the same amount of money but in a dramatically different way.

    I think not. For instance in Health National has changed almost nothing from the Clark government (which was a deliberate choice). Is Labour going to change that?

    I guess there will be more money for water quality and housing, perhaps a extra of $800 million. Useful, but not extraordinary.

    There is not much scope for other new spending. For instance both National and Labour want more police. That means Corrections will inevitably get more customers. But it reduces the money for other things.

    To me the election, at least in substance, is going to be fought on only a small number of things; immigration, water and housing. Nothing else will really matter, not when the fiscal and economic settings of both alternatives are almost identical.

    Winston gets a big edge on the immigration issue, with the election in large part being fought on his big issue. So does Winston grow from his current 10% or so to 15%, perhaps even more. If so, he will be the decisive factor in the coming election.

    Both alternative governments (and the voters) will need to understand his policies much more than they currently do. What does he really want other than immigration and Pike River. He won’t agree to cutting defence, so that is not a source of money. Are his other big things basically regional development, a lot more job training and a big infrastructure plan?

    • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1

      We’re not planning on raising taxes and we’re going to see what the Government talks about, you know, in its tax changes that it’s foreshadowed, but we are making no plan for lifting taxes…

      We are not planning on any tax changes for the 2017 election. We will finely calibrate what we do once we see what the Government does in its foreshadowed tax changes, which we assume will be in this year’s budget, but who knows?

      I can see why you would like to spin this as a “commitment”, and I’m equally sure you wouldn’t get away with such a sloppy interpretation in court.

      When the next government has a full understanding of the true state of the books, they may need to change their plans. Nothing in Little’s statement precludes this.

      If he’d said “Labour is not going to be raising taxes”, well sure, you’d have a point.

      Along similar lines, weren’t you one of the mob that increased ACC levies on completely spurious grounds back in 2009? Did you and the rest of the cabinet know Nick Smith was spinning like a top, or did he dupe you into it? How did it work?

      • Molly 7.1.1

        From a personal point of view, the increase in ACC levies was partly to expose the scheme to negative viewpoints and articles about the “waste” and “inefficient spending”.

        After that, the access to ACC treatment has become very difficult, and often is denied, – leading to further negative connotations from patients and NZers trying to get help.

        At some point, the once valued ACC service will be suitably rebranded as a bloated, inefficient service that we will no longer recognise – and a future right-wing government will have very little opposition when they dismantle it completely.

      • tinfoilhat 7.1.2

        “When the next government has a full understanding of the true state of the books, they may need to change their plans. Nothing in Little’s statement precludes this.”

        Isn’t this released automatically ? i can’t remember which government changed the rules on this but it was long overdue.

        Edit – molly I don’t believe any future Nat led government would scrap ACC no matter how much they might want to. it is too highly valued by the NZ public and the alternative is too hideous to contemplate apart from those who contemplate the windfall from its removal (ambulance chasing lawyers, insurance companies, other bottom feeders)

        • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1.2.1

          The PREFU isn’t due ’til August.

          It reflects the opinions of the Treasury Department.

      • Wayne 7.1.3

        When a party says they have no plans to raise taxes in the election year, people are entitled to take them at their word. “We’re not planning on any tax changes for the 2017 election” seems pretty specific to me.

        The rules on government accounting are well known and accepted by both major parties. There is no room to argue the books are cooked. For instance I have never heard Grant Robertson argue that the accounts that Treasury prepares for the budget or the PREFU are somehow misrepresentative.

        The Labour Green Budget Responsibility Rules announced in March this year does limit their choices, in my view in quite a strict way.

        While I appreciate many on the left were annoyed by the budget responsibility rules, they were not aimed at committed left voters. They were aimed at middle New Zealand, to reassure them that Labour and the Greens are a safe choice.

        I would expect that if there is a Labour/Green/NZF govt then such a govt would abide by them. It is effectively the core of the “manifesto”.

        To do otherwise would be a breach of a political covenant with the voters. If they did breach the budget responsibility rules except for a crisis (not just the current issues, but something like a new GFC) they effectively would have got middle New Zealand votes by political fraud.

