Grant Robertson's Speech to the 2019 Labour Party Conference

It is a great pleasure to be here in Whanganui for the 2019 Labour Conference. 

Like the Prime Minister I grew up with the TV clip of Selwyn Toogood booming “What do you say Whanganui, the money or the bag?” to an unsuspecting ‘It’s in the Bag’ audience.

For those under the age of 45 this was a quiz show where contestants had to choose for prizes between an offer of money or a “bag” which might contain something like an overseas holiday or a booby prize. 

Being a Labour Party Conference I know you will want both the money and the bag, and rest assured there are no booby prizes. But in the spirit of Selwyn, I am going to get you to choose later on in the speech, so listen out.

As Minister of Finance every day I am faced with difficult choices. And I mean more than just at Bellamys. There is much to do.  

Nine years of neglect to overcome in our schools, hospitals and state houses. 

Big, complex, long-term issues like climate change, homelessness and child poverty to address. And the unexpected things that come at you like the response to March 15.

We work hard to get the balance right. Understanding the global environment, making investments now for the good of future generations, and managing the books carefully while taking the bold innovative steps that are needed. 

I approach those important decisions on a clear basis, guided by the values of our Party and our movement. It is our job to strive for social justice, for equality and equity, to protect our planet and our people for the common good. 

And I am guided by all of you. Our Labour whanau. By the policies that you pass, the mahi that you do, the people who you are.  

I think of the members and supporters who have gone before, and to those who have recently passed.  

In my own rohe, I think of David Underwood and Fran McGrath, both of whom we have lost recently. People who would always think of others first, who’s strong sense of fairness and justice helped guide me. I thank them, on whose shoulders we all stand. And I thank all of you for your commitment as we face these opportunities and challenges together.

And delegates, you can be proud of the achievements we’ve made in our first two years in Government.

We are rebuilding New Zealand. We are rebuilding the social services that were neglected for too long, like our teaching, health and Police workforces. 

We’re rebuilding regional roads, rail and transport infrastructure ignored by the previous Government. 

And we are rebuilding our frayed social fabric – what it means to be a New Zealander – a fair go, a helping hand, the spirit of manākitanga.

One of the achievements I am most proud of is the Wellbeing Budget.

At Conference last year I stood up and gave you the first indication of what a Wellbeing Budget would deliver.

I told you how our new way of doing Budgets meant we would use evidence of what would make the biggest difference to New Zealanders’ wellbeing now and in the future to decide what to invest in. 

I told you we would break down the silos of government to focus on the outcomes, not the inputs. And that we would measure our success not just on the narrow indicator of GDP, but also on the other things we value – the health and wellbeing of our people, the quality of our environment and the strengths of our communities. 

And fellow delegates – we did it.

The Wellbeing Budget broke new ground. Around the world and here at home it is generating huge interest. 

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year I was so proud to hear our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tell the world how the Wellbeing Budget would work, and, more importantly, why it mattered. 

At home, the Waikato Councils, iwi and NGOs are coming together to undertake the Waikato Wellbeing Project to guide development in their region.  Deloitte ran an investigative series on wellbeing, the BNZ created their own wellbeing survey and index, while Westpac have been running regional wellbeing events around the country.

We are changing the way people think about what we value, what constitutes success and what we invest in.

There is still some way to go to see the approach work to its fullest. We need better recognition of Te Ao Maori, and of how our Pasifika community view wellbeing, including its spiritual aspects. We need to get better indicators of our children’s wellbeing, of our cultural wellbeing.

But we have made a great start.

And nowhere was that more evident than in the package that was the centrepiece of the Wellbeing Budget – Taking Mental Health Seriously.

We delivered. A $1.9 billion package to completely change how we provide frontline mental health services in this country. To change how we deal with the drivers of homelessness and addiction. To change how we break the cycle of reoffending by addressing mental health in our prison population. Breaking down the silos to finally put mental health at the centre of our health system.

We have to thank those who have blazed the trail on this. Champions like Mike King, the Mental Health Foundation and John Kirwan.

I am proud to be part of a Government that said this will be front-and-centre of our very first Wellbeing Budget.

I have already seen the difference that is being made through the Piki programme providing free services to 18-24-year-olds, through the amazing Mana Ake programme supporting young people in Christchurch, and the new facilities such as the one being built just down the road from here in Palmerston North.

