My Column: archive 2007

13 December 2007

A new year, a new future

The holiday season is a great chance to take stock and contemplate the challenges ahead.

2007 has been a busy year. I’ve spent a lot of time in the electorate, keeping in touch with your concerns, and it’s clear there is a real mood for change – both here and around the country.

National’s challenge is to make sure we have the right policies for New Zealand’s future. Under John Key’s leadership, we’re well on the way to meeting that challenge.

John believes education is critical to ensure our prosperity. In March he announced our policy on National Education Standards. We want to set national standards in reading, writing, and maths, assess all primary and intermediate schoolchildren against these standards, and make sure parents get the results.

In June, he outlined several initiatives to put trades training back into our schools, and give every student a chance to make the most of their talents. National’s focus on education will continue in 2008.

John followed up his Burnside speech in January by announcing a range of policies to turbo-charge community groups. National wants to encourage Kiwis to volunteer, encourage people and businesses to donate, and make it easier for community groups to do their good work.

In November, National released the first stage of our law and order policy, which is aimed at enhancing police tools and clamping down on gangs. Over the coming months we will announce new policies to reduce crime and make our justice system more effective.

Earlier this year, we outlined our plan to improve housing affordability, and unveiled 50 by 50 – our policy to cut carbon emissions, reform the RMA, and boost renewable energy. National also released discussion papers on health, aged care, rural issues, and foreign affairs, defence and trade. For more information, please visit www.national.org.nz.

In 2008, National will announce more policies – from tax cuts to improving our schools – so Kiwis can see exactly where we stand.

We are committed to building on John Key’s vision for a reinvigorated New Zealand. We want a country that is attractive to our children and our grandchildren, and a society that can meet their aspirations. We want a better future for all New Zealanders.

I look forward to working for that future – and for your concerns. In the meantime, on behalf of the National Party and my electorate staff, I’d like to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas, and a happy and prosperous 2008.

13 December 2007

Tired, stale and out of touch

As 2007 draws to a close it is becoming increasingly apparent just how stale, arrogant and out of touch this Labour Government is. After eight long years of a government that claims to know best, ordinary Kiwis are saying enough is enough.

Labour has turned its back on pressing needs in areas such as health and education, instead preferring to focus on furiously politicising the public service, defending slipping ministerial standards, and implementing undemocratic electoral laws that seriously erode free speech.

In health, we are hearing almost daily horror stories of systemic failures, unacceptable delays for treatment and an increasingly bloated bureaucracy. Patients are having to clean toilets while in hospital, new mums are being bribed to leave hospital after only six hours, and more essential treatment is being canned than ever before.

In education, Labour is increasingly failing our kids at the most fundamental level. One in five students leave school without the basic literacy and numeracy skills they need to succeed. Graduation rates from high school have bucked OCED trends and fallen by 10% over the last five years.

Labour’s arrogance is also clear to see with its stance on tax cuts. New Zealand has run record surpluses for the last several years yet we remain in the top half of the OECD for over-taxation. Michael Cullen and Helen Clark have repeatedly ignored pleas for personal tax cuts instead preferring to jealously hoard your hard-earned money. Only in the last few months with Labour lagging in the polls and an election looming, have they had a miraculous ‘road to Damascus’ conversion and decided that maybe New Zealanders do deserve a tax cut. Labour just cannot be trusted on tax cuts.

But perhaps the most breathtaking example of Labour’s arrogance and desperation to hold onto power in 2007 has been their efforts to ram through the Electoral Finance Bill. This draconian bill drastically stacks electoral law in favour of the government and has been universally condemned by organisations as diverse as the Human Rights Commission and the Law Society. Yet despite all the opposition, including thousands of Kiwis marching in the streets against it, Labour continues to force it into law.

Labour’s gaffes and failures in 2007 all demonstrate one thing. This is a government out of steam, out of ideas, and out of time.

New Zealand and New Zealanders deserve better. You deserve a government that is ambitious for our country and its future. Helen Clark and Labour are failing miserably on this front and it’s time for a fresh start.

7 December 2007

National will scrap the Electoral Finance Bill

In a democracy, everyone should be free to express themselves on all political issues. They should be free to criticise the Government. They should be free to criticise the Opposition. They should be free to promote policies they like and protest against those they don’t.

