E ngā mana
e ngā reo
Ngāti whātua ngā mana whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau,
e tika te kōrero
Ehara taku toa he toa (taki tahi)
he toa (taki tini)
No rēira tātou e huihui mai nei,
ka ‘Hoake tonu tātou’
Thank you for that welcome.
And thank you for being here.
What an amazing privilege it is to see you all gathered in one place today.
Thank you for all your work over these last few months, which has made this gathering possible. In a COVID world, our team of 5 million has been a steady ship and I am so grateful for that.
It’s hard to believe that we were here, in this town hall just three years ago, launching our 2017 campaign.
If you had told me then that our launch in 2020 would be in the midst of a global pandemic with our borders closed – I would have found that very hard to fathom.
If you’d told me that Clarke and I would have a toddler, I wouldn’t have believed we would have been so lucky.
And if you’d told me that we would have just completed a term in Government with both New Zealand First and the Greens, I’d assume you’d been watching excessive amounts of “Stranger Things” on Netflix.
And yet here we are.
It was perhaps fitting then, that three years ago as I finished speaking with you at our campaign launch, we all left this space with a joyous song of optimism by Tim Finn playing in the background.
It was called “Couldn’t Be Done”
And there were plenty who thought it couldn’t. And plenty of others who just hoped it couldn’t. And while I won’t name names, Mike Hosking, I will say this. When we stood here three ago, it wasn’t about winning for the sake of it. It wasn’t about being better than anyone else. It wasn’t about proving people wrong.
It was about change.
It was about change because after nine years there was a realisation that some really important things had been neglected, and that doing things differently wasn’t only possible, it was necessary.
John Key and Bill English, they were good managers of our economy. And I want to thank them for that. They helped New Zealand through the GFC and they paid down debt.
But after nine years of a singular focus on GDP and surplus, the actual result was too many families sleeping in cars, too many New Zealanders suffering from poor mental health and too many of our waterways polluted.
I maintain the point I have often made through this term, economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success at all. It is failure.
And so, on the 26th of October 2017 as our government was sworn in, we set out to change that.
I remember the day of our swearing in really well.
It started with a text from my mother. She was in London with my sister who was expecting a baby, and that morning my nephew arrived. As John Campbell said, it was a big day in the Ardern household.
I did an interview with John that day as I drove to Government House to be sworn in as Prime Minister.
I never listened back to that interview, until yesterday. Two things stood out to me. The first, was that every time John asked me how far we were in our journey, rather than opt for street names I used well known landmarks, namely Subway and KFC.
And secondly, it struck me that my belief in what we needed to do as a government and why, had not changed.
When John Campbell asked “what is it you want to do?” I replied:
“I want this Government to feel different. I want it to feel like we are…. truly focused on every body.
I want people to feel that it’s open that it’s listening and that it’s going to bring kindness back in everything that we do……I know that will sound curious, but to me if people see that they have an empathetic government, I think they’ll truly understand that when we’re making hard calls that we’re doing it with the right goal, and the right focus in mind… that’s the feeling I want this government to create.”
We have made big decisions, we have made hard decisions. But ultimately we have made progress.
Now I’m very conscious that if I run through every single one of the things we have done, I risk losing my audience. And that’s saying something when half of your audience are enthusiastically holding up Labour signs.
So let’s just run through the things that when we stood here three years ago, we wanted to change.
We said we wanted to build a country where children grow up free from poverty.
And so in our first 100 days we brought in the families package. It boosted the incomes of some 384,000 families. It included the Best Start Payment, the first time New Zealand had a universal payment for kids since the 1990s.
We introduced the Winter Energy Payment, with over a million New Zealanders no longer having to make the decision between a warm home and food on the table.
We indexed benefits to wages, and lifted them by $25 week.
We increased school funding so parents don’t have to pay school donations, scrapped NCEA fees, and are rolling out lunches in schools and period products too.
We extended paid parental leave to 26 weeks.
And we increased the minimum wage from $15.75 to $18.90, which means an extra $126 a week for a full time worker.
But for all of that, there is more to do.
We said that shelter was a basic right, and that we wanted everyone to have a warm, dry home.
And so we created the healthy home guarantee, invested half a billion dollars to start retrofitting state houses, stopped foreign buyers purchasing residential housing, and gave tenants more security.
We brought more affordable housing to the market through KiwiBuild, launched the start of progressive home ownership scheme and a papakainga housing scheme, expanded the housing first programme and created 3900 public housing places.
In fact, we have undertaken the largest house building programme of any Government since the 1970s, with 18,000 state houses to be delivered by 2024.
And still there is more to do.
