Tēnā koutou katoa
“Kua tawhiti kē tō mātou haerenga mai, kia kore e haere tonu.
He nui rawa o mahi, kia kore e mahi tonu.”
Kia haere tonu tātou
It’s so fantastic to be here in South Auckland, and it’s so fantastic to be here with all of you.
I want to begin by acknowledging our team here. Our wonderful New Zealand Councillors, our outgoing and incoming President, our excellent Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Kelvin Davis, our caucus and most importantly, our members. Our lifeblood and our engine room.
Last year our conference was a little different to this. We gathered in the manner which was traditional in the year 2021 – Zoom.
There are some distinct advantages to communication from the comfort of your own home. For instance, at last year’s conference speech I was essentially wearing slippers.
Our facial lines all miraculously softened, and then there were the filters which were especially good when they malfunctioned.
And by malfunction, I mean – user error – like the occasion I borrowed my Chief of Staff Raj Nahna’s laptop for a meeting, flicked the make-up function on, and neglected to tell him.
At our next officials meeting complete with senior public servants and ministers I noticed Raj was desperately trying to cover his face and a fetching shade of lipstick and rouge, which, he had no idea how to turn off.
I think it’s fair to say, it’s been a time.
And while no one expects being in Government to be simple, the last few years have not been an easy run.
A global pandemic of a scale not seen since the 1918 global influenza outbreak, followed immediately by an economic downturn the largest in scale since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s – twin health and economic crises that no government in New Zealand history has ever had to contend with.
There was no rulebook written.
But what we did have, was a set of values, and the history of past Labour governments.
It wasn’t a rulebook, but it was a guide.
On the 9th floor of the Beehive building in Wellington, sitting directly behind my desk, is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage. You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.
Of course it was Savage and the first Labour Government that lifted New Zealand out of the depths of the Great Depression. Not by cutting taxes and services, but by investing in jobs, and building a social welfare safety net. They built the country’s first state home. And not long after these social reforms – New Zealand’s living standards were among some of the highest in the world. Not for the few, but for the many.
The Finance Minister who supported Savage, Walter Nash, then led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system, while advocating on the world stage for peace over war after World War 2.
It was Norman Kirk and a Labour government who tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education. They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri – all the while challenging global evil such as apartheid and nuclear testing.
It was a fight David Lange continued, making New Zealand nuclear free, while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality, and fully abolishing the death penalty.
And of course with Helen Clark, the first woman elected our Prime Minister, New Zealand maintained a principled position on the war in Iraq, while leading a fifth Labour government that improved the economic wellbeing of Kiwi families, by setting up KiwiSaver, the Cullen superannuation fund, and Working for Families.
These were all Labour governments that despite what came their way, never lost sight of the things that matter. I believe the same can be said about us.
We are a government that cares for our people.
Their kids and grandkids and the earth that they will inherit.
Yes, managing crisis is an integral part of government – and every Labour government has had their fair share to manage.
For us, the list has been a little longer than you’d hope or even imagine – and the pandemic was especially difficult for everyone.
Did we always get everything right – no.
Could we have done more, or done things differently – yes.
But not every country can claim that over three years they saved more lives and livelihoods and lived with fewer restrictions than nearly anywhere else in the world. And that’s something every single New Zealander can be proud of.
But we’ve done more than manage crises – we’ve made progress despite them.
Before Covid we said we wanted New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child.
And so we increased paid parental leave from 18 to 26 weeks.
We created the Best Start payment which restored for the first time in 40 years a universal child payment for families with a newborn.
We increased the Family Tax Credit.
And introduced free lunches, and free period products in schools.
And now, 66,000 children have been lifted out of poverty and all nine measures of child poverty in this country are in decline.
66,000 kids who now have a better shot at school, at getting into work when the time comes, whose parents have the dignity of being able to provide for their children.
We said we wanted to build a mental healthcare system that didn’t just exist in times of crisis.
So we started building services in GP clinics, iwi providers and youth services.
We built and extended Mana Ake, a mental health programme for kids at primary and intermediate.
And we’ve put more counsellors in schools too.
