Before setting out her five priorities for her National Party for this year in a “State of the Nation” speech to the Rotary Club of Auckland yesterday, Opposition Leader Judith Collins reflected on why she became a Member of Parliament, and the significance of her nickname, “Crusher”.                                                                                                         

“As a politician the public can sometimes see a caricature of you. There is truth in my nickname – ‘Crusher’.  I enjoyed driving through changes to take boy-racers cars off the road. I like getting things done – not just talking. But that nickname misses the why. It wasn’t just about the boy racers. It was about making Kiwi communities safer. “My why began growing up on a small farm in the Waikato.

We were a staunchly Labour family – as a teenager I pestered mum to allow me to attend my first political meeting for a new candidate – Helen Clark. But the values my parents taught me were those of the National party. “We kids learnt the importance of hard work – both at school and on the farm. We had a strong sense of community. We were surrounded by farming families who got stuck in and helped each other out – particularly when times were tough.

As Kiwis we know the importance of working hard to help our families get ahead – and I strongly believe that if you’re willing to put in the hard yards then you should enjoy the benefits. “But we also have a strong sense of responsibility toward each other, to help those who need it. That’s a role for all of us in New Zealand, but particularly for government.

We have far too many children growing up in poverty. We have families getting sick because of poor quality housing, and we have groups, particularly Maori and Pasifika, with far worse health outcomes than others. These things can be addressed. But they need action, not just talk. 

“My shift to National came from my experience of running my own small businesses in my 20s and 30s – first when my husband David and I set up a local restaurant, and later as principal of my own law firm. I saw the positive impact businesses can have on a community. I’ve felt the pride of helping someone into their first job, and the satisfaction of supporting staff to build their skills so they can move on to bigger roles. I also saw the problems created by militant unions and too much government regulation. 

“Prior to Parliament, my life was heading down a path I was very happy with. But I looked around and saw a country where too often people couldn’t get ahead, no matter how hard they worked. I wanted ours to be a country where everyone has the opportunity to make the most of their lives, regardless of their background. A country where we don’t tie communities down in regulation, where we support small businesses rather than see them as a target for new taxes. “A country that’s moving forwards, not backwards. A country where everyone gets a fair go. I wanted to get things done – not just talk about it. So I became an MP.

“It is important that we hold the Government to account, because when they fail New Zealanders pay the price – with higher house prices, lower incomes, higher unemployment and the risk of further Covid lockdowns. “I want to talk you through my top priorities as we continue to deal with the fallout from Covid over 2021. The things you can hold me to account for this year. Of course other areas are also important – like education, climate change and Maori relations. But these five priorities as we move out of Covid are the areas I believe need immediate attention now– they can’t wait three years.

 (What follows is a lightly edited version of Judith’s speech)

Priority one – Covid recovery 

My first priority is our response to Covid. 

New Zealanders made huge sacrifices last year. Hundreds of thousands of people were dependent upon the wage subsidy as the economy was forced to shut down. Sixty-five thousand lost their jobs and the number is growing. Our tourism sector was decimated. Businesses took on debt to make ends meet, some to unsustainable levels. Many closed and far too many more are still likely to.

During this time the government borrowed and spent almost $40 billion. To put that into context that’s more than the government spends on health and education each year.  The government has said that New Zealand’s debt will grow to almost $200 billion over the next three years.

New Zealanders can’t afford another lockdown. But even more than this, failing to secure vaccinations for our frontline workers, border staff and those who work in and around isolation and quarantine shows a massive disregard for the sacrifice New Zealanders made last year. It’s not good enough.

We need to match Australia’s schedule – we should be like Singapore rolling out the vaccine to frontline workers and those vulnerable New Zealanders who need it urgently.

Priority two – economic recovery from Covid

My second priority for 2021 is how we drive economic growth as we come out from Covid. A strong business sector is central to this. But, frankly, it’s not about business for business’ sake. Too often National has talked about its economic priorities as if these are the end goals in and of themselves – bigger economy, fewer regulations, smaller government, stronger businesses. On their own, these things aren’t what’s really important.  They’re only important because they are what ultimately drives prosperity, creates jobs and lifts incomes. 

A strong economy means more opportunities for New Zealanders; is what will ultimately help lift children out of poverty; means more money to invest in our health system; and will help our kids into their first job, and give them the chance to do things and be things we’ve never even dreamed of. That’s what matters – the things that a strong economy allows us to do. That’s why a strong economy matters! 

Never has the need for a Government that can execute a plan to get the economy growing again been more crucial. If we make poor choices now, our kids will pay for Covid multiple times over. We need a relentless focus on Government policies to support the productive part of our economy – businesses to be more efficient – to hire, invest and lift wages. Policies that allow businesses to use the upheaval caused by Covid to drive positive change – enabling our industries to use technology to stay world-leading. And it’s not just traditional businesses. Maori have a huge role to play in New Zealand’s economic development. 

Unfortunately, the Government isn’t doing this. Instead, it seems to be doing all it can to raise costs for businesses. Big increases to the minimum wage, increases to sick leave, and changes to bargaining laws. At first glance, these sound good. Of course, we want higher wages. But by raising costs on businesses, we make them less likely to hire new staff or increase wages more broadly.  