Our democracy doesn't just tolerate this expression, it requires it. In a democracy, political ideas must be publicly discussed, tested, and criticised.

And yet, under the Electoral Finance Bill – which is likely to be passed into law this week (i.e. week starting 10 Dec) – harsh and complicated new rules will apply to almost all forms of political expression. These rules will make it harder to discuss, test and criticise ideas. In some cases, they will make it illegal.

From January 1 next year, a mail-out to every household in Auckland City expressing a political view will be illegal, because the cost of doing so – about $130,000 – is greater than the limit set in the Electoral Finance Bill for so-called “third parties” – which are any person or organisation who aren't a political party or a candidate.

A group wanting to put a half-page advertisement in a major daily newspaper will have to register with the Electoral Commission, appoint a financial agent, and in many cases an auditor, file a return identifying its donors, and file a separate return setting out its election expenses.

Even a group protesting on the streets against the Government will have to authorise every placard waved and every flyer handed out.

The Law Society says this will “discourage rather than encourage those who should rightly participate in New Zealand's democratic process”.

We agree. This legislation will concentrate political expression, and power, in the hands of sitting MPs – who are exempt from the provisions of the bill – and take it away from Kiwis.

It is an attack on our democracy.

New Zealanders are not stupid, but Labour’s bill treats them as if they are. Labour thinks our society is so fragile that if someone reads a piece of mail or sees a newspaper advertisement expressing a political view, they will instantly be converted to it.

But people are mature enough to hear differing points of view and make up their own minds about the issues of the day. That’s how a real democracy works.

This Electoral Finance legislation will damage our democracy. It should be repealed, and it will be repealed. A National Government will make sure of that.

3 December 2007

Exodus from NZ continues

We all like to think New Zealand is a pretty good place to live. Most of us can think of nowhere better to live, work and bring up a family. Our way of life, natural environment, and sense of national spirit, is second to none.

Yet despite all of this, Kiwis continue to leave New Zealand in droves to settle overseas. The Kiwi lifestyle simply cannot compete against lower taxes, higher wages and less government interference.

The latest migration statistics show that the exodus from New Zealand for the year ended October 2007 was the highest for a decade and the second highest ever recorded.

Long-term departures were up 10% from last year, as more than 75,000 hard -working Kiwis left New Zealand for bigger and brighter opportunities overseas. This equates to over 200 people leaving a day, or more than one every seven minutes.

Think about these numbers for a moment. That’s more than double the capacity of Wellington’s Westpac Stadium leaving New Zealand each year for the long-term.

These are not just Kiwis heading overseas for a few months on the traditional OE, but rather long-term emigrants who are uprooting themselves and their families to pursue new futures overseas.

More and more New Zealanders are voting with their feet as they realise that New Zealand’s current direction leaves far less opportunities for their future than offered by countries such as Australia.

This just isn’t good enough. National is unashamedly ambitious for New Zealand and we truly believe that the future of our country can be great. But as shown by this record exodus of Kiwis to sunnier shores we’ve got some problems.

National is committed to fixing these problems and if we become government, turning around the brain drain.

Talk to pretty much any Kiwi family moving overseas and they will tell you that if the economic conditions in New Zealand matched what was on offer elsewhere, they wouldn’t be leaving.

National believes that with the right policies, we can match the great working conditions offered by countries such as Australia and ensure that Kiwis have a reason and a purpose to stay in New Zealand.

2 November 2007

Reducing waiting times for surgery

When the Government says it is spending an extra $5 billion a year on health, you would expect this to lead to more operations and shorter waiting times. But it hasn’t.

Last year, according to the Ministry of Health, there were fewer elective operations – such as heart bypass surgery, cataract operations, hip replacements, and hernia operations – than in 2001.

Meanwhile, the average time that patients are waiting for elective surgery has increased from about seven weeks in 2000 to 10 weeks this year. That’s a further three weeks, on average, that patients are in pain or discomfort while they await treatment.

In the run-up to the next election, Labour will promise more money for health, and will claim this will lead to more elective surgeries and shorter waiting times. But it won’t.

The Government needs to spend taxpayer money more wisely and be innovative to get the best value for the health dollar.

