New Zealand Labour Party

Jacinda Ardern: Labour Congress Speech

Kia ora koutuo katoa.

Nigel, Andrew, all of the Labour Family. It is my privilege to speak to you today. First and foremost as a fellow activist. And humbly, as your Deputy Leader.

There are often times in politics where, things happen, that you just don’t expect. The Exclusive Brethren entering the campaign of 2005, Don Brash coming within a whisker of victory, John Banks….well, John Banks just generally. But the fact I am here, also feels unexpected to me.

I was born in Hamilton. My father was a policeman and my mother ran my school canteen. I started my schooling in Murupara before we all moved back to the Waikato, and to a small town called Morrinsville. I spent most of my younger years on a plot of land that was first an orchard, and then when my mum got sick from the sprays, was converted into a plot for sheep.

The first thing I ever drove was a large red massey Ferguson. The first thing I ever crashed was a large red massey Ferguson, straight into a nashi tree, another Nashi tree, and then into my father.

I eventually learnt to drive, to grade apples, to operate a cherry picker, and to dock lambs.  Yes, I cared deeply about the world around me, and politics. But in my mind, that did not mean I would end up in politics. Especially when I had a bit of an issue with public speaking.

I was 14 or 15 when it first emerged.  I would get so nervous speaking in front of an audience, that I would swallow continually until there was absolutely nothing left. Eventually, mid speech, my lip would get completely stuck to the top of my teeth.

All of that might be ok if it was just a matter of looking a little funny, but when your teeth provide this much surface area, it literally meant I couldn’t talk. I would be standing in front of hundreds of people, mid way through a speech and be utterly and completely indecipherable. 

It was a minor impediment, but it filled me with absolute dread, and it was just one, of many, many reasons, that I could never imagine myself doing anything that required a life of public speaking. Certainly nothing like this.

2.    The next generation 

But perhaps a bigger hurdle than that, was the fact that no one in my peer group aspired to be a politician, or even followed politics. That part certainly hasn’t changed, and I worry that it has gotten worse.

We often talk about this phenomena. The idea that young people seem to be so put off by what we do here. 

The statistics bear that out. Currently, only 65% of 18-24[1] year olds are on the electoral roll. And last election, of those young people who were enrolled, more than 126,000 didn’t show up[2]. That’s roughly the population of Hamilton, our country’s fourth largest city.

Many non-voters have reported to the Electoral Commission’s surveys that they simply can’t be bothered with politics and politicians. The number of people who feel this way in New Zealand has increased.

I don’t believe we are immune to the ructions we have seen internationally from those who have felt disempowered and disengaged with political institutions.  If we are looking for what that disempowered, disengaged group looks like in New Zealand, I would argue that it is our next generation, it is our young people.

I am on the cusp of that generation. Children of the 80s and 90s have been labelled Generaton Y, and also the e- generation, given they will spend up to a third of their lives online. And while this generation may not have grown up through a depression, or a world war, social researchers have still determined them to be powerfully resilient. 

Some of that might seem obvious - If you’d been subjected to a childhood of fluoro Lycra and episodes of “Who’s the boss,” you’d be resilient, too! But it is much more than that.

Generation Y are the product of social breakdowns and two decades of rapid economic and global change. And what did that mean here in New Zealand? It meant that basically, they are the product of a time where WE, politics and politicians, told young people we didn’t owe them anything.


We sold their assets.

We told them their education wasn’t a public good anymore.

We traded on our environment while we polluted it for those who follow.

We stood by while home ownership amongst young people halved in a generation and is now the lowest it has been since 1951. [3]

Generation Y have been the ones to watch inequality rise, they have been the ones to watch poverty rise, and they will be the ones who’ll see it compound even further as those who have become those who inherit.

This generation may not be having the same experiences as generations past, but just because they are different, doesn’t make them indifferent.

In fact, I think this next generation are nothing short of remarkable.

In the face of crushing automation based insecurity, where multiple different careers will be the norm, and where competition is increasingly borderless, our workers of tomorrow are showing they are motivated by collaboration more than competition. They get job satisfaction out of purpose, not just wages. And they are perhaps more aware of the world and environment around them than any other generation.

3.    Values

They may not be voting, but that does not make them without values. And that’s what they need to see in us.

Labour’s values have always been pretty consistent, in fact the only thing that has changed is the way we have expressed them. At it’s most basic, it has been about people, and hope.

For Michael Joseph Savage, that meant the creation of the welfare state, and state housing.

For Fraser, a war time prime minister, it was the opportunity of “free, secular and compulsory education from kindergarten to university.”

Kirk expressed his goals as “a social programme which will promote the housing of our people, protect their health, and ensure full employment and equal opportunity for all.”

They say in politics you should be repetitive. Well, we have been for now more than 100 years.

Labour has been bold enough to question economic orthodoxy when it has failed our people. To say that we actually believe in the notion of full employment, and the dignity of work, as much as we believe in protecting the dignity of those who cannot.

That we are pursuing the absolute eradication of poverty, we did it for our older citizens and now we must do it for our kids.

That the well being of our people, our ultimate motivation, is nothing without our environment- and that the status quo will not do. 

And that all of this, is as much about paying it forward for the next generation as it is about the here and now.  This has to be our message going into the election: We will pay it forward.

We may have a long ‘to do’ list to demonstrate our belief in this kind of pay it forward politics, things that will leave our country in a better state than we found it.  But there are issues facing young people today that also need our immediate attention.

4.    Mental health

As much as this generation is resilient, adaptable, and tough, they are also exposed to hardships that are taking their toll, and have been for some time. 

