Speech to UnitedFuture AGM 2016







It is good to be here at this year’s Annual General Meeting and there are a number of things I want to talk about this morning which are about issues that are contemporary, but also about issues that are important to UnitedFuture. They have an Auckland flavour because we are here in Auckland, but they are issues that apply nationally. And they are issues that we are starting to develop our positions on and starting to go out and advocate for, because they touch on matters that impact pretty much the life of every New Zealander.

The theme of this conference is “localism” which is a very important UnitedFuture theme. It is a very consistent internationally respected liberal democratic message about the power of local communities to make decisions that affect them; about the power of local communities to be involved at points closest to which decisions occur, which is a very timely discussion to be having as we are in the middle of a local body election campaign right now. UnitedFuture has this year made the conscious decision to contest local body elections in a way we have not done in the past. We have candidates running in the Auckland area. They will be introduced a little later on and we will talk more about that campaign. But it is a very good step forward for us as a Party to take our message out to local communities and to seek their support on that basis.

One of the things that is a critical issue in Auckland especially, and in New Zealand generally is housing and with the announcement during the week that the average price of a house in Auckland has now topped a million dollars for the first time, one could be forgiven for thinking that our own version of “who wants to be a millionaire” is being played out right in this city. But the issue is a much more complicated one than that. And UnitedFuture has been the only Party to try and put the housing situation into its proper context. There are a number of aspects to this issue. And the risk is we deal with each one in isolation and none in an overarching way. So, in no particular order it is very easy to blame the Auckland Council for not making more land available. It is very easy to blame the Reserve Bank for either being too restrictive in terms of its approach to the trading banks or too liberal in its approach to the availability of cash. It is very easy to talk about the “homeless” population. It is very easy to talk about there not being enough rental accommodation. But none of these things actually constitutes a solution. This week we had the farce in Parliament of the Opposition cleverly snookering the Government for a day or so over the Housing Bill and using it as an opportunity to put forward their own policy alternatives – none of which are ever going to be implemented. We estimated the cost of that extra day to the tax-payer was around $700,000. I will come back to that figure in a moment.

One of the things UnitedFuture believes is critical here, is to use all our capacities effectively to achieve a solution to the housing problem. And we have been consistently arguing therefore for a National Housing Summit where you bring together Local Government, Central Government, the banks, the builders and the social housing providers to make sure we can get a comprehensive solution across the board to develop a national strategy that can be applied in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, or wherever. And that we stop this ongoing game of a part solution here, a part solution there. More blame over here, more blame somewhere else. I spoke to the Mayor of Auckland over this during the week and he told me that there are 540,000 households in Auckland which would have benefited considerably in the last six years, from the increase in equity, from the growth of personal wealth because of the rise in property prices. And it is clear that the notion that we have to let the housing market crash or force prices down has many, many detrimental social effects, particularly to people who are starting to feel a little better about themselves. So what we say is that we need to have a strategy for building more homes. We are clearly short of a number of homes being built each year and frankly it is taking too long to build them. Nine to ten months on average to build a new home is far too long. One of the reasons for that length of time is the constricted ability of builders to get access to building materials. There is too much monopoly control of access to building materials. So there needs to be some freeing up there to make it easier for builders to get the materials they need to construct the homes that ought to be built. I get very angry every night when I watch television when I see the advertisements for the various building companies promising to build you the dream home you can afford and have always wished for. If we used their talents and skills to build affordable homes for New Zealanders, used their capability, used their technology, their expertise, we could make massive inroads into this problem. But we need to bring them to the table, to be part of the solution, which is why our housing summit idea is so important. The Governor of the Reserve Bank is putting restrictions on the amount of money that can be lent to various categories of people as a way of trying to control prices. At the same time I am hearing from constituents about how they cannot get the finance from their trading banks to buy fairly modest homes. There is a mismatch occurring here and we need to be able to break through that.

I said before the Parliamentary circus this week cost $700,000. We have done a costing based on a selected group of people of around 100 top housing experts from across the field being bought to Parliament for a day, being accommodated and transported and fed. And do you know what? We could run our National Housing Summit for about a third of the cost that Parliament wasted the other day playing silly political games. That $200,000 would be far better spent. It would produce some outcomes which would then become the basis for Government policy for the future. So we are committed to pushing that idea. We want the Government involved, because it needs to give the leadership. We want the local councils involved because they are part of the solution. We want the banks to be involved. We need the builders involved and we need the social housing providers involved. Because every aspect of this problem contributes to the solution, no one aspect of itself is the answer. And the mistake we are making at the moment is saying “oh look, we are building new houses here, or we are doing more of that over here”, but it is totally disconnected. And the problem is simply getting worse.

