Speech – United Future NZ Party
It is a pleasure to be here to speak to you in the midst of the Rugby World Cup, in an atmosphere of optimism and anticipation – and I say that rather boldly given that I wrote this speech before the weekend’s All Blacks’ quarterfinal against … Hon Peter Dunne
Leader of UnitedFuture
Leader’s Address to the Rotary Club of Auckland
Stamford Plaza Hotel, Auckland
12.15pm, Monday 10 October 2011
It is a pleasure to be here to speak to you in the midst of the Rugby World Cup, in an atmosphere of optimism and anticipation – and I say that rather boldly given that I wrote this speech before the weekend’s All Blacks’ quarterfinal against Argentina!
We are also – as you would be well aware – about to enter a short, sharp and no doubt frantic election campaign, beginning, one would hope, the day after Richie McCaw hoists the Webb Ellis Cup.
We can only but dream!
At a more prosaic level, occasions such as this one today are important events in the lead-up to an election.
They are about the contest of ideas and philosophies and alternative views on how best to drive New Zealand forward.
That is what politics should be!
It is important that you hear – and that New Zealanders generally hear – from a broad cross-section of political parties in the lead-up to this pivotal election.
It is pivotal, not because the outcome seems to be in much doubt – in fact, a John Key-led government would be a far greater certainty than an All Black World Cup win – but because it is not yet clear exactly what direction a government will take over the next three years.
Labour continues to implode, so this election is about the ‘tone’ of the next John Key-led government.
That ‘tone’ will be shaped by which party or parties enter into support arrangements with National, from which they can then influence it.
In that, the choices for voters are clear and distinct:
To the far right, pulled, driven and coerced by Act?
Or to a destabilising activism with a Maori Party desperately trying to hold off the Mana Party?
Or to the centre – where New Zealanders’ hearts really are – moderated and guided by UnitedFuture?
Last time I spoke of potential support partners for National I strongly criticised Don Brash for his race-baiting politics, and I do not back away from a word I said.
Damaging this nation’s social fabric by scare-mongering for political gain – and with no regard for fact – is disgraceful.
The fact that Act is saying very little on race issues now is no indicator of a change of thinking; it is simply because New Zealanders, to their credit, did not bite.
Race politics, thankfully, did not work.
Maybe it was a coming of age in this country, but for once a politician out to score easy race-based points was rebuffed.
And so he moved on to dope.
How’s that worked for you, Don?
Another red herring.
Another desperate – if misguided – grab for a populist issue.
And again, the people say no.
Act needs to stick to its knitting, which is economic policy.
Unfortunately for this far right party, however – as Don Brash’s forays into race and pot demonstrate most clearly – they know that they do not have a vote-winning prescription on the economic front.
Far from wanting Act’s brutal cures for the economy, New Zealanders run a mile from their harshness and extremism.
As I wrote this speech, however, there were rumours abounding about Act.
Late last week the scuttle-butt was that Don Brash was going to be Don Brashed by the future member for Epsom.
The only thing guaranteed with Act is their right-wing policies, which New Zealanders have shown they do not want slipped into their government by stealth.
Now I could come here today and talk at length about why New Zealanders do not want Act or the Maori Party pushing National in extreme directions over the next three years, but more positively I want to outline for you some of the reasons why UnitedFuture is the right support partner for the next government.
In 2002, a considerable number of National voters backed UnitedFuture when it became obvious that National was sunk, and the real choice became what ‘tone’ or type of Labour government would be acceptable to them.
Did they want a government driven ridiculously and relentlessly to the left by the Greens, or one buffeted by the quixotic whims of Winston Peters, or one held firmly to the centre by a party such as UnitedFuture which could assure a strong and centrist direction?
They gave us a strong hand and in return we helped give New Zealanders stable government, and we made sure that the government was not beholden to the far left drives of the Greens.
In 2011, we have in many respects the mirror image of that election.
As I say, National is clearly in the driver’s seat to lead the next government.
So again the issue is ‘tone’.
What kind of National-led government do you want, and in what directions to you want it to be guided?
So I am sure, now, the ‘why us, why UnitedFuture’ is becoming clearer.
Ours is a policy mix of ‘head and heart’.
We have quite deliberately developed policies that make the numbers work and face up to fiscal realities and necessities, while at the same time recognising policy affects real flesh and blood people and families living real lives.
It cannot be brutal prescriptions – something which someone should tell Act!
New Zealand, of all countries, can count the cost of the social damage wrought by unbridled hard-core policies of the 1980s.