We already know that after the early years, adolescence is the next most crucial stage of brain development, and that has an effect on everything – relationships, risk taking, emotional control and behaviour. Add to an already biologically difficult time a whole range of environmental stresses, like family strain, or material deprivation, and things are even tougher.

It is hard to be a young person growing up in New Zealand, and our statistics tell us that  - it’s there for everyone to see in our suicide rate.

It’s hard to remember a time when the number of young people taking their own lives wasn’t staggering, but it hasn’t always been as bad as it is now.  In the 1980s for instance, the jump for young males in particular was horrific, going from 58 to more than a hundred in just 8 years.[4]

I was a little kid living in Murupara in those days, and I distinctly remember as a primary school aged child learning what suicide was because it was talked about in our tiny community just so much.

And that is the sad truth of it. When someone in our community is affected by suicide, it causes a ripple effect.

I was only 13 years old when my best friend’s brother took his own life. I had just started high school and was waiting for class to start when I heard the news. I can remember exactly where I was standing, just outside the science block.

I went straight to my friend’s home and spent the next few days with her as her and her family went through the unimaginable grief of losing their only boy, grief that was felt by everyone that knew him, and was captured in the handwritten notes and messages from his classmates that hung around the walls at his funeral.

Every single thing about it seemed unfair, and still does to this day. Even at my friend’s wedding just a few years ago, the sense of loss, of there being a missing member of that family, hung in the air.  He was just 15 years old when he died.

Behind every single entry in the suicide statistics lies not only a life lost, but a community shattered. We can repeat the statistics over and over, but it is the names and stories that almost all of us will know, that bring home the effect of this disease in our country.

I use the word disease with purpose. Suicide is a nationwide disease. We have come a long way when it comes to discussing issues of mental health and well-being, but I still fear that we treat it as something that can be overcome with will power.

No one would tell someone with heart disease, to pull it together, sort themselves out, or focus on the positive.  Mental illness is an illness in every sense of the word, and one our beautiful country is plagued with.

We have some of the highest rates of teen suicide in the developed world.

There should be no politics in addressing an issue like this, there should only be one thing- the value we place on new Zealanders of all walks of life having a sense of belonging, a sense of support, and a sense of hope. And none of that is more true than for our young people.

We have made progress in some areas.  The incredibly useful youth health surveys conducted since 2000 have shown us that risk taking behaviours have changed. Binge drinking, smoking, teen pregnancy rates – all have dropped. Researchers overseas have interestingly all found the same trends. But despite that, we haven’t seen the same change in mental health. [5]

There are answers out there.  Ones that give me hope.  And there is one in particular that I want to share today.

5. School mental health teams

Research right here in New Zealand has shown that well-resourced comprehensive health teams in schools have lower depression and suicide rates amongst young people by up to two thirds. Two thirds.[6]

These teams are pretty special.  They are a mixture of nurses, GPs, social workers, youth workers and guidance counsellors depending on the school. But perhaps most importantly, they are based in the school, and are a genuine part of it. That’s a huge part of their success. It’s a really fresh approach to looking out for the health of the next generation.

If you have health services that visit for just a couple of hours a week, it sadly, isn’t sufficient. Ask anyone who works in mental health and with young people and they will tell you that in crisis, having someone you know and trust to talk to is critical. And trust takes time.

All in all these services, done well, have had a significant and measurable impact. And I want to acknowledge that nurses have already been funded in low decile schools. But we have two problems:

  • Many of the programmes at those low decile schools are not comprehensive; and
  • Mental health issues are not confined to low decile schools.

The upshot is that for all of their success, comprehensive school based health services are only in just over 10% of our schools.  You heard me correctly. 10%.[7]

I know you will be asking the same question I did: Why do we not have comprehensive school based health services in every single secondary school in New Zealand?

Yes, we know that poverty and deprivation does have an impact on mental health and well being. But recently I asked a few principals in schools who don’t fall into a lower decile what issues they had had with youth mental health. One replied frankly  “We have a real problem. We lost a student just last year. No one expected it.  It had a profound effect.”

Associate Professor Simony Denny who has worked on the evaluation of school based services concluded with this assessment “We need these sorts of health services across all deciles….all schools are struggling with student well being.”

The government’s approach to social spending has increasingly been to heavily target every single service. But last year even their own officials told them that “focusing on school decile could ignore other drivers of vulnerability and mental health issues”.

Vulnerabilities exist everywhere.  Crude measures of who is at risk of low to moderate mental health issues are just that, crude.  Labour has always believed that there is a place for universalism, and when it comes to youth health services, that is exactly what we need.

That is why, under Labour, every state secondary school will have a comprehensive school based health service. Every school. Decile 1 or decile 10.

Every student who needs it will have the option of someone they can go to, and someone they can trust.  A young person’s well-being, no matter who they are or what community they live in, will be our priority. 

I know that this is just one small act though. And we cannot let this be a substitute for improving the other factors that effect a young person’s well-being.  Like housing, inequality and work prospects.

All of our goals as a party, whether it be eradicating poverty, ending the housing crisis, or lifting the quality of our education system will have an effect on our young people,  and we will pursue these as much as we prioritise the health and well-being of our young people too. 

6. Conclusion 

Ladies and Gentlemen, party members and friends.  I did not come into politics for the sport. I came to politics to make change for a generation who so richly deserves it, and who so desperately needs it. 

Labour is a progressive party, a party driven by values, people and hope, we are the ones who can deliver for the next generation, and on the 23rd of September, that is exactly what we’ll do. 

Thank you.



[4] Source: New Zealand Mortality Collection