In our Health Discussion Paper we look at how National will do this. We lay out several proposals to increase the number of elective surgeries and reduce waiting times.

First, elective surgery should be separated from emergency surgery where possible. This will allow health professionals to concentrate on elective operations without being interrupted by urgent cases.

Secondly, GPs with special interests should be able to provide a wider range of minor surgery in their clinics. This will help our hospitals focus on more major elective surgery, and help reduce waiting times.

Thirdly, DHBs should be able to make smarter use of the private sector. Our health system should focus on making sure patients get the surgery they need sooner, rather than obsess about who owns the facility they are treated in. Public-private partnerships can take advantage of spare capacity in private hospitals. This will increase the availability of elective surgery and reduce waiting times.

Finally, the Labour Government should stop spending ever more money on health bureaucracy, and start training and supporting more doctors and nurses.

By cutting bureaucracy and spending more wisely, National will focus our growing health budget where it is most needed. We will boost elective surgeries and reduce endless waiting. We will provide better, sooner, more convenient healthcare for all New Zealanders.

14 November 2007

White Ribbon Day – 25 November

The 25th November is White Ribbon Day. It was started in Canada in 1991 and has been officially adopted by the United Nations as its International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

New Zealand has an unacceptably high rate of violence towards women, with one in five New Zealand women suffering an act of domestic violence against them at some stage in their life.

White Ribbon Day is an opportunity for all New Zealanders to take a stand and show that they have zero tolerance towards violence against women.

I urge you to support this worthy cause and on 25th November proudly wear a white ribbon.

For more information go to the White Ribbon Day website or keep an eye out for posters in your local area. Schools struggling to make ends meet

24 October 2007

Too many of our schools are struggling to make ends meet.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Education, there are currently 105 state schools throughout the country with an operating deficit of more than $100,000. This is compared with 69 schools in 2005.

Even more amazingly, 72% of schools have been in deficit at some stage in the past three years. When schools go into deficit, they have to cut their costs. They have to rely more on fundraising and parent contributions. Inevitably, for some schools the quality of the education they provide suffers as they cut back learning resources to save money.

This belt tightening is made worse by recent funding cuts as a result of government changes to the decile system. Secondary schools that had an increase to their decile rating had around $2.5 million shaved from their budgets, while primary and composite schools combined lost $8 million.

While the Minister glibly says that such cuts were compensated for by increases in funding to other schools that had a decrease in their decile rating, this is cold comfort for those schools that lost out and are faced with cutting budgets.

The Minister continues to rule out National’s calls for a 12 month transition period for schools to manage the impact of these cuts.

Meanwhile, more and more money is being spent on bureaucracy. Last week startling figures for the period from 2002 were released showing not only increased staff numbers, but the Ministry of Education’s payroll has skyrocketed by $95 million. Imagine if this sort of money had been spent on schools and children instead!

This massive increase in the cost of our education bureaucracy is hard to understand when parents and teachers are working hard to keep their schools afloat in the face of rising inflation and tightening school budgets.

It is crucial that the government stay in touch with schools, to know whether they are struggling, and what level of fundraising parents are forced to undertake to cover the shortfall.

National will do more to focus education spending on where it can do the most good. We will trust those in the front line to know what’s best for their communities and students.

15 October 2007

Labour Still Hoarding our Money

The $8.7 billion surplus announced this week shows once and for all that, the Labour Government is determined to hoard New Zealanders hard-earned money for its election year kitty.

Over the past four years, the combined surplus has totalled $34 billion and as a result of a record high tax take, New Zealand is now running by international standards a huge surplus.

Yet as day-to-day life gets harder for the average New Zealander with households being squeezed by price increase in basic goods and services the Government still refuses to offer any tax relief.

Recent weeks has seen the price of butter increase by 23% and that great Kiwi commodity milk has seen a price increase of 12% over the past two months. Overall, according to Statistics New Zealand food prices increased by 3.4% in the year to August, with meat, poultry and fish up 8.4%.

Mortgage rates are among the highest in the developed world while homeowners are also having to deal with rising rates bills and skyrocketing power prices.

For the Government to be sitting on more than $8 billion while householders are having to dig increasingly deeper just for daily essentials is simply unfair.

