Speech: A Better Country

I am proud to stand in front of you today as your Deputy Leader, and proud to be part of a party 96 years young that is as committed today to the values of fairness, social justice and security for all as it was when founded.

I pay tribute to the women and men who have led and worked over those 96 years in our movement; from its roots on the West Coast to be a party that has led this country with compassion, courage and inspiration.  The legacy that we at this conference have is of a movement for social change and for the advancement of all.  It is a legacy we must never forget.

My personal stake in that legacy was my grandfather Bob Wilkie.  He was the Labour candidate for the Wairarapa in two elections in the 1950s.   It wasn’t easy. He drove around in a beat up car in a Tory electorate trying to peddle his own brand of socialism. He didn’t win, but he believed in something. 

In later life I have to admit his politics moved around a bit, but the words he said in 1954 in the long lamented Featherston Chronicle still echo for me today. “ I believe it is the responsibility of all in prosperity to care for those in adversity; that the welfare of the nation in the future depends on the children of today, and every assistance financial and otherwise should be given to those who have undertaken the responsibilities of parenthood.”

Bob passed away last week, but his legacy to me was a belief that it’s my job, our job to make the world a fairer place.

The job ahead for this party, is to take the legacy our movement, and of our enduring values and create a platform for the 21st century.  That means change.  Change for how we organise our party, and a change in direction for this country.

This is a truly historic conference.  We must be proud that we are changing, democratising and modernising the party in the way we are. I want to pay a tribute to the two co-sponsors of this review Party Leader David Shearer and Party President Moira Coatsworth, and to the review working group and advisory groups.  An exercise like this is a monumental undertaking and the process has been swift but inclusive.  The recommendations we have are far-reaching, and they will create an organisation that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.  An organisation that will be strong at the grassroots, active and campaigning in our communities and a visible force for social progress.

And that is essential because we must address head-on the cynicism and distrust in politics that is in our country. At the last election over 800,000 New Zealanders who were eligible to vote did not vote. In Labour we are right to be concerned because many of these are our voters, but this is a crisis beyond just who might vote for us.  I believe that many of these people see politics as something that is done to them, rather than something that they are part of.  Labour must turn that around.

The changes we are making today are about giving us the tools to do that. Because what this review is about is a new kind of politics.  One where people see that we as a movement are about more than the nightly news cycle. That we are engaged, that we are listening and that politics means something to people’s lives.  We need to give people a reason to vote for us, not just against someone else,  and to see our values and recognise them as their values.

There has been and will continue to be robust debate about these changes.  That is exactly as it should be.  The Labour Party has always vigorously debated ideas.  That is part of our DNA.  We must be proud of it and never shy away from it.   

While we might differ over some matters, what we share is so much greater and more important. What we share is our desire to always fight for the rights of those not born to privilege.  To give opportunity to those who start with, or end up with nothing, and to give hope to all who believe in a better country and a better world. 

That is what sets us in contrast to our opponents in the National Party.  

The Oxford Dictionary recently announced their word of the year- Omnishambles.  It means something that is stuffed up from every direction.  And under the definition it could well say “National Government 2012”.  It’s a catalogue of scandals, stuff ups, brain fades and u-turns, and that’s just Hekia Parata’s diary from last week.

From Nick Smith’s letters to John Key’s brain fades, from Hekia Parata’s u-turns to Craig Foss pay debacle, this government is a shambles.

To call the National Government a dog’s breakfast is an insult to a bowl of tux.

So, who are these clowns claiming to run our country?  Ladies and Gentlemen meet Shonkey and the Nine Clowns of the Apocalypse.

Well, Paula Bennett herself identified in Parliament the other day what she should be called. She said that unemployment was a bit like her, Bouncy.  

Just as she said that people move in and out of poverty every day, apparently unemployment is bouncy.  Bouncy in the sense that it’s bounced back to the worst since the last time Bill English was Finance Minister.

And speaking of Bill English.  Old Grumpy of Karori.  Forced to pay for his own cleaner, he keeps going on about grumpy growth. He tells us that we’ve all got it wrong. The unemployment numbers are wrong, the deficit projections are wrong, the decline in retail spending is wrong.  I’m half expecting him to announce that the Budget Forecast is all about “the vibe; its Mabo”.

And then we lay eyes on Steven Joyce.  Disappointingly there is no clown called Evil Dark Prince. But like some kind of poor man’s Al Pacino he thinks economic development is a good night at Sky City.  The real Slim Shady of New Zealand politics.

Anyone who watches Parliament for more than a day would have no doubt that Chris Finalyson deserves the title of Nasty. Chris once asked me why I had taken an instant dislike to him; I told him it just saved time.