        I would note that NZF will readily go with the rules since they also are against raising taxes.

        • Brendon 7.1.3.1

          Wayne I believe National and Steven Joyce have vaguely indicated they want to cut taxes and also reduce debt below NZ’s long term averages. That is further than the Labour/Greens MOU have committed to, so there is a fiscal difference.

          Also the social investment model is code for contracting out public services to private providers. Bill English believes that Wellington controlled/monitored contracts using the spin of ‘big data’ to justify outside providers being used will have better results than using existing professional structures -such as DHB’s -which of course have always being evidence based/expert led.

          The social investment model is a power grab -plain and simple. Fundamentally it shows Bill and National distrusts public services and they have a desire to replace organisations with a public service culture with ones with a private sector culture. At its base this is an ideological exercise not an evidence based one. If it wasn’t ideological then the government would share ‘big data’ with public sector organisations and allow them to reconfigure as needed.

          I find it interesting that ‘good’ right wing public services such as the Police are not threatened with the social investment model. Instead it is the easily stigmatised mental health providers where National targets first.

          Bill’s social investment model is a sneaky, incremental radical way of introducing privatisation type thinking into the public sector. Despite their being no evidence the public wants existing professional health providing structures undermined or even that it will be effective. Internationally private providing systems are wasteful of resources in the health sector -there are just too many problems of power imbalances, imperfect knowledge and natural monopolies for health to be effectively provided by the private sector.

          The best bet in healthcare provision is to create a high quality public service culture -which is what we have in NZ. Deliberately undermining that is stupid.

        • Brendon 7.1.3.2

          Another danger of the social investment model is the politicising of public sector targets.

          Look at how HNZ has been treated by this government as a private sector organisation which must pay dividends and other payments to the government to the tune $1.8B -whilst homeless stats have worsened and targets have not been reached. Such as reducing the incidence of rheumatic fever -so the target was dropped.

          Same goes for privatisation of the prison service. Reoffending rate targets have been dropped from the official target list. http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2017/05/government-shifts-crime-reduction-goalposts.html

          What a load crap. I have no trust in this government’s targets. They have some sort of weird belief that their can be commercial but not politically accountable. They need to be taught a lesson at the ballot box where responsibility really lies.

        • One Anonymous Bloke 7.1.3.3

          Of course people are entitled to take them at their word. Their word is that the “fine calibration” has yet to occur.

          If they in fact do “raise taxes”, there will be inevitable political fallout, and Little’s statement will be cited as the commitment you mentioned. Obviously it’s in your political interests to characterise it as a “covenant”, despite the disparity between what he actually said and the meaning of the word “covenant”.

          I note that by your definition, you committed political fraud when you raised GST. This is the way you want the game to be played, apparently.

          So, how did it go with Nick Smith and those ACC levies? Did he lie to Cabinet, or did you all lie to us?

    • Rosemary McDonald 7.2

      “So then the debate is reduced to “we can do it better”. With the MOU, can there really be a revolution in the way government works? That is, spend basically the same amount of money but in a dramatically different way.

      I think not. For instance in Health National has changed almost nothing from the Clark government (which was a deliberate choice). Is Labour going to change that?”

      You make a good point Wayne, National has merely entrenched what Labour wrought with our public health system…which Labour would argue was an attempt to ‘fix’ national foray into forcing the public health service into a profit driven model.

      Oh dear…we reap what we sow and all that.

      Change? Easy.

      Ditch the management model that is health and disability. Ditch the contracting out of core services to NGOs and private companies that is sucking the life, morals and $$$ from the service.

      Put real human beings in charge of the $$$…a radical idea would be to have only medical professionals with a proven track record of coal face experience in charge of policy.

      You wouldn’t pay an interior decorator to fix your car, now would you?

    • Ad 7.3

      You imply that there is insufficient difference between Labour-Greens and National.

      Let’s see how big the water, housing, and immigration stories get through winter.
      I agree New Zealand First could get near 15%.

      You will find that the differences are starker in the public mind because the current lot have been failing for three terms on those three areas. If those three are the main public interest areas, National are in real trouble.