That’s what happens when you change the status quo and do things differently, by putting people at the heart of what we do as a Government. 

But there is, of course, more to do. An issue like mental health that was left on the sidelines over the past decade will not be fixed in just one Budget. The same applies to the other priorities in the Wellbeing Budget. They were identified on the basis of evidence. They represent long-term challenges and opportunities: child wellbeing, Maori and Pasifika development, the future of work, our transition to a low carbon economy. They need sustained investment

We will announce the full detail of the 2020 Budget priorities at the Budget Policy Statement in a couple of weeks’ time, but rest assured we are in this for the long haul, to do what is right, and to do what is needed.

There are so many highlights from the Wellbeing Budget and what we have delivered this year, but I want to mention just a couple more that show that we are delivering on what we promised. 

The Budget contained a massive boost for KiwiRail – over $1 billion. Now, I know in a place like Whanganui there are long memories about promises about rail. This Government is setting that straight with real investment. 

It hit home to me just how much that meant when a KiwiRail line maintenance worker cried as he told me how he finally had the resources to do his job properly – keeping a safe and reliable rail network going. He had seen his job undermined over a decade, and now it’s back on track.

Closer to home for me – where I grew up in fact – is the Hillside Workshops in South Dunedin.

I stood in front of you as Opposition Spokesperson and said we would get Hillside thriving again. And the coalition government is delivering that with a $20 million investment. 

I want to pay a tribute here to Clare Curran as MP for Dunedin South who never, ever gave up on Hillside or the workers who were there, and to the RMTU as well.

This is not some nostalgic endeavour either. This is about a modern engineering facility that supports highly skilled jobs. On that same day, we announced other Provincial Growth Fund investments in Dunedin, including a Centre of Digital Excellence and support for high-value manufacturing in the city.

This is all work towards building the economy of the future. Taking the themes of our Economic Plan of moving from volume to value, of improving our skills and seeing wages lift. I want to thank New Zealand First for their work in the PGF. It is a great example of the Coalition Government working together.

Among the many other examples in the Wellbeing Budget, I want to especially highlight our transition to a low carbon economy. There can be no better example of the change that is being brought by our Government than this.  

The environment is no longer some kind of after-thought, left to Nick Smith to mess up. It is front and centre in our future prosperity and wellbeing. In the Budget we saw a host of Ministers and agencies come together to produce the Sustainable Land Use Package. This is practically assisting farmers and others in the primary industries to move to a more sustainable future. It supports growing more trees, cleaning up our waterways, and measuring our impacts better and more. 

These transitions are not always easy. When we announced our ban on new oil and gas exploration it would be fair to say the reception in places like New Plymouth was a bit chilly. But we stuck at it – and here I want to pay tribute to the Hon Megan Woods who has led this effort.

Megan can now point to the establishment of the National Energy Development Centre, to the burgeoning hydrogen economy, to the new funding for cutting edge research and development that is supporting the transition of communities like Taranaki. 

Since our decision, we’ve seen major new wind farms and investment in geothermal. That’s exactly the long-term transition we are wanting to see.

Recently when I was in the region talking with the business community – not one question on oil and gas. But rather a focus on the future and on the partnerships we can grow together.

And most recently we saw the red-letter day – the passing of the Zero Carbon Act. A day when we put into law our commitments and how we will be held accountable for them. Here I want to acknowledge our confidence and supply partner, the Greens, and particularly James Shaw. Together we have put climate at the centre of our economy. There is, again, much to do, but we have made a strong start. 

As I said, there could be so many more things to highlight, but one thing stands out. We are living up to the wellbeing values we hold, in particular, that the economy is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

As I have said many times, our wellbeing approach does not mean we take a thriving economy for granted. We need it – and we have worked hard to achieve it, with unemployment near record lows, and wage growth at its highest in a decade.

There is no denying the challenging times in the global economy. The combined effect of the US-China trade war, uncertainty over Brexit and instability around the world has led the slowdown of global growth.

As an open export-based economy we are not immune to this slowdown. No one in the world that we compare ourselves to is growing at the rates they were two or three years ago. We cannot expect rates of growth to continue unabated in this part of the global economic cycle.

