Speech to Zonta Club, Christchurch
7 August, 2006
Madam Chair, ladies,
Today I want to talk to you about a subject very close to my heart.
My cheque book.
Because some say this little book holds the key to whether my party wins the next election. Some say it holds the key to whether I even contest the next election!
You see, winning an election is not hard.
All I have to do is write each of you a cheque for whatever amount of money the focus groups say will make you vote for me.
It's not even my money - it's your money. So what do I care if it turns out that my short-sighted bribes mean I can't afford to give your kids a first class education? Or fund enough police to let your mother feel safe in her home at night? Or pay for a health system that gives you the same chance of surviving breast cancer as your sister in Australia?
It's all about getting elected.
The public will not vote for principles or policies that work, only for instant gratification.
Or so the media commentators would have us believe.
"National must move more towards the centre," they chime in unison. "Don Brash must learn to compromise more, or be replaced by someone who will."
How many of you are happy to compromise your principles?
I was told recently by a man in this city that the interest-free student loan policy had won the election for Labour, and that if National wanted to win in 2008 then we needed to come up with something similar - perhaps like scrapping GST on food.
Would scrapping GST on food make sense for New Zealand in the long term?
Of course not.
For a start, the thousands of small businesses which buy and sell food would be even more hogtied by red tape than they are now.
Secondly, there'd soon be huge pressure to take GST off other things - like books and children's clothes and shoes and doctor's bills and electricity and rates.
Such exemptions sound just fine until you factor in that the government would miss out on so much income that the GST rate would have to go up to 15% or more to compensate.
And even more importantly, taking GST off food would mainly benefit those who buy the most food - which is not the poor, but the rich.
All so we can buy the most votes.
We've had far too many policies like that in recent years.
The four weeks' annual leave was a classic piece of deception. Workers saw their extra week's leave as a great bonus, and the government was in no hurry to tell them that they'd be paying for it down the track in lower wages.
Even the history lecturer in charge of our finances should be well aware that when you take a week's production out of the economy, the country doesn't earn as much, so workers don't earn as much.
The student loan bribe was a textbook example of what a government does when it puts its own survival ahead of its people.
The previous student loan policy did not deter people from becoming students. When tertiary fees and student loans were first introduced in the early nineties, there was a massive increase in the proportion of young people undertaking tertiary studies.
Nor did the previous policy drive graduates overseas. Nine out of ten graduates paying back a student loan - 94% to be precise - were still living in New Zealand.
Labour's new policy was, quite simply, a $300 million a year bribe.
And that wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't for people like Aletia...
I met Aletia on the steps of Parliament earlier this year. She was 33 years old - a little younger than my daughter Ruth - and she was suffering from very aggressive Grade 3 invasive breast cancer.
And there she was on the steps of Parliament clutching a petition, in tears, begging for her life, because her government said it couldn't afford to give her the Herceptin treatment that was her last chance of survival.
I wonder why.
Not surprisingly, Aletia couldn't afford Herceptin's $100,000 price tag. Her friends, family and community had already rallied round to raise $24,000 for another drug, Taxotere. Had she lived in Australia, she would have got Taxotere free in a public hospital.
Taxotere has been funded by the Australian health system for the last five years.
In New Zealand, despite Pharmac having approved Taxotere with a high priority rating, it's been locked in the cabinet - in both senses of the word - awaiting funding, for nearly two years.
I wonder why.
On top of all that, the breast reconstruction operation that Aletia had pinned her hopes on, has now been deferred indefinitely because of waiting list cuts.
I wonder why.
Might it have something to do with her government preferring to bribe our young students to vote for them, than to keep our young breast cancer sufferers alive?
Aletia is why we need a government that really does care about its most vulnerable people, instead of just saying it does.
Aletia is also why we need strong economic growth!
In a sense, Aletia is why I ignored my father's wish that I go into the church, and instead became an economist and fought inflation - because inflation most hurts people on low incomes and strips them of the money to buy the necessities of life.