      If I were English, I would short the focus to employment, crime, and tax.
      Safer ground.

  8. Gristle 8

    Analytics is dependent on data and models. When we have a National Government that finds it inconvenient to get data on homelessness, and overseas investment in housing or land purchases, or starts playing with models and definitions to enlarge the “success” rate of reducing criminal reoffending, then saying that they are responding to evidence is more than slightly overplaying its hand.

    If the government was wedded to evidenced approach to how it developed and implemented policy then the current way CC and pollution and water allocation would all change.

    The National Government’s approach to evidenced based policy is extensively lensed through ideology. Still maintains that trickle down economics works when the evidence shows otherwise shows ideology determining the model and then carefully selecting data to try and justify the model.

  9. Molly 9

    The main problem with targeted funding is that it makes it much harder – if not impossible – to obtain help or assistance if you are not within the target demographic.

    We need to talk about universal access to programmes and support.

    Concentrate on making access to support and programmes clear, and easy to navigate and all those who require it will be able to benefit, including those whose demographic has been identified as well as those who fall outside that criteria.

    Essentially, National uses targeted funding to reduce spending by reducing access.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 9.1

      Worse than that: they seek to bolster the narrative that you can solve the problems of poverty by doing things to poor people.

      Macro economic settings such as the GINI coefficient are removed from the debate before it even starts. The idea that governments might be responsible for creating poverty has no room at the table.

      • Molly 9.1.1

        “Worse than that: they seek to bolster the narrative that you can solve the problems of poverty by doing things to poor people.”
        Yes, you are right.

        I would like to see wider viewpoints on the morality of such programmes being examined by the opposition, as well as in the media. I too, got sidelined into commenting on only delivery – but the issue is bigger than that.

  10. AsleepWhileWalking 10

    Whenever the government gets involved the price goes up – Peter Schiff

    • ropata 10.1

      back on planet Earth, when the government does not get involved the criminals win

      look at how disgustingly corrupt and inefficient is practically everything that Wall St. is involved in. look at the total failure of US private healthcare, the rorts of the drug companies and oil companies and weapons manufacturers. when the government doesn’t regulate, markets fail and become completely rigged.

      • Tamati Tautuhi 10.1.1

        Most markets are rigged or manipulated by the major players ?

  11. Incognito 11

    Will we hear soon from National how and when it will replace the school decile system with a system based on Predictive Risk Modelling Index AKA Future Risk Index?

    These models have been used for yonks by insurance companies and the likes. Of course, running a country & nation is completely different but that kind of subtlety tends to get lost on National because it wouldn’t fit with their dogma. Given that the New Zealand economy is a FIRE economy it raises the question what has taken National so long to come up with these Minority Reports.

    If the experience with insurance companies is anything to go by it will be near-impossible to change risk categories based on changes in circumstances, for example. In other words, one tends to get locked in a certain category. Will this also happen with children? At what stage and how will the initial risk factors be cancelled and neutralised? What are the implications for people at the opposite side of the spectrum? Will they get less targeted or targeted in a different way altogether?

    It is not clear from National how to balance predicted risk with actual & real need; the real need is not likely to be limited to those with the negative risk factors and vice versa.

    There are so many questions; the devil will be in the detail.

    • Tamati Tautuhi 11.1

      Sounds like a whole heap of B/S to me the big problem is the lower socio economic sectors of NZ are not functioning properly, due to deficiencies in the current economic model this country is running on. We need to change the software we are using ?

  12. Karen 12

    Fantastic takedown of social investment from Lynley Hood on Werewolf:

    http://werewolf.co.nz/2017/05/the-social-investment-model-explained/

    Here is a sample
    “The idea, you see, is you’re making welfare interventions based on their actual measured outcomes. It turns out people have looked into this and often the best way to get good outcomes is to just give everyone more money. So this social investment idea is something the government’s come up with to avoid doing that.”

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  • Remarks to Diplomatic Corps
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  • Speech to LGNZ Conference
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  • Prime Minister's Speech to NZIIA Annual Conference
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