We said we wanted to rebuild health and education.
And so we made visits to the doctor cheaper for over half a million kiwis, increased nurses in schools, employed more doctors, nurses, midwives and mental health workers. And we began rebuilding our run down hospitals and health facilities.
We increased PHARMAC funding by over $400 million to buy more medicines for New Zealanders, including new cancer drugs. We set up the Cancer Control Agency and funded new radiation machines.
And we made the biggest investment in mental health ever seen in New Zealand with new, free, frontline services being rolled out around the country.
And yet still there is more to do.
We said we wanted to make our rivers swimmable again.
And so we worked with farmers and environmental groups on freshwater reforms and invested in riparian planting, fencing of waterways and sediment control.
We said climate change was my generation’s nuclear free moment.
And so we stopped new offshore oil and gas exploration, passed the Zero Carbon Act, established the Climate Commission, invested in our goal of 100% renewable electricity generation and reached an historic deal with farmers to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
And still there is more to do.
We trained more Te Reo teachers in our schools, invested in Kohanga Reo and Whanau Ora, and are making sure New Zealand history is taught in schools.
We ran budget surpluses, reduced net debt to below 20% of GDP, and got unemployment to the lowest rates in over a decade.
But still, there is more to do.
We haven’t always achieved everything we set out to, and there have been lessons for us in that.
In that same interview three years ago I was asked what I thought people wanted from our time in government. I said:
“I think we’ve got a big job to do to try and restore faith in politics and politicians, and I know politicians are desperate for that too….. I think it’s about really just following through, and when we fail, when we haven’t been able to reach our goal, telling people why….that’s what people expect of us.”
Despite the many things we have done, we haven’t always reached every goal.
We wanted more homes for first home buyers. We wanted light rail in Auckland. But we’ve had to accept that sometimes when you try things that have never been done before, you won’t always succeed, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.
There have been other lessons too. Some were unexpected, and some were devastating.
I remember vividly the moment I received a phone call telling me that there had been a shooting in Christchurch on March 15 last year.
I was in a van driving to visit a new environment school in New Plymouth. Much has been said about that afternoon, the terror that was rained down on our Muslim community, and what it represented for us as a nation. It will forever be etched into our collective memories.
But so too will the response.
Whether it was March 15, or Whakaari White Island, or even COVID-19 - these three entirely different events that devastated in very different ways - they drew out a response from kiwis that was the same.
They drew out a sense of collective purpose, of determination, of kindness. They are all values we will need as we take on our next challenge – and our next challenge is huge.
Some have asked me whether this is the COVID election.
No one wants it to be.
We would all prefer the world to be free of the health and economic impact that this global pandemic has created.
I would rather not have had to close our borders. Or put in place the most severe restrictions on personal freedoms in our country’s history.
But it has been our new reality, and one that the team of 5 million have made work in the most extraordinary way.
We have now one of the most open economies in the world, and we have a head start on our recovery and rebuild, but our job is not done.
And so yes, there is no denying that COVID has changed New Zealand, and therefore it will inevitably change what we talk about this election.
And there is a lot to talk about.
There wasn’t a playbook for COVID-19. That means there was no pre-written plan for how a country should respond to a one in one hundred year global pandemic. But respond we did.
We went hard and we went early, used the wage subsidy to support 1.7 million workers through a lockdown and beyond, and put ourselves in the position to safely reopen our economy.
We have never wavered from the view that the best economic response was a strong health response. There are tough times ahead but the proof is in an economy up and running well before others.
And now that we’re here, we need to keep rolling out our five point plan to recover and rebuild.
Here’s what that entails for the next three if we are re-elected.
Firstly, we’re investing in people with extra income support, and opportunities to retrain through free apprenticeships and vocational training.
We’re creating jobs, through shovel-ready infrastructure projects like community pools and sports facilities, and investment in environmental projects that are a win-win for our people and the planet.
We’re making sure our investments are taking on our long term challenges by building more state houses, waste processing facilities and energy options that mean New Zealand can be powered by 100% renewable electricity, and all of the exciting opportunities that brings.
We’re supporting small business with interest free loans, R&D support, targeted tourism funding and tax refunds.
And we are retaining our place as a trading nation by providing practical support for our exporters, while also working hard to improve their access into new markets.
It’s a plan that is already in motion, and that is already making a difference and that with New Zealand’s support we want to keep delivering over the next three years.
While we know there is much ahead of us, this week’s unemployment rate of 4% shows the measures we have taken to date have cushioned the economic blow from COVID, and the investments we are making now are all designed to keep driving job growth.
But the support for those hardest hit won’t just be measured in statistics. I have a different metric. Letters.