Aletia is why I go on endlessly about unsexy things like closing the gap in living standards between New Zealand and Australia, and about charting a course to get into the top half of the OECD. Not because I'm obsessed with abstract numerical goals, but because if we don't achieve these goals, New Zealand women will continue to die from breast cancer at a rate almost 30% higher than women in Australia
Everyone here today knows what it's like to have to manage a cheque book - whether it's your family's or your business's or a club like Zonta's. You have to make choices. You have to set priorities.
If you really care about improving the lives of your kids or your workers or your members, you seize the opportunity to use that money as a carrot to encourage people to do the right thing: to provide incentives for making good choices, and disincentives for making poor choices.
That's what a good home manager does. That's what a good business manager does. That's what a good government does.
And that's why, as long I'm leader, the National Party won't be compromising its principles.
Because the core policies on which we fought the last election will improve the lives of our people. And they do offer incentives to make good choices, and disincentives to make poor choices.
With these policies, we choose to put what's right for the country ahead of what's easy for the party.
In our quest for victory, we choose the harder path: the path of principle and persuasion over the path of bribery and corruption.
Corruption is not a word you use outside Parliament without being very sure of your ground. But I feel very safe, if rather sad, in pointing out that Helen Clark's Labour Government is quite simply the most corrupt government in New Zealand history.
If we've had a government embroiled in more scandals, more cover-ups, more prima facie cases of fraud (which for some reason never seem to be prosecuted if Helen Clark is involved), then at 65 I'm too young to remember it.
Being principled means promising only things you can deliver. So, regardless of the temptation, I'm not going to stand here today and promise you that a National government will definitely find the $25 million to fund Herceptin, because we haven't yet decided where the money will come from.
But it shouldn't be too hard to find.
In New Zealand hospitals each year, it's estimated that 1500 people are killed or permanently disabled through medical error.
That's the equivalent of three fully laden jumbo jets. Or almost four times last year's road toll.
These errors cost $870 million a year out of a total health budget of $10.6 billion.
If, through better management or better systems, we could reduce that error cost by just 3%, we could afford to fund Herceptin.
Ultimately, it's about priorities. About what - and who - we value most. If you were Aletia, how would you feel hearing that Helen Clark had just spent $5 million on do-it-yourself computer courses with no tutors?
And $15 million advertising Working for Families?
And $300 million buying the votes of students?
And tolerated a cost over-run of almost $500 million building and landscaping four new prisons. We need new prisons - but at $1 million a bed?
What does that say about this government's values or sense of priorities?
I was once asked to identify my core values. It was an interesting exercise in prioritising that clarified for me why I care about the things I do.
I found that my number one value was fairness.
Fairness, to me, is something New Zealanders understand well. And we deserve to see more of it in our policy-making.
It's not fair that people who've worked hard and paid taxes all their lives have to wait till their tumours get bigger before they can get them removed.
It's not fair that Labour are so philosophically opposed to private enterprise that they can make people wait in pain for operations when there are beds lying empty in private hospitals that could easily be used to help clear the backlog.
It's not fair that some kids can get into top schools like Christchurch Boys' High, as I did, or Christchurch Girls', as perhaps some of you did, or St Margaret's or Rangiruru, as perhaps others of you did, while others are punished with a lifetime of low incomes and poor job prospects because the government puts the interests of poorly performing schools and poorly performing teachers ahead of the needs of our kids.
It's not fair that the highest effective tax rates are paid by those on low incomes, often trapping them into long-term, inter-generational, dependency.
It's not fair that law-abiding citizens feel there's no point in reporting burglaries because they don't have any confidence that our overstretched police force will respond.
It's not fair that a young person who has one Maori ancestor can get into university ahead of someone who hasn't. (That sort of thinking has seen me branded a racist - and that's not fair either!)
But if we're going to fix the things that are unfair about our society, we've got to be honest with the public.
We've got to have the guts to do what's right for New Zealand.
I'm frankly not interested in being Prime Minister of New Zealand unless I have the mandate to change these things. At the age of 65, I don't plan a 30 year career in politics.I'm committed to this role only because I believe that, together, we can make New Zealand a fairer society, and one to which our children will want to return.