Now that leads onto another issue pretty consistent with our “localism” theme. At the moment there is a strong push for greater collaboration between local authorities. In many cases there are good arguments for their coming together but we say that those decisions need to be made by local people. At the moment, the Local Government legislation is being amended. It has a provision in it that says that there is greater scope for Council Controlled Companies to serve a range of Council districts. It sounds very good in theory, but when you at the detail, what actually happens is that the Local Government Commission will direct Councils to establish Council Controlled Companies and having so directed them, there is no capability for local councils or local people to change that decision. And that is why the mayors and many councillors up and down the country at the moment are up in arms about the provision. We are working with the Local Government New Zealand organisation and a number of the mayors to try and get a more reasonable position. I have written in the last couple of days to the Minister of Local Government setting out our concerns and setting out the fact that we think that while the principle might be sound enough, the reform has to ensure the decisions remain ones that will be made by local people and not imposed upon them by the Local Government Commission. Because again, if we come back to the theme we are talking about where local people are being empowered and trusted, you do not want to go down the path of simply saying, well we will decide it all for you. So that is an important issue as well.

Now in Auckland there has been another issue arise in recent months which has local implications but national ramifications. It is to do with the Gold Card and the fact that people in Auckland needed to get what was called a ‘hop-card’ to access the transport provisions. This is because the Gold Card which is a good concept is actually very amateur in its design. And what we want to have, and we are calling it Super-Me, is a national card for all Gold Card recipients across the country which gives them access in Auckland or Christchurch or Dunedin, or wherever, to the transport concessions that are available. At the moment it differs from city to city, place to place. That is chaotic and absurd. And Super-Me is a parallel to our Real-Me Government verification system anyway which is getting widespread uptake and which as the Minister responsible I am very pleased to see. So Super Me will be a concept that we will develop further over the next few months and promote to the public of New Zealand.

Let me just remind you of some of the things we have been saying over the recent weeks as we have been starting to put together the markers for the election policy for next year. The first thing I should say is that our policy, while it will be as thorough as it was at the last election, where we had a 90 something page manifesto, bigger than any other Party, we are not going to campaign on every aspect in it because we simply will not get that chance. We will be highlighting a few key issues consistent with our core themes to promote.

Last week we made some announcements regarding the environment. And you may well have seen the little video and the other bits and pieces that go with it. But essentially, there were some core issues addressed there. We want to see the Government take a much more active role in terms of general climate change policy. We want to see the Government promoting centres of academic research excellence, and we have suggested a fund be set aside of around $10 million probably to be located within a particular university to be the host for that programme, and that will be to fund graduate students doing research into climate change policy effectiveness strategies etc.

We have also announced our commitment to fund to assist the conversion of homes to make them more energy self-reliant. We advocate self-generation, whether it be solar, small scale wind generation or other forms of generation, to make it much more possible for people to benefit from the natural elements here in terms of renewable energy sources.  And one of the things we strongly oppose is the practice that is starting to occur amongst some of the energy companies which is that if you adopt technologies that are not in their mainstream they will charge you for the difference.  In In other words, if you put solar panels on your home and cut your energy bill by 25% as has happened in parts of the Bay of Plenty, the energy company there is saying that is 25% of revenue that we are not getting, so we will surcharge the rest of your power by 25% to make up for the money that we are not getting from you because you put solar panels and other forms in to your house. That is absurd and we will stop that.

Electric vehicles are a critically important part of the policy, we are going to establish a special fund that will enable people to convert or get access to funding for conversion to electric vehicles. If you look at the graph over the last few years of the uptake of this technology, it has rocketed and will in the future, so we want to get ahead of the game there.  That will be for private use and as well as for commercial use is well. The total price tag there is $20 million dollars.

We will also establish a visitor levy for tourists who visit New Zealand to pay for our conservation estate.  We see that levy being struck at $25 a head. $25 a head at around 3.4 million visitors per annum produces a figure in the order of $80 to $85 million dollars for the upgrading of tracks, huts and infrastructure and the national parks and that in turn frees up core DOC funding for the protection of endangered species and for other activities that they are currently struggling to do. So they are some of the initiatives we have promoted in the environment area, and I must say that since we made those comments a week or so ago, there has been a lot of interest expressed in the visitors levy idea.  I have had the Minister of Energy coming to talk to me about our ideas with regard to electric vehicles and the industries also got very much onside. We also have made a commitment to seek to ask people to effectively bequeath or to offer land to the Crown, land that they may not be using because its unproductive land, but we can use for planting trees for carbon sink purposes and there is more work to be done in that space but a little bit of interest being expressed in what we are proposing.

When we look at the rest of our policy it will be essentially a restatement of a lot of the things we have stood for, for many years because those issues are still as relevant today. So having a fairer tax system through income sharing still remains a priority for us.  Making sure that the work the Government is doing around vulnerable children at the moment focuses very much on the child having the best opportunity to start in life is very much core United Future policy.  Talking about the capacity to initiate change in terms of New Zealand’s identity, in our future and other sorts of things we have talked about for a long time.