The surplus shows that the Labour Government is taking far more out of the pockets of hard working New Zealanders than it needs. People on the average wage of $46, 000 are still paying 33c in the dollar with no recognition or relief from Labour in eight years.

The message is clear. New Zealanders can’t trust Labour when it comes to tax. Michael Cullen cancelled the paltry chewing gum tax cuts and now he’s trying to argue that tax cuts are only affordable in election year. Yeah right! It’s our money – Labour’s spending it.

5 October 2007

Foreign policy: focusing on our core strengths and capabilities

As a small, isolated, trade-dependent country we rely on consistent and effective foreign, defence, and trade policies. If our policies change radically after each election, we can lose credibility on the world stage and damage our vital interests.

After three decades of often-divisive debate in foreign policy, we now have a basis for enduring consensus. That’s why National Party Leader John Key has launched our Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade Discussion Paper entitled “Focusing on Our Core Strengths and Capabilities”.

National believes that the foreign policy debates of the future will not be about where we are going as a country, but about the best way to get there.

Our foreign affairs policy should be based on a more independent assessment of our external environment, and it should put a stronger focus on Asia and the South Pacific. National will make sure New Zealand’s development assistance is more targeted and goal driven.

The National Party believes defence expenditure should be driven by a White Paper process, assessing security needs and proposing solutions. We need a highly effective, if necessarily small, defence force to help maintain security close to home in the Pacific and, in a more limited way, further afield. The way forward should be guided by the White Paper route, which is used by countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. We will not change New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation.

There is broad agreement that free and open trade is crucial to New Zealand’s future. That’s why a National Government will continue to actively push bilateral trade agreements and the Doha talks, and make a free trade agreement with the United States a key priority.

On the domestic front, we will put a renewed focus on the export sector to make sure the recent decline in New Zealand’s productivity growth is reversed.

New Zealand has historically punched above its weight on the international stage. To continue that tradition we must do better what we already do well. We must keep our country’s best interests at the forefront of our thinking. And we must focus on our core strengths and capabilities.

I urge you to download the full discussion paper from the National Party website or contact my office for a copy, and send us your comments.

Your input will help us develop policies that ensure New Zealand’s future success in the Pacific and around the globe.

23 August 2007

Focusing on education

Many of our top students do well in the education system. They can outperform or match the achievements of students from anywhere in the world. But there are still far too many at the bottom who are missing out.

Data released last month by the Ministry of Education shows that one in four New Zealanders leave school without obtaining an NCEA level 1 qualification – the most basic qualification our schools provide.

What’s worse, the ministry predicts that by 2020 the percentage of New Zealand teenagers leaving school without any qualification will increase, not decline. The numbers failing at school will rise, not fall.

The Government invests around $9 billion every year in education, and parents contribute hundreds of millions more. Yet our education system is failing to prepare a huge proportion of our teenagers for life in a modern, dynamic economy.

That just isn’t good enough.

A National government will address underachievement in our schools. We will make improving our education system a priority.

The key is to identify problems early and do something about them. If we don't effectively use the assessment tools available in our schools and apply that information to what goes on in the classroom, we lose precious years when there is an opportunity to do something for children who are struggling to learn.

That’s why, in April, John Key announced our policy on National Education Standards. A National Government will set standards in reading, writing and maths. We will require all primary and intermediate students to be assessed against those standards, and we will make sure the results are reported to parents.

In June, John Key announced our initiatives on Trades and Industry Training in Schools. Giving teenagers hands-on practical training can encourage them to stay in school, inspire them to get the skills they need, and help them to make the most of themselves.

There is more to come. Over the next year, National will continue rolling out our ideas for a better education system. We'll put the spotlight on cutting red tape, increasing student engagement, and tackling truancy. We’ll be uncompromising in our focus on raising education standards and reducing the number of teenagers who leave school without a qualification.

National wants to help every New Zealander from every background make the most of their opportunities. Our focus on education will go a long way towards helping that happen.

16 August 2007

Make a submission on the Electoral Finance Bill

In a democracy, election rules must be fair – fair for political parties, fair for voters, and fair for third parties such as community groups, unions, and industry associations.

If the rules aren’t fair, the election can be distorted. That’s why election rules must only be changed with great caution. And that’s why National is concerned about the Electoral Finance Bill that Labour has introduced to Parliament.