Priority three – hardship and public safety 

My third priority for the year is helping those who face hardship – particularly as a result of Covid – and keeping people safe. We need to support those Kiwis who have lost their jobs, who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to work two jobs just to put food on the table. I want to make sure every New Zealander has a fair go. Part of the solution is growing the economy to create jobs and lift wages. But we also need targeted, evidence-based support to help people most in need. Helping families get back on their feet and into work is especially important when we’ve had so much economic upheaval over the last 12 months. While the Government talks about caring and kindness and may have good intentions, they far too often lack the ability to simply get things done.  

Priority four – housing, infrastructure and world-class cities 

Which brings me to my fourth priority as we move out of Covid – housing, infrastructure and world-class cities. The massive recent house price increases are further locking our children out from ever buying a home. Rents are up $100 per week since Labour came into office. A 25 percent increase in just three years. And this means people are struggling to keep up with the other necessities of life – food, power and doctors’ visits. We’re already seeing a major increase in the working poor here in New Zealand. Where people put in the hard yards but still can’t get ahead. These house price increases just make it worse. 

For much of the past three years, I had the job of holding Phil Twyford and Labour to account for their KiwiBuild promises. After initially promising 100,000 homes over 10 years, they actually only built 700 homes in their first term. They never understood just how hard it is to build a house. Tinkering with who can buy a house, giving grants to some buyers and putting barriers up for others – as Labour has done – is again about the symptoms not the cause. It is too hard to build a house in New Zealand, as simple as that. We need to make it drastically easier.

This isn’t impossible – hundreds of other cities around the world have affordable housing. The cost of the average house in Dallas, Chicago, Montreal and Manchester are all less than half the average cost of a house in Auckland. The one thing they all have in common is they make it easy to build houses. When we have a resource consent process that makes it almost impossible to build a house, it’s no surprise. It is an issue we can solve, and we must solve. We need to reform our planning and RMA processes with one goal – freeing up land and getting more houses built.  And if councils won’t do it, we’ll do it for them. 

We also need to address infrastructure. It isn’t enough to get more houses built if you still spend half your life sitting in traffic. Last week Labour merely announced where they will put more state houses. Their KiwiBuild failure has been matched by a belief that New Zealanders aspire to be on shorter waiting lists. It offers no help to the Kiwi family who want to own their own home. Given their track record on KiwiBuild, I just don’t trust the Government to deliver quick changes to get more houses built. So today, I’m calling on the Government to introduce urgent temporary legislation to make it easier to build a house until the permanent RMA reforms are completed. The legislation would give government powers to rezone land and avoid frustrating consenting delays. It was done by National following the Christchurch earthquakes. It’s now urgent for the rest of the country.

Priority Five – tech sector and opportunities post Covid

It’s not just enough to respond to Covid. We need to harness the upheaval caused by Covid to drive positive change – evolving our industries so we can stay world leading.

So my fifth priority is about growing our tech sector to create high-paying jobs of the future that we need our young people studying towards today. It is a sector that impacts upon everybody’s lives in one way or another and it must play a key part in our Covid rebuild.

Tech isn’t just software. It is new forms of medicine, it’s precise agriculture, it’s new products the world wants, and new ways of running our factories. We need to better understand the opportunities tech will deliver to grow and be a major driver of New Zealand’s economy, creating jobs and exporting knowledge to the world.

A government cannot just legislate wages up. New Zealand must harness our technological innovations to drive productivity higher. New Zealand is proudly home to many leading tech companies: Xero, Rocketlab and Fisher & Paykel Healthcare to name just a few.

Right now, we’re hosting the America’s Cup for the third time. This is more than a yacht race. Since New Zealand first beat Dennis Conner in the 90s, an entire industry of world-leading technology has been created on our shores, creating some of the highest paying jobs for young Kiwis.

Conclusion

When I think about where I want New Zealand to be in five or 10 years, I want a country where people are proud to live and work. I want to see new industries like tech flourishing alongside our key strengths like agriculture and tourism. I want high paying jobs, and a country where it is easier to build a small business. We have a government that likes to talk about big changes – about transformation. Unfortunately, there has been too much focus on talking – working groups – and not enough on doing. 

There is a huge to-do list for this Government. It’s child poverty – worse than three years ago; it’s unaffordable homes now out of reach to the average Kiwi; and it’s fast escalating rents that mean people must choose between paying the bills and feeding their kids. 

It’s transport, where we still haven’t built enough public transport or roading to allow people to move quickly and build homes. It’s infrastructure, where our councils aren’t able to keep pipes from leaking and sewage from overflowing. It’s escalating crime where gangs recruit faster than the police, and prisoners are taking over prisons. It’s middle New Zealand that the government has left to fend for themselves. And it’s small business owners who can’t pay the government’s bills. 

These are the challenges that the government needs to fix, the things that will make New Zealanders’ lives better, and the things this Labour government with their huge parliamentary majority will be judged upon.  The National Party under my leadership will relentlessly focus on the things that are important to making New Zealanders’ lives better. We will push the government to focus on the causes not just the symptoms. National will be kind, but not at the expense of getting things done. 

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Terry Dunleavy

Terry Dunleavy

Terry Dunleavy, 92 years young, was a journalist before his career took him into the wine industry as inaugural CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand and his leading role in the development of wine...