We will also be making some announcements in the next little while about a fresh approach to immigration policy.  At the moment it is fashionable to bash migrants, to blame them for everything that is wrong in our country, to use them as some sort of whipping boy. This country was founded on immigration. All of us are actually migrants, the only point of difference is when some of us came here, a little earlier or later than others. And migration can make a very effective contribution to our country, so we will remain a supporter, not a basher of migrants, we are not going to stoop to the bigotry and intolerance that we are starting to see emerge in so many places.  Having said that however, we will tailor our Immigration Policy to meet our country’s needs.  And I think there are two important needs that have got to be top of that list. For families that come here, and settle here, and make a contribution here, there must be the right for them to be able to resettle retired parents in New Zealand, subject to their ability to support them while they are here. We have always argued for that, and we think that Family Reunification Policy which has fallen in to disuse in recent years has to be restored as a priority.

Also when we are bringing migrants to New Zealand on the basis of their skills and their capabilities, that is good, but we have to be bringing them here to jobs.  It is no good bringing the most skilled migrants here to perform tasks that are not in their skill area.  So we believe very strongly that migrants coming to New Zealand for skilled occupations need to be coming to jobs, and not just coming here on a wing and a prayer, and that will be an important aspect of the policy we will announce. We will not get into the argument of restricting numbers, or any of these sorts of rather arbitrary measures that are being employed, because we think the answer lies in the quality and capability of the migrants rather than drawing a line and saying, numbers. If you go back to what happened in Christchurch after the earthquakes, what you are starting to see in Auckland now, in the building industry, if we do not have migrant labour in many areas, we do not have the capacity to make progress. So it is a matter of tailoring our Immigration Policy to meet our particular needs and ensuring we are getting the best people there to mix for the future.

Let me wind up by making some comments about the election next year. This will be a challenging election for every Party. Everyone is out there posturing at the moment about what they are going to do. There was a Party last week that believes it is going to go from being the fourth Party in New Zealand to the top Party. It is fanciful. It is a sickening tribute to the vanity of someone’s ego and nothing more than that.

The numbers game is important. To govern in New Zealand you need 61 votes minimum out of 121.  It is as simple as that.  How are those 61 votes going to be put together?  The first thing is the parties who work together have to be compatible. It is not an arrangement where you throw this number and that number and it produces 61 and that is the only thing that you have in common. So parties need to be compatible. We have worked with successive governments now since 2002.  Longer than any other Party. We know their strengths and their weaknesses, and we know what we bring to the table. And what we bring, as we did with Labour, is, as we do with National, a consistency, a clarity of thought and a pragmatism that enables issues to take place. Every now and then, for a small Party we achieve big things. One thing I want to say to you today which will pre-empt an announcement to be made later in the week, so I will keep it in camera for the time being, is that there has been a major issue bubbling for some time about proposals to charge the charitable sector for police vets.  I am expecting an announcement later this week that will indicate that as a result of UnitedFuture’s intervention that policy will not be proceeding. So watch this space. It is an example of where others talk, we do. We had some controversy recently over a piece of legislation about contractors and UnitedFuture changed its vote at the last minute allegedly under pressure from the employers. I have never meet them, they have never been to see me at all. What they assumed was because the Government was opposing the legislation that meant that UnitedFuture would too, so no need to talk to us. Suddenly they discovered at 11th hour that the issue about people on contracts who were vulnerable workers, was one that we felt strongly about as a Party because we have a commitment to a basic human rights and for that reason we were supporting the Labour Party legislation.  I raised the issue with the Government in March of this year and said to them there is an issue here in this labour legislation you need to deal with. “it will be alright” they said, “don’t worry about it”  We raised it again, “yes, yes we looking at it”. Then they came back and said “well, we would really like you to vote for it because your vote would decide the outcome, but what we are prepared to offer you is a commitment to look at the issue.  I said that is not good enough. That is a fob-off.  And finally, on the morning of the Bill we got an agreement with them that the Labour Inspectorate is now investigating the plight of vulnerable contractors and, if there are shortcomings to be found, and no one, including even David Parker from the Labour Party who was promoting the Bill was too sure about the likely numbers involved, the Government will act to legislate. On that basis I thought we can proceed here. This Bill is not needed and that is why I voted against it.  But it took us to make the change. It took UnitedFuture to protect the interest of those workers, not posturing from other political parties.  And that is the sort of role we play constantly. I can think of many other issues that are coming to the fore over the next few months where you will see us play a similar role and us resolve what has been a thorny and a difficult problem, in a way that is fair and reasonable for most New Zealanders.  And what is important therefore is that this Party has a presence in Parliament, is part of the next Government, to ensure that that mandate, that sense of responsibility and that sense of reason still holds true. And we will campaign next year above all the external noise, on the basis of being the Party that can provide that. And I look forward to working with you and all of our Party members to build our organisation to raise the funds to get the candidates to do the hard work to achieve that outcome. This AGM may be small. That is no sign of the heart of this Party, because there are many people who cannot be here for various reasons, but they are out there, they are joining us, and we are getting ready for the battle next year.

So thank you all for all of your efforts, thank you for your support, thank you for your encouragement. With your best wishes, your goodwill and commitment this little acorn can grow into a mighty oak tree and it will. And it will do it in time to flourish in about a year from now.

Thanks very much.