Grant Robertson: Speech to the Labour Party Congress 2023

Welcome to sunny and calm Wellington, which I know those of you who are visiting would of course expect to be the case.

It’s been a busy week since we put forward the 2023 Budget. Labour MPs have been out across the motu giving the good oil on the Budget. 

The Maori Caucus have travelled far and wide together and have managed to get all the way through without leaving Willie behind anywhere, despite their best efforts to do so. 

Our Pasifika Caucus have also been out working hard not only selling the Budget, but also acting as protectors to Aupito as his “Cook Island girlfriends” (their words not mine) have said their fond farewells.

Our whole Caucus has been out and about pushing a Budget that I was proud to present. A Budget that is supporting Kiwis as they get through tough times, but one that also looks ahead to a better tomorrow.  One that supports the recovery from the cyclone, while ensuring we do our bit to bring inflation down.

Now, other politicians have been busy as well. National MPs have been hunched over ChatGPT looking for their next attack ad.  But it’s not just the ads - it seems AI is now creating their policy and their people too.

A lot of us have felt that there was something just a bit off with Chris Luxon and his National Party. A bit out of touch, something not quite ringing true. Well at least now we know why.

Every bad idea the National Party has ever had has been fed into Chat GPT, and it has spat out their leader. Captain Cliché himself. I haven’t checked to see if he has six fingers on one hand, but I know he only has one policy on the other.

Cuts. Tax cuts. Cuts to services. Cutting back on the progress we have made as a country.

Now all of this would be hilarious, if it did not matter so much. We all know that this will be a tight election. Every vote is going to count. And ultimately it will be a choice between carrying on the job we have started of giving every Kiwi opportunity and hope, or government by the Coalition of Cuts. 

They are like the most rubbish Marvel comic ever - Chris Luxon as Captain Cliché and his sidekick David Seymour as Reverse Robin Hood. Stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

And make no mistake, if there is a National/ACT government David Seymour wants to play a big role. When Chris Hipkins said in Parliament last week that David Seymour would be the Finance Minister in any Coalition, he gave us all the thumbs up.

And we know what that means. That means cuts. The Winter Energy Payment, cut. Contributions to the Super Fund, cut. And tax cuts that favour the wealthy, and increase tax on the lowest earning New Zealanders.

And so delegates that is what we are up against, and that is what we need to protect New Zealanders from.

There were a number of special things about this Budget, but one of the most special was that it was the first Budget of the Chris Hipkins Government.

As someone who has been around politics for a while now, I know that change – like the kind we experienced when Jacinda made her brave and principled decision to step down – can really throw a government out of step.

But I hope you will agree with me that our Labour team have not missed a beat. 

It’s a testament - Chris, Carmel and Kelvin - to your leadership and the stability that you have brought. Our team has come together with a clear focus in challenging economic times on what will really make a difference to peoples’ lives.

Putting a Budget together didn’t get any easier sixth time around in the world we are living in. And I’ve had a few different backdrops to mine.

Before COVID we’ve run surpluses and paid down debt to get our finances stronger while all around us people were calling on us to spend more or give tax cuts.

We used that strong position to protect lives and livelihoods in the face of a global pandemic and 1-in-100 year economic shock.

Pandemics, volcanic eruptions, cyclones - it’s been quite a five-and-a-half years.

But I don’t think there has been as complex a backdrop to any of my previous Budgets compared to what we face in 2023.

Spiking global inflation fuelled by the war in Ukraine and supply chain disruptions lingering from COVID.

An increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment, including in our own neighbourhood of the Pacific.

Higher domestic inflation in New Zealand, which, while not as high as many in the rest of the world, has led to a cost of living crisis for many Kiwi families.

And then add on top of all that earlier this year, we had New Zealand’s second-biggest natural disaster in terms of damage and cost with the Auckland Anniversary Weekend Floods and Cyclone Gabrielle.

I want to say to those communities across Northland, Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Tairawhiti, Thames-Coromandel, Waikato and Tararua districts that we are with you for the long haul. We will back you to recover and rebuild.