As COVID hit, one of the things we did to support our people’s wellbeing was to extend our free lunches in schools programme. I got a letter from a child in one of the schools we had already rolled this initiative out to.
“I had a mate who never ate, and whenever I said, are you hungry she would always say nah I’m not hungry, but I knew she was. She was too ashamed to admit it.
“But then you started getting us free lunches and now she can eat and she is healthy. I am really happy now because I don’t have to worry about my friend”
COVID has undoubtedly created many friends for us to worry about, and we know there are tough times ahead.
Analysis by the Treasury shows that downturns impact our lowest paid and most insecure workers most.
And we also know that those without formal training qualifications, those over 50, disabled people, and Māori and Pasifika workers will disproportionately bear the brunt of economic downturns – they are often in industries where job losses are most common and are the last industries to recover.
Some call it economic scarring – the long lasting damage to individuals of an economic down turn. I call it the loss of potential, and the greatest of wastes, and I am determined it will not happen on Labour’s watch.
That’s why I’m announcing today, that if Labour is returned to government we will roll out a support package to assist businesses in employing up to 40,000 New Zealanders whose employment is impacted by COVID-19.
We are revamping and expanding our existing Flexi-Wage scheme - a wage subsidy to help employers hire those on a benefit who are at risk of long-term unemployment.
Under our proposal, we will double the value of the wage subsidy to an average of $7,500 and ensure that far more work and income clients, including those who may be on the COVID income support payment, are eligible for this scheme.
As part of this package I am also announcing we will be ring-fencing $30 million to provide grants to those who lose their job to start a new business of their own.
The intention is to support those New Zealanders most affected by the economic hit of the virus.
Our team of 5 million’s approach to fighting COVID means there is huge willingness in our business community to avoid unemployment rising by taking on new staff where they can, but many just need a little bit of extra support which this package provides.
Businesses large and small are crucial to our economic recovery, but they can’t do it alone. The Flexi-wage is a way for the Government to partner with the private sector to support job creation together.
It will act as a strong incentive to support those who have been hit the hardest by COVID, and provide additional support to businesses who might not otherwise be in the position to take someone on long-term.
And importantly, we know this is a programme we can scale up quickly that works.
An evaluation by MSD of the Flexi-wage scheme showed seventy per cent of people placed into work still had a job at the end of the evaluation period, and that $7 in value was generated by every dollar that was invested.
I want to be clear though. This is a targeted scheme.
It is aimed at supporting real jobs that have a real chance of lasting. It’s an investment in our people, their future, and it’s about working together.
Almost every day I talk to businesses – large and small. I know their contribution to the economy, the commitment they have to their staff, I understand the pressures they face. Government alone can’t do everything. Neither can business. But together we can.
But as with all investments, there is a price tag. This scheme represents an investment of $311 million.
Our cautious approach to future spending means we will be using the current underspend from the Wage Subsidy to pay for this programme, rather than drawing from the COVID Response Fund which we intend to preserve in case it’s needed to fight the virus again, or to reduce our level of debt.
Ultimately though, there is no costless response to COVID, but Grant Robertson’s excellent management of the books means we went into COVID with lower debt relative to GDP than almost any other OECD nation, and look to come out in a better position than Australia, the UK, Canada and the US.
Keeping debt low is important to us, and we’ve shown that. But that need not be at the expense of health and education, and it shouldn’t mean leaving people behind. And that is the difference between Labour and others.
And so, when people ask, is this a COVID election, my answer is yes, it is.
But that does not mean that there aren’t still choices to be made. It does not mean there aren’t ideas to be debated, or plans to be discussed, policies to be announced.
In fact, it’s the very reason why this is election is more important than ever.
It’s about the future. It’s about leadership and it’s about values.
It’s about whether we stop and change to another team, or whether we keep those we know and we trust.
It’s about whether we build a few roads, or whether we rebuild New Zealand.
It’s about whether we stop and start again, or whether we keep up the momentum we already have.
In the last three years the Labour government has dealt with a lot.
And we have learned a lot too.
We came in on a platform of change, and a commitment to tackle our long term challenges, and that is what we have done.
Fewer children live in poverty.
More homes are being built.
We’re closer to making our country clean, green and carbon neutral.
And when we had hard decisions to make, we have been strong, we have been empathetic, and we have been kind.
But there is much more to do.
Now, more than ever, is the time to keep going, to keep working.
To do more for our people and their wellbeing, for our small businesses, for our economy and our recovery.
To grab hold of the opportunities that lie in front of us.
So let’s keep going
Let’s keep rebuilding
Let’s keep moving!