The bill doesn’t provide the transparency Helen Clark promised. It won’t stop Labour raiding taxpayer funds like it did at the last election, when it illegally spent $800,000 of taxpayer money on its campaign – in fact, it will legalise that kind of behaviour. And it is so poorly drafted that almost any public communication by almost any organisation in an election year will need to be scrutinised for compliance with electoral law.

Organisations like Forest & Bird, Greypower and the PPTA have, until now, been free to express their views in the year of an election. And that is how it should be.

But Labour’s bill imposes draconian regulations on organisations like these. It requires them to register with the government if they spend more than $5,000 in an election year on publicity with any political relevance. It makes it illegal to spend more than $60,000 during that time. And it compels them to publicly name people who donate more than $500 to their cause.

Meanwhile, Labour will have almost unlimited government funding to promote its policies. Already, it has spent $15 million publicising Working for Families.

That is unfair and anti-democratic.

That’s why Bill English has written to community groups, trade associations, and church groups, alerting them to the implications of the bill, and urging them to make a submission to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee.

National believes the Electoral Finance Bill severely restricts your freedom to have your say in an election year. For further details on the bill, visit the New Zealand Parliament website (go to the “Parliamentary Business” section and click on “Bills”).

If you are concerned about the bill’s proposed restrictions on your democratic rights or the rights of your organisation, I urge you to make a submission detailing your concerns, and send two copies of this to:

Clerk of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee
Select Committee Office
Parliament House
Wellington

Submissions can also be made online.

The deadline for submissions is 7 September 2007.

Make a submission and be heard. Our democracy depends on you.

10 August 2007

Making homes more affordable

Rising property prices, rising interest rates, and over-taxation have made it much harder for young Kiwis to buy their own home. International surveys show that New Zealand has the second worst housing affordability problem in the world. That just isn’t good enough.

Home ownership is a big part of the New Zealand dream. When people buy their first home they don’t just shake off the landlord. They make a life for themselves and their families in their neighbourhood. They play a bigger role in their community. They take a stake in the local school, local government, the economy, and New Zealand’s future.

That’s why National wants to make buying a first home affordable again. And that’s why, at the National Party Annual Conference last week, John Key made home-ownership the focus of his conference speech.

In that speech, he unveiled National’s four-part plan on home affordability, and indicated more was to come. The four-point plan is:

  • Ensuring people are in a better financial position to afford a house
  • Freeing up the supply of suitable land
  • Dealing with the compliance issues that drive up building costs
  • Allowing state house tenants to buy the houses they live in

National will make sure people are better able to afford a mortgage. We will lower personal income tax and boost after-tax pay, and take pressure off interest rates by making our economy more productive. This will make mortgage repayments easier, and allow people to save more towards their first home.

We will pass legislation to increase the supply of suitable land for housing. Too often, the Resource Management Act and disagreements between different arms of local government slow the release of land. And too often, developers lock up land much longer than they need to. This drives up land prices and development costs.
We will amend the Building Act. There is far too much red tape involved with building a house. National will also improve building quality through greater commercial accountability.

We will allow Housing NZ tenants to purchase the home they live in. We will reinvest the proceeds of any state housing sales into replacement houses for needy families on the waiting list.

We will also increase trades-training opportunities so that we have more skilled carpenters to build homes. We have already announced several initiatives to get trades-training back into our schools and these include a boost for apprenticeship training.

Under National, every young New Zealander should know that if they work hard and are disciplined about saving, they can expect to buy their own home.

26 July 2007

Distorting our Democracy

We take our democracy for granted. Regular elections and a free press help protect our democratic rights – rights like freedom of speech, which allows every New Zealander to have their say and criticise policies they disagree with.

But these rights are not automatically protected, and we must stand up to those who wish to undermine them.

Last week, Labour introduced its Electoral Finance Bill in Parliament. Under this bill, from January 1 every election year, the Government will be able to regulate what New Zealanders say and how they get their message across.

This bill won’t apply just to political parties. It will apply to every single New Zealander and every single organisation.

If you oppose a political party’s policy and wish to publicise your opposition to it, whenever you or your organisation spends over $5,000, you must register with the government to exercise your right to free speech. And it will be illegal to spend more than $60,000 promoting your views.