And now, for the first time, we have an early intervention in our mental health system that has provided half a million mental health sessions to Kiwis in need, and over 30,000 counselling hours for kids in schools.
We said every New Zealander should have a warm, dry, affordable home.
And so, we introduced the healthy homes requirements.
Stopped overseas speculators buying residential homes.
Evened up the playing field for first home buyers by closing tax loop holes and extending the bright line test.
Launched the biggest state housing build and Papakāinga investment we’ve seen in decades.
And now, we have helped 65,000 first home buyers with grants to buy their own homes, lifted the share of first home buyers in the market from 20 to 24 percent – the highest since 2016 – and created more than 10,000 public housing places.
In fact, this government has created 13 percent of the total public and community housing stock New Zealand has, in just the past five years.
We said we would tackle climate change.
So we passed the Zero Carbon Act, established the Climate Commission and created an Emissions Reduction Plan.
We banned future oil and gas exploration, and the installation of new coal boilers.
We built incentives and standards which means we have now tripled electric vehicle imports.
And we’re creating a world first regime to make sure we reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, which make up just under half of our emissions profile.
We said we wanted to be a nation where we grew skills, invested in our core services, and where everyone had the opportunity to experience the dignity of work.
And so we invested in and increased apprenticeship numbers by a massive 61 percent.
Supported 5200 rangatahi into work through Mana in Mahi.
Employed 4000 more nurses and nearly 3000 more teachers.
And have now some of the lowest unemployment on record, including for Maori, in the midst of one of the largest social and economic crisis of a generation.
This isn’t a check list. This isn’t a political score card.
Behind every one of those numbers is someone’s life that has been impacted by a Labour government.
The gentleman I met in Hawke’s Bay who told me about his brand new Kāinga Ora home where his moko were finally warm.
The parents of a new autoelectrical apprentice in Gisborne who were so happy their child had stability and certainty.
The single mum who wrote to me to say she can now afford for her family to be warm over winter.
The teacher who told me what a difference lunches in schools was making to their kids and community.
These achievements make us a better country. They make us fairer.
And with economic storm clouds brewing, they form the strong foundation we need to face the future with confidence.
And it is the future I want to talk about today.
We have been through tough times, but global volatility still lies in front of us and 2023 will likely, in many ways, be more difficult than this year. That brings uncertainty and anxiety. I understand that.
So the question next year will be: who is best to help New Zealand navigate these tough times.
Who can provide the security and certainty New Zealanders need to get through, with a plan, with confidence and with optimism.
The answer is Labour.
Because we have been here before.
Because we have the track record and the experience.
Because we can manage a crisis AND make progress.
Because we are not done yet.
And in 2023 we’re not asking for people to take a leap of faith. We’re asking them to look at our record.
That doesn’t mean considering Labour vs perfection. But Labour vs the opposition, which I would argue is quite some way off perfection.
And here’s our record, in a head to head
Despite the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression, the New Zealand economy is bigger now than before Covid – 4.8 percent bigger. That is because of good economic management.
It took nearly five years for National to increase the economy by that level after the GFC.
Wages are up 17 percent since 2019. It took National six years after the GFC to deliver that.
We’ve had record low unemployment in the past year, in facts it’s half of what it was at the GFC and that includes for Maori, for Pacifica and for women.
We’re on track to return to surplus faster.
Our debt is low, with the likes of Australia, the UK, the US and Canada carrying far more.
We have record high prices for our primary sector exports.
We’ve secured new trade agreements with the UK and the EU with more in negotiation.
Tourists and international students are returning, and they are spending.
And our underlying economic position is strong.
That is not by accident, but through thoughtful decision making and an eye on putting people and families at the centre of our recovery.
Here I do want to pay special tribute to Grant Robertson. He is an exceptional Minister of Finance, considered, intelligent and kind. He has taken us through a one in 100 year crisis – managing the books well all the while putting people first in our economy.
Overseeing an upgrade in our infrastructure, in our services, and in our global credit ratings.
The rating agencies see him as an experienced, safe pair of hands, and there is no one I trust more to keep delivering financial security and stability for our economy and for New Zealand families.
If there was one thing Covid taught us, and it schooled us in many ways, it was the need to be nimble. To keep an eye on the horizon and be willing to act when we need to.