Before the Budget we had committed around $890 million of emergency support. In the Budget there is nearly $1 billion more to recover and rebuild. Its for the likes of mental health support, silt removal, flood protection, rebuilding roads and bridges, business support and much more. We are doing this in partnership with communities and sectors, with iwi and councils. 

This is what a caring government does. But it does not happen automatically. There are choices, and those choices mean that there are other things that can’t be done. But this is the right thing to do and we stand with the regions as we rebuild together.

Delegates, throughout the months leading up to the Budget, we were also able to keep our eye on the ball of other issues facing New Zealanders, like the Cost of Living.

On April 1, at the same time as we lifted the minimum wage, we lifted rates of Superannuation, Working for Families credits, student allowances and Main Benefits to cover more-than-7 percent inflation. We could do this because of the careful management of the Government’s books – and we set aside money early in the Budget process to ensure we could meet these needs.

I will never apologise for our focus on boosting the prospects of the lowest income New Zealanders. It is about dignity, it’s about hope and it’s about opportunity. What it’s not about is calling people ‘bottom feeders’ as Chris Luxon would do.

When it comes to easing the cost of living, I’m really proud of the support we were able to provide New Zealanders in this year’s Budget.

We knew how important it was to people who work hard each day that we did our bit to bring inflation down. We made sure that we targeted our investments in this Budget so they eased pressure, but not in an inflationary way that unfunded tax cuts would.

At the same time we wanted those investments to have other benefits as well.  This is the Wellbeing Approach. Finding evidence-based policies that have long term intergenerational benefits.

So it is with the extension of the 20 hours ECE policy to two year olds. This is going to save families $133 a week from costs they would already have. At the same time, it contributes to support children through the first 1,000 days - the critical time in their development. And beyond that it supports businesses by allowing parents to enter or come back into the workforce.

And so it is with the scrapping of the $5 prescription charge. Like you I am sure, I have had loads of people talking to me about this policy. I think of the gentleman in Dunedin on Thursday who said his mother cried when she realised that the four or five prescriptions a month that she needs will be free. And the local pharmacists who play such an important role in our community who say this has saved their small business. Not to mention the costs to the health system saved from people who will not now need to go to ED or hospital.

This is what a Wellbeing Budget is about. And therefore it’s probably no surprise that the first reaction from National is to say they will put the charge back on. Apparently access to medicines is “a nice to have”. That’s out of touch and that’s the kind of cut people will really feel.

And then there is free public transport for kids and half price for the under 25s. A young woman from the Hutt Valley told me about the bus she catches to the train, and the train to town and sometimes the bus to her campus to study, and she said thank you for making things a bit easier. And it’s a policy that helps us meet our climate goals.

There is much to be proud of in the Budget to support people to get through this tough time.

It is always a balancing act getting it right in the Budget. This was a Budget for the times that it was delivered in. 

We focused on playing our part in bringing inflation down. We are reducing our spending as a percentage of GDP, our debt stays lower than most countries we compare ourselves with, including our mates across the ditch, and we get back to surplus inside the forecast Budget period. These are all important and necessary parts of looking after future generations.

At the same time, we have invested in our public services - with more funding for health, education and housing. One example of this is that the Budget funds another three thousand state or public houses. 

Do you know delegates, that one in every seven state houses in the country has been built since we came into government in 2017. That says something since we have been building state houses since 1937. We have added more than 11,000. There are another 4,500 under construction right now. We all know that there is a long way to come back from the days of the National Party selling off state houses, but I am so proud of our work here.

This Budget also looks ahead. Because no matter how much we have to deal with in the here and now, it is also our job to build a better tomorrow. 

That’s why we are making historic investments in our infrastructure - roads, rail, housing, schools and hospitals.

It’s why we are investing nearly half a billion dollars in our scientists and innovators;

It’s why we have funded Te Matatini and Matariki to celebrate the country we are, and the country we want to be.

It’s why we are backing the game development sector, and why we are boosting apprenticeships. 

It’s why we are establishing an EV charging network across the country and investing in community energy resilience.