We take pride in the stability that we are providing as a Government. 

Some said it would not last – but we are going strong. That stability is evident in the strong fundamentals of our economy. The IMF and OECD have told us that our growth rates will continue to outperform the countries we compare ourselves to – like Australia – and that we are well ahead of the average for other advanced economies.

The Government’s books are in good shape. When we came into office, net debt was nearly 23% of GDP. Within our first year in office we reduced net debt below 20%.

In our second year in Government, we made sure it stayed there.

In our two years, we have run $13 billion worth of surpluses. We have got the books into shape. They will stay in shape.

It is these strong fundamentals that now allow us to respond as economic circumstances change.

We began this in Budget 2019. We significantly lifted spending on all the core elements of our programme – health, education, infrastructure, and more.  

And now as we move into our third year, we will seek to build on that again

The investments we’ve been making should be of no surprise to anyone who knows the history of New Zealand Governments.

Labour in Government builds New Zealand.

Whether that’s in terms of our social infrastructure – from state houses to social security from free education to paid parental leave or the infrastructure of roads and rail around the country.

Each of our Labour Governments has left a legacy in terms of how they built New Zealand.

We take this legacy very seriously. This is a legacy of investment in our people, our communities, our environment, and our economy.

The key to making these investments is knowing when to make them.

New Zealanders are rightly proud of the work being done in building up our schools, hospitals and transport networks. But the reality is that the investment needed to maintain that did not happen in recent years.

Take health – in 2016 no new money was put aside for capital expenditure. In 2017 it was just $100 million. That is how we ended up with the stories of Middlemore, and the sewerage and mould in its walls.

We are closing that deficit. In our first Budget, we put $750 million in to fix our hospitals. We followed that up with $850 million for each of the next two years.

In housing, we were left with a deficit of about 71,000 homes, with very few affordable homes being built over that time. At the same time – in the middle of a housing crisis – the National Government was busy selling off state houses.

Well, we stopped that, and we are closing that deficit. We have built 3,623 state houses since we came into office. A further 2,400 are under construction as we speak. Annual building consents for state houses are the highest for any Government since the 1970s. 

It is the same case in transport education and other sectors.

We prioritised these investments because they are the ones that needed to be made after so many years of neglect.

But looking forward, we believe now is the right time to build on Labour’s legacy, and build on the record of this Coalition Government.

Right now, we can borrow at an interest rate of 1.3% for ten years. Just think about that for a minute. When we came in to office, this was up at 3%.

We have the lowest borrowing costs in New Zealand’s history, so it is time to invest.

In terms of where we are in the economic cycle, in terms of the good shape that the Government’s books are in; now is the time to take the next step forward in our legacy of building New Zealand.

I can announce today that the Government will significantly increase spending on infrastructure. 

Cabinet has agreed in recent weeks to a package of infrastructure projects that we will be bringing forward into our short and medium-term programme. 

I would like to acknowledge the input from our Coalition and Confidence and Supply partners as we bring this together.

We are currently finalising the specific projects that the package will fund but I can tell you this – it will be significant. It will have a direct impact on growth and it will create jobs, especially I hope for our young people. 

We are also listening to calls from the construction industry for greater certainty about the pipeline of transport projects from 18 months’ time. We will give that certainty.

We will be in a position to outline the size of the capital investment package and the areas we will be investing in when we announce the Budget Policy Statement on the 11 December.

Delegates, I said at the beginning of the speech that I would offer you my own version of ‘It’s in the Bag’ here in Whanganui.

It’s a choice between our vision for the economy, where people are at the centre, where we value our environment and our communities, and where we strike a balance between the needs of here and now and those of future generations. 

On the other side is a view of the economy as the end goal itself, where the sights are set firmly in the rear view mirror, avoiding action on climate change, letting inequality grow and where the only hope is for the trickle down to finally take hold. 

So, what do you say Whanganui?

Are you on the side of the future?

Are you on the side of a prosperous, low carbon economy?

Are you on the side of rebuilding New Zealand?

Are you on the side of our people?

If you are, then we are on this journey together. It will take time. We must bring people with us to make sure this change endures. But endure it will. 

It is the legacy of Labour in Government to build New Zealand.  

We have made a great start. Let’s get on with the job.