That may seem like a lot of money, but it’s barely enough to pay for a couple of billboards or full-page advertisements in a metropolitan newspaper. Over the length of a full election year, it is a ridiculously small amount.

The right to criticise the policies of a political party is fundamental in our democracy. Restricting that right in this way is an unjustified infringement of our liberties.

What’s more, while Labour wants to restrict New Zealanders from criticising its policies, it will have almost unlimited government funds to promote them. Already, Labour is spending $15 million of taxpayer money to promote Working for Families, $7.4 million to promote Kiwisaver (Labour spent $1.2 million in June alone), and $5.1 million to promote ACC.

Imagine how much Labour will spend pushing its policies in election year? Then consider whether it’s fair to force ordinary New Zealanders to register with the government when they spend $5,000.

Labour broke the election spending rules at the last election. It illegally spent over $800,000 of taxpayer money on its campaign. Now it wants to muzzle opposition while using taxpayer funds to promote its policies.

That’s not fair. National agrees that electoral finance laws need tightening, but it’s not just money that’s important. We want electoral spending to be transparent so that when individuals or organisations campaign, their involvement is obvious to voters. We want a level playing field for all New Zealanders.

Labour’s bill is an attempt to tilt the playing field to its benefit. It is anti-democratic. We will not support Labour’s bill, and we urge you to voice your opposition to it.

20 July 2007

Working with Local Government

Local government elections are just a few months away, and it’s a good time to look at the roles councils play in our communities and the issues that confront them.

Our local infrastructure is over-stretched and needs to be upgraded. According to Long Term Council Community Plans, about $30 billion is required to improve New Zealand’s local infrastructure over the next decade. This investment is vital for our economic development, but it is beyond the ability of our local governments to fund it through council rates.

Another major issue that councils face is excessive and unnecessary government regulation. Labour has passed sixty pieces of legislation that have impacted on council activities. It has overloaded councils with regulations and hasn’t provided enough funding, or enough room for local initiative and local solutions.

It’s fair to say that councils are struggling with these issues. Across the country, council rates are rising at levels that, in many areas, are unsustainable. This is causing pain for homeowners and businesses already struggling with soaring interest rates.

Labour doesn’t have any answers. It doesn’t know how to improve our local government. It doesn’t know how to get rates under control.

And so last week, John Key outlined several areas where National wants to work with local government to assist them with the problems they face.

We want to provide a broader range of options to help councils upgrade their infrastructure and reduce the burden on rates. These may include increased use of partnerships, charging arrangements, and longer-term financing.

We want to improve the way the Government delegates its responsibilities, so that councils don’t get swamped with unnecessary regulations and responsibilities.

We also want to work with councils and their communities to improve governance structures where they believe this will be to their advantage.

Auckland, for example, has four city councils, three district councils, one regional council and a myriad of specialist agencies struggling to deal with the city’s problems, and it’s clear that change is required.

Sorting out Auckland is crucial for New Zealand’s prosperity. National will reform the local government structure for the region. We will focus on getting the best outcomes for ratepayers, residents and the country.

Local councils are vital to our communities and vital to our democracy. It’s essential that they perform their roles as effectively and efficiently as they can. A National government will have a wide dialogue with councils and work alongside them to achieve this goal.

16 July 2007

Engaging young Kiwis in our democratic process

Last week I was replaced in Parliament by Awhina-Rose Ashby, from Bay of Islands College.

Every three to four years a Youth Parliament is held in Wellington, where each MP selects a young person from their area to take their seat in the House for a few days. I chose Awhina-Rose to replace me because she is a bright, lovely young lady with a neat personality and is from an area that is starting to progress. She represents that forward looking attitude.

Youth Parliament aims to help young Kiwis understand how our democracy works and gives them the chance to express their views and opinions to politicians, the government and the public. It also gives MPs an opportunity to see our country through fresh eyes, and consider the issues facing the next generation of New Zealanders.

Youth Parliament is as real as we can make it, and parliamentary personnel and procedures are maintained as closely as possible.