As we look to earn the right for another term in government, we are focused on an economic plan for a high wage, low emissions economy that gives economic security to all.

Budget 2023 has set us on that path.

Would I have liked to go further in some areas? In a perfect world, yes, of course. But given everything we were facing, here and around the world, this Budget needed to do what it could to provide support for New Zealanders today while building for a better tomorrow. 

And all of that, and all that we need to do for New Zealand, is at risk if there is a change of government. Because let me be clear, funding public services well is a choice. And New Zealanders have borne the brunt of governments who have made the choice to prioritise things like tax cuts over investing in our public services. We must not, and we will not, let that happen again.

Delegates, putting this Budget together was different than the last five for a reason other than the economic circumstances. It was the first Budget for Chris as PM. 

Now, Jacinda and Chippy are both my friends, so I need to be a bit careful here. Suffice to say there was a lot more Sugar Free Coke and sausage rolls around this time. And unlike Jacinda I was genuinely scared of any fashion tips that Chippy might suggest for Budget Day.

In all seriousness, when Chippy became PM, he was clear that we were doing too much, too fast for the times we are in, and against the global backdrop we face.

We were able to use the reprioritisation process he led to refocus spending to where it is needed most, particularly helping Kiwis with the cost of living.

His focus and his drive not only supported my efforts with colleagues to reprioritise and find savings, but it influenced the smaller things too.

Now, I have known Chippy for about 25 years.

And so when I saw headlines pop up on my phone of him talking about a ‘no frills’ budget, I just assumed he’d been asked about his own clothes shopping habits.

In one of his first meetings as PM up on the ninth floor we started hearing a sizzling sound – he jumped up and ran out the door to save a tinned spaghetti toastie.

Tinned spaghetti isn’t a video prop for this PM; it’s a way of life. Just like the hoodie and trackies- though we are trying to help him out with that!

With Chippy you get what you see.

No, he isn’t flashy.

He is a real person.

He’s a great Dad.

A good Hutt boy.

He is genuine.

I see up close just how much he cares about this country. He cares about its people and their success.

And that is why he is doing a great job as Prime Minister and that’s why he will lead us to a win in October.

Delegates, I believe there has rarely been so stark a choice between a focussed, progressive Labour Party and a coalition determined to drag us backwards as there will be this election.

We need your support and dedication to make sure that we can keep on working for New Zealanders.

Every door knock will count. Every phone call will matter. Getting voters out will be the difference.

We need your support to make sure we can keep building a New Zealand we can be even more proud of.

I know that times are tough right now for many New Zealanders. And you’ll see through the Budget that we are doing what we can, when we can to take that pressure off.

We are starting to see things turn.

  • News this week that the interest rate increases are set to stop will be welcome news for Kiwi homeowners.
  • Inflation has peaked and is coming back down.
  • Our employment rate remains one of the highest in the world as businesses keep hold of staff; and our unemployment is near a record low as we face a challenging year.

And now we can look to a future where we lift again our action on climate change. You can see what we can do with the announcement last week to support NZ Steel to cut their emissions in half. Investing to reduce emissions, investing to create high-wage jobs.

Backed by an education policy that is investing in apprentices, in boosting maths and literacy skills and building new classrooms.

Backed by investments in our health system to reduce waiting times, to pay our nurses and doctors more and grow the workforce.

Backed by a Justice policy that focusses on early intervention in youth offending to break the cycle, while also boosting frontline Police numbers so Kiwis can be safer.

Backed by Infrastructure investment that isn’t just BAU, but focussed on making our country and economy more resilient against extreme weather.

We are starting to see what happens if we keep investing in the things that matter:

  • 200,000+ more apprentices and trade trainees
  • 20 percent more nurses
  • 77,000 kids out of poverty
  • Nearly 1,800 more Police and
  • 11,000 more state houses.

None of this happens by accident. It happens because of the choices made by the Government of the day to prioritise what matters most to New Zealanders.

A Labour Government.

And with your support, your commitment, your mahi we can keep doing the job for New Zealand.

Kia kaha Labour whanau- we’ve got this.

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