And then there is John Banks.   The poor deluded man has stumbled back into Parliament apparently completely oblivious to where he is, behaving like Peter Sellers in Being There, staring at the flowers with far away eyes.  But you have to have sympathy with him.  I mean who would remember flying in a helicopter to meet a 20 stone multi-millionaire German at an enormous mansion. With a giraffe.   And then he offers you $50,000.00. It’s just not something you would remember.  So John Banks has to be christened Hazy.

And of course there has to be a Dopey.  There are a lot of candidates for that title but there is no doubt that anyone who thinks that more children in a class will improve learning, who can’t count the number of buildings in a school, and wants to let untrained teachers into charter schools.  That is one dopey Minister of Education.

So with Shonkey, Grumpy, Shady, Bouncy, Nasty, Dopey and Hazy leading the way National has its hands off the wheel of government as our economy drifts into a decline.

In all seriousness, this is a government that has let New Zealanders down.

I believe that New Zealanders are fundamentally fair minded people, who care about their neighbours, their community and their environment. Yet time and again this National government are undermining those values.

Delegates, We are a better country than one where 270,000 children are growing up in poverty, in houses that are cold, damp and unhealthy.

We are a better country than one that is now the most unequal that it has ever been, where the pay for CEOs has risen by 15% but where many workers have not had a pay rise for three years.

We are a better country than one where 170,000 people are out of work and the government’s response is to dog whistle to the beneficiary bashers and to blame those without jobs for their plight.

We are a better country than one where nearly one in every four Maori and Pasifika young people are out of work

We are a better country than one where a community hit by earthquakes has to fight just to keep their schools open.

We are a better country than one who walks away from our environmental responsibilities and abandons our commitment to addressing climate change.

We are a better country than one where the rest home workers who looked after my grandfather in his last days are not paid enough to feed their families.

We are a better country than one where a 55 year old woman is in tears in my electorate office because she has lost her job and the government is denying her even a student loan so that she can re-train.

In short delegates we are a better country than this National government is letting us be. 

New Zealand was promised a brighter future, but what has been delivered is bleak, and the future is now one of steady decline.  Of lowering wages and living standards and more and more of our friends and families on the plane to the Gold Coast.

I want to acknowledge that this has been a tough year for many New Zealanders.  To the families of the Pike River miners I know that every anniversary is tough, but this one especially so.  Your grieving goes on, and we grieve with you.  To the gritty determined people of Christchurch, know that the Labour Party is here for you every step of the way.

I think of the many New Zealanders who have lost their jobs this year most recently at Hillside Workshops in Dunedin around the corner from where I grew up.

My message to those workers is to remember that as people say, a recession is when your friend loses their job, a depression is when you lose your job, and a recovery starts when John Key loses his.

We are resilient people, and our movement is always there to lend a hand.  I want to make a particular acknowledgement to the workers who have fought through tough industrial struggles.  To the Port workers, the meatworkers, the rest home workers I salute your courage and fortitude.  To the union movement that has been there for them, Helen and the whole team, I say thank you.  You are doing the Labour movement proud.

Delegates, the New Zealand values of a fair go, a caring community and place for everyone are under attack.   Those values are Labour values, and we are going to have to fight to keep them alive. 

Our values put into action will create a better New Zealand, as we have done so often before.

Under David Shearer’s leadership, our plan is to create an economy that is focused on growing jobs.  Sustainable, rewarding jobs, available for all New Zealanders.  To do this we have to pull the levers big and small.  We will not sit on the sidelines as businesses shut down and as our loved ones take off to Australia. Under Labour the government will be an active partner in a thriving economy.  We want New Zealanders to know that we will support their aspirations, celebrate their success and encourage them to do more.

Fundamentally what the Global Financial Crisis has shown us is that the neo-liberal, hands off approach to government has failed. A new economy has to join our new politics.

We know that the only sustainable economic future for New Zealand is one where the environment and the economy come together to help create new, innovative businesses that will provide the world with the goods and services for the 21st century.  From his first day as leader David Shearer has made clear that innovation, research and science will be the engines of our new economy.

And from that first day David has also made clear that education is at the centre of how Labour will once again transform New Zealand.  We will not stand by as thousands of young New Zealanders fall out of our system.  From early childhood through to tertiary education and training Labour will make sure that all New Zealanders have a world class education system wherever they live.

And alongside this growing economy, must be a fair society. We will address child poverty. No child in this country should be limited by the circumstances of their birth.  Every New Zealand family needs the support to make the most of their lives.