Front and centre right now, we have the extraordinary challenges of a cost of living crisis, global in origin but affecting many Kiwis.
We worked quickly to develop a suite of cost of living measures to support Kiwis struggling with rising costs. We introduced the cost of living payment for middle and low income earners, cut fuel excise by 25 cents a litre, halved the price of public transport, and increased Working for Families.
It’s a crisis that is still with the world and so with us too, and clearly more is needed.
Right now, the load for families across New Zealand is a heavy one, and while there are many pressures, we know childcare is the biggest in-work expense for families.
Traditionally, this has been an area where families have had some support. But over a decade ago, during the GFC, the National Government cut childcare assistance so severely, that the number of children supported plummeted by half, from over 50,000 in 2010 to fewer than 25,000 this year.
Conservative estimates show it is New Zealand women in particular who cannot afford to work if they want to – because of childcare costs – and they are forgoing $116 million or more in wages each and every year.
This barrier to work exacerbates a workforce shortage, but more than that, it removes the ability for many New Zealand families to choose what’s best for them.
Why did National take away this choice in 2010?
Only they can answer that.
But I would just note that it was the same year they last cut the top tax rate.
It was a massively short-sighted decision.
Over the next 10 years parents, usually women, were increasingly forced into an economic dilemma.
I want families to have choices. I want them to stay home and be a primary care giver if they choose to. Or work, if they choose to. But increasingly those choices have been removed. And if you are a sole parent, you have even fewer.
We have tried to restore those choices. We extended Paid Parental Leave, brought in the Best Start Payment, restored the Training Incentive Allowance and made changes to the In Work Tax Credit.
Last year we also took the first step of matching income thresholds for the childcare subsidy back to wage growth – ensuring more families didn’t lose out
But more is needed.
Today I can announce that the Labour Government will significantly expand childcare assistance to New Zealand families.
From April we will lift the household income thresholds on our Childcare Assistance subsidies for those with children under 5 in early childhood education, and aged 5 to 13 at an approved before or after school and holiday programme.
Our changes will mean 54 per cent of all New Zealand families with children will now be eligible for subsidised childcare assistance.
Over 10,000 additional children will become eligible for support.
And nearly every sole parent in New Zealand will be eligible for childcare assistance
To give you an example of what this will mean, a family with two parents both working 40 hours per week on $26 per hour with two children under five, who would not have been eligible for childcare assistance previously, will now be eligible for $252 per week.
These changes are on top of the 20 hours of early childcare education provided by the Government for those aged 3 to 5 and are a pre-Budget commitment that will take effect from April next year, at a cost of $48 million a year.
Thousands more children supported into early learning.
Thousands more parents able to enter the workforce.
But perhaps most importantly – thousands of parents given back the choice to do what’s best for their families.
Today I can also share that next year, for the second year in a row, there will be a significant boost to Working For Families payments.
From April 2023, the Family Tax Credit will increase by another $9 a week for the eldest child to $136 a week, and by $7 a week for subsequent children to $111 a week. Best Start too will lift by $4 a week to $69 a week.
Along with previous increases to the Family Tax Credit, a family with two children on a median family income for Working for Families recipients are now receiving over $1300 more a year since we took office.
That climbs to over $3600 for families receiving the Best Start payment.
This kind of targeted support not only reaches those who need it most, it is support we can afford that unlike across the board tax cuts, won’t have a significant impact on inflation and make the problem worse.
You will have heard it said endlessly over the last three years, that it’s been a tough time. And it has. Undeniably.
Sometimes people ask me at a more personal level, how I keep going.
Two reasons. Because of a powerful intervention otherwise known as endless cups of tea.
And because I am an optimist.
We have an amazing country. With incredible people.
And we owe it to those people to keep up our unrelenting focus on what matters most to them.
The dignity of decent work.
The best possible start for kids.
Health and education that people can rely on.
And a well-cared for environment.
And while I cannot tell you what might come our way next, because those are predictions I have learnt to stay well away from, I can tell you that Labour is the party who can tackle it head on, and make the progress we need and deserve as a nation.
I’m here for that.
You’re here for that.
So bring it on.