The medicine is often worse than the illness it seeks to cure.
UnitedFuture is going into this election with two words emblazoned on everything we offer – fairness and choice.
Our focus is always on giving people choices about how they live their lives, rather than seeking to make those decisions for them, however well-meaning that intent might be.
We steer clear of dogma and ideology, and simply ask, ‘does it work?’
‘Is it fair?’
Run that rule over things and ask those questions and life gets a lot simpler and, I would argue, better.
In a world where so many of life’s choices are constrained, it is vital in a liberal democracy such as ours to allow people to decide as many things as they can for their own lives.
So let me run some of our policies by you today and I simply ask you to be the judge about whether they offer fairness and choice.
Income Sharing is one of our key polices and it is already half way through the parliamentary process through our confidence and supply agreement with National in this current term of Parliament.
What would Income Sharing do for New Zealand families?
Well, it would give 310,000 couples with children – that is about two thirds of all families and around three quarters of all children – a boost in their household incomes of up to $9,000 a year.
Income Sharing would allow couples with children to combine their income and split it down the middle for tax purposes, giving them more flexibility and the opportunity to spend more time raising their children.
The concept is already well-established among business partners – all we want is for families to have that same opportunity.
It is about fairness and choice.
Let us also put Income Sharing in New Zealand’s context today and the issues middle New Zealand families face.
Working for Families traps tens of thousands of families in a complicated money-go-round of taxes and tax credits.
You work harder; you earn more money, and what happens?
Working for Families tax credits are whipped out from underneath you.
You cannot get ahead – and you are often no better off than those whom your taxes prop up
If you are poor, you get helped.
Fair enough – Kiwis don’t want people struggling to live.
If you are rich, you don’t need it.
But in the middle, families struggle to get ahead.
Income Sharing is simple and helps families actually get ahead – and every polling indication shows they want this choice.
Families should not be knocked down financially for choosing to have one parent spend more time raising the children that society keeps telling them it wants raised well.
We have recently launched other policies, including on that hoary old chestnut superannuation.
Our process for policy is simple.
We drop the ideology and look at an issue with fresh eyes, and I believe that has allowed UnitedFuture to give the most innovative option of any political party on Super going into this election.
We say older Kiwis should be able to choose to take their Super at a reduced rate from the age of 60, or at an increasing rate each year up to the age of 70, if they delay taking it up.
It is sustainable and it is cost-neutral with what we do today at 65, and it gives people choice over how they live their lives.
We keep reading that the issue on superannuation is 65 or 67.
It is not.
Once we develop KiwiSaver as a compulsory scheme – as it should be – the 65 or 67 argument becomes redundant.
At that point the sustainability issue is solved, and it is in that context that New Zealanders can be offered a far more innovative choice about when they retire and how they wish to financially structure their later years.
Many may choose to retire later than 65, while some may choose to do so earlier.
But at last it will be a real choice.
Another UnitedFuture policy is to have free annual health checks for everyone over 65 and a $50 a month subsidy for senior citizens on their power bills for the three coldest months of each year – June, July and August.
We call those our Warrant of Fitness and Winter Warmer policies.
I can see some of you thinking already what is this man saying?
These are tough times and you are giving us more high cost policies?
Well, actually, it does make sense.
Both these policies stack up socially in terms of having a decent society and economically.
If every senior citizen in the country took up their free health check next year, it would cost the government $14.5 million.
If every senior citizen in the country took the full $50 a month subsidy on their power bill next year for June and July and August, the government would be up for $57 million.
Add the two policies and you are up to about $71.5 million
Now, what do you think is the average cost for the increased number of people – and in large part, the elderly – going to hospital each winter?
I will tell you.
The increased cost of winter hospitalisations each year is about $243 million.
Now pit that $243 million – which mounts up fast when it costs about $880 to treat one person for one day in hospital – pit that against $71 million for a doctor’s visit to get things early and a warmer house to keep them out of hospital.
Again, UnitedFuture policy is about pragmatism over ideology.
We just ask, does it work?
Does it make sense?
We also want to take this same pragmatic mind-set to the issues around student loans and allowances.
We want to revolutionise the student loan and allowance system to reduce both the immediate cost of tertiary education for students, and their longer-term indebtedness.
Most of you in this room today will have kids or grandkids, perhaps with student loans like an albatross around their necks.
I think we all have an interest in seeing if we can develop a way that allows young New Zealanders to get an education and the skills they need to build their lives and our nation, without being financially burdened for years to come.