And under David Shearer, Labour will stand proud and independent on the world stage. We will do our bit, in areas like climate change, not just because it actually benefits our economy, but because it is the right thing to do.

We are on a different path to this government. A path to a better country.  A path that includes, rather than excludes a path that gives hope not generates fear, a path of equality not privilege.

The changes that need to happen in our society to put our values into action are big. And there is one thing that big change requires and that is courage.  In David Shearer as leader we have a person whose life has been defined by one attribute more than any other- courage. 

Delegates, I am proud our party is led by someone who was the New Zealander of the Year for his humanitarian work in Somalia.   A man who has devoted his life to improving the lot of people in the most desperate of circumstances.  A man who has brought teams together to deliver the results in the most trying of circumstances.  Those are the attributes that a leader needs, not D-Grade comedy routines and a faulty memory.

When I became the Deputy Leader of the Opposition Geoffrey Palmer wrote to me and said “I found being Deputy Leader of the Opposition the worst job in politics.”  My response to Geoffrey is to say that’s only because you were never the Leader of the Opposition.

David, you have the toughest job in politics, and I admire your guts and determination to keep at it.

I work closely with David every day, and I can tell you that every minute of every day he is working to give New Zealand the government they need and deserve. 

We should be proud of what we have managed in this first year under David’s leadership.   

We have put in motion a review that will fundamentally change our party to be a democratic, modern voice for the values we hold dear. 

We have put ourselves back in the game.  We are polling higher, and in coalition with our friends in the Greens we are within reach of government. 

With your hard work we have been part of gathering nearly 300,000 signatures to force this government to listen to New Zealanders who do not want their assets sold.  I ask you for one more big effort next weekend in our weekend of action to get us the final signatures we need.

We have taken it to the government in every sphere.  We are leading the debate on making our economy work for all New Zealanders, on social policy, on education and on jobs.

It’s tough from opposition to do more than hold the government to account, but just look at what we have achieved through members bills in Parliament. There are the ones that have not succeeded, but have life to issues that matter.  David Clark’s Minimum Wage Bill that would have seen $15 per hour to every worker.  Clayton Cosgrove’s Bill that would have given our state assets the security they deserve.

And then there are the ones that have made progress. Sue Moroney’s Paid Parental Leave Bill that will give the job of parenting the respect and support it deserves.  And what’s more Sue has shown to the country what we always knew- Bill English can’t actually count.

David Clark, again, with the Bill that will secure for all New Zealanders 11 public holidays a year, every year.

And Louisa Wall’s Bill to give every New Zealander the right to marry the person they love.  A Bill that is as much about love, commitment and family as it is about our most treasured value- equality.

Delegates, your Caucus is working its guts out. Not all of us are lucky enough to get our members bills drawn, but every single one is committed to our cause.

Of course we must strive to do better in every aspect. We must never be satisfied with letting a government simply self-destruct in front of our eyes. We have to earn the right to be government, and that is what we are setting about doing.

I hear a lot that in politics that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I am not sure that it is either. Now, I might not look like much of a runner. But I do armchair sports with the best of them. At the Olympics my favourite event is the 1500m. It’s the ultimate test. It brings together speed, endurance and tactics. It’s also the one most like politics.

You have to start at a decent clip and stay with the pace, but if you sprint, you won’t have any kick for the sprint in the final lap.

I know it’s hard to remember sometimes, but we have not even completed the first lap in our 1500m race.  The first anniversary of the election is next week.  The thing for people like all of us is we are a bit weird. We live and breathe politics.  We always think we are in the last 100m of our race.  For most people they will not focus on politics until later in the race. 

But make no mistake, we have to be ready. We’ve made great progress in this first year. We have to step up the pace in years two and three, and we will have our sprint ready to kick clear.

And to do that we need to come together as a movement. Our opponents will try to distract and divide us, to focus on the trivial and the false. We must not fall into their trap.  And the worst thing we can do is divide ourselves.  

Together, we can deliver the government that will give New Zealanders hope and belief that there is a better future for our country, our communities and our families.

The chance to put into action our values is in reach if we all focus on our common purpose. Under David Shearer’s leadership we have the plan, we have the policies and we have the people to make a better New Zealand built on compassion, hope and fairness.

Delegates, the values of our party are needed more than ever in this country. Our cousins in the Australian Labor Party have as their touchstone the notion of the “light on the hill’.  Ben Chifley the then leader of the party said in 1949

I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.

Together, unified in our values and beliefs we must pursue our own light on the hill, and we must fight for what we believe in like we have never fought before. 

Because in our values lie the hopes and aspirations of New Zealanders.  Let’s get out there and make the change for a better country.