We would abolish student fees and pay for them substantially through the funds we now allocate to student allowances, which would also be done away with.
Students would be able to borrow, but for living costs only, up to today’s maximum of $170 per week.
Such a policy would reduce the maximum debt for a first degree to just over $20,000, and the debt of degrees like medicine and engineering to just over $40,000 – figures vastly below current debt levels.
We need to do something about our young people stepping into life, earning their first pay packet, with huge debts already to their names.
It is debilitating and demoralising and it is just not fair.
That is not how someone’s working life should begin.
It impacts on too many life choices and decisions for young graduates.
Carrying huge debt makes them more likely not just to do their OE, but to effectively become ‘economic refugees’ overseas; and has a potential impact on ongoing life choices such as when it is viable for them to have children, or perhaps buy their first homes.
Student debt is not just financial; it is a burden with huge personal and social implications.
Again, our policies are about reflecting on what is needed by normal people to make their lives better in New Zealand, while maintaining an economically responsible approach.
They are consistent with our goal of making New Zealand the best place in the world in which to live and raise a family, and to re-establish the Kiwi dream.
An important part of that dream is the privilege New Zealanders have to enjoy one of the most pristine and impressive natural environments in the world.
Preserving public access to our mountains, forests, lakes and rivers is a high priority for UnitedFuture, and we make no apology for that.
We want to ensure our natural environment is preserved for the use and enjoyment of current and future generations who want to tramp, hunt or fish, or who just like the idea that our mountains, forests, lakes and rivers are there for all of us, and not locked away by those who view human beings as some sort of pest.
Generally, New Zealand needs to start rethinking some of the ways we do things, and take a longer term view.
One issue that New Zealanders will probably more closely assess before November 26 is National’s policy of asset sales.
They have sold it fairly well to date – or more to the point, they have not scared the horses!
People have not thrown their arms up in horror, despite the best efforts of a woeful and desperate Labour Party.
Given that it is a key policy plank for National and will effectively be part and parcel of voting them back in, it is not unreasonable to assume that this country will get a level of asset sales in the next term.
So the question is, where do we go with that?
Part of UnitedFuture’s role as a support partner is not just to contribute our own policies to the governing mix, but to moderate and to keep a government to a reasonable, centrist path.
If New Zealanders vote National back in with a manifesto that includes asset sales, then we say that there need to be some clearer limits on those sales.
New Zealanders, I believe, are not definitively pro-asset sales, but under certain conditions, it is no longer the bogeyman issue that Labour would have you believe.
The polls certainly suggest that to be the case.
So if asset sales are on the way, what boundaries should we have in place around them?
To this point there has not been a proper national debate beyond National saying yes and Labour saying no.
UnitedFuture says that we need to start – and we will push for this – with three no-go areas; three areas where we would seek commitment that there would be no asset sales, not now, not ever:
Radio New Zealand
The supply of water.
We put forward these three for very different, yet similar, reasons.
Kiwibank is in every sense now a national institution.
Kiwis have taken it to their hearts, even if they do not bank with it!
And in a market full of Australian-owned banks, and an increasingly fraught and troubled globe, there is more than sentimental value at stake here.
Kiwibank is a symbolic and practical statement of our economic sovereignty, and it is collectively ours pure and simple.
It must stay that way.
Second, is Radio New Zealand: again there are heart-string reasons and practical ones.
In an increasingly commercial media marketplace, it is more important than ever to have a voice that does not bend to the dollar, to ratings, to external forces.
Every nation needs its own voice and we need to afford that voice our collective protection.
Too often Institutions like Radio New Zealand are only really appreciated after they are lost.
Thirdly, and one that I feel particularly deeply about, is water.
I do not intend to wait until it is on the asset sales agenda.
I do not believe New Zealanders would ever – or should ever – accept a sell-off of the supply of the water, or any of the aspects around it.
Let no one claim for any price what is ours as of right.
There does not need to be a fuss about this.
There just needs to be a blanket and clear undertaking that this will never be on the agenda.
So in summary, today I have shown you some of the agenda, the thinking, the values and the policies that UnitedFuture will contribute to moderating and ‘centering’ the next government.
It is neither extortionate nor extraordinary. It is neither a wish-list nor unreasonable.
It is all doable, sensible, smart and achievable.
It is a policy mix that middle New Zealand can own and identify with – and most importantly of all, it serves and protects the interests of New Zealand families.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am in politics and why UnitedFuture exists, and why we will be the most worthwhile support party for the next government.