Last week, youth MPs debated a mock bill, held a general debate in the House, sat on Select Committees, asked Cabinet Ministers questions, and got to know their way around the parliamentary complex. Meanwhile, members of the Youth Press Gallery kept a watchful eye on what the youth MPs were up to, and reported their activities to the public.

Youth Parliament is an important initiative. Our democracy is only as strong as those who participate in it, and the energetic involvement of young people can enrich our political institutions.

National wants to encourage more young New Zealanders to get involved and have their say. For Youth Parliament, National set up a website www.youthmp.co.nz where youth MPs could exchange ideas and information, and some of them told us they want to see change in how MPs connect with people who are uncomfortable contributing to the political process.

I’m keen to explore ways that we can do this, and I’d like to hear your suggestions. If you have any thoughts, email me, post a video at www.youtube.com/nationalparty or join the conversation at www.johnkey.co.nz.

Remember, your MPs are here to represent you – except, that is, when they’ve been replaced by high school students at least half their age! And some of those students could well be the Members of Parliament of the future.

11 July 2007

Electronic bail a concerning issue

Since September of last year some offenders have been granted electronic bail as an alternative to remaining in custody. This has been promoted as a way of tackling the massive issue of overcrowding in our prisons. We were assured that electronic bail would not in any way compromise the safety of the community.

But in the seven months to May, 40 of the 46 people that have been granted electronic bail had previously offended while on ordinary bail. This seems to be a huge risk to public safety.

A closer look at the 46 who have been granted electronic bail show that many of them are violent offenders with charges including manslaughter, kidnap, rape, attempted sexual violation, aggravated robbery and serious assaults. Police opposed bail in 38 of the 46 cases.

When electronic bail was first considered officials working in the field recognised that it would be fraught with problems and warned that it would not prevent offending that might occur in the home, such as drug-related, sexual and violent offending.

Unfortunately Labour did not listen to the expertise of those who work with criminals.

The warnings of those who knew better have come to pass. In December a man released on electronic bail went on a violent rampage which ended in charges of attempted murder, and assault. Another man skipped electronic bail recently while facing charges of assault, and is now the subject of a police hunt and is described as ‘extremely dangerous’ and should not be approached. Why would you risk putting criminals like this out in the community with only an electronic anklet to protect us?

It doesn’t seem worth it to be putting public safety at risk all in the name of saving a few beds in prisons. The advice of officials has been completely ignored and yet we have to wait until November for a report on how electronic bail is going. This dangerous experiment needs to stop. Electronic bail should be for only non-violent accused, and definitely not for those who have breached bail before.

The safety of our communities cannot be taken lightly. It’s time to make communities, not criminals, our number one priority.

2 July 2007

Environment, economy a balancing act

Caring for the environment is a central part of what it means to be a Kiwi. We have an enviable international reputation as a clean and green country, and as climate change awareness grows around the world, our export industries – such as agriculture, forestry and tourism – will increasingly rely on our environmental credentials.

Our challenge is to protect the environment while improving our economic performance. We can do both. We can be good environmental stewards and foster a more prosperous future. We just need to get our priorities right and make sensible decisions about what’s important to us.

Our businesses and farms have a good record of adapting to changing markets. This bodes well for their ability to adjust their operations to meet higher environmental standards.

But to maximise this potential, the Government must tread carefully and pursue policies that improve environmental practice, not through cuts to production or efficiency, but though innovation, smart investment and sensible decision-making.

That’s why National’s target of cutting net carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 is achievable. It’s not based on some vague aim of carbon neutrality. It’s based on our firm belief that with the right measures, New Zealand can reduce its emissions while its economy grows.

The electricity sector is one area with huge potential to cut emissions. At present, sensible hydro, windfarm and geothermal developments are mired in red tape, while state-owned power stations burn more coal and gas than ever before. This doesn’t make sense, and it makes a mockery of Labour’s claim to climate change credibility.
We need to cut the red tape. We need to give renewable energy projects the support they need to get up and running.

Recently, John Key announced that National is in favour of restarting hydro schemes where they are cost effective and make sense – such as the Dobson Dam scheme on the West Coast. The flooding of a small piece of land seems a small price to pay for the long-term reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will result. There will be short-term harm to the immediate physical environment, but there will also be long-term benefits that are overwhelmingly in the national environmental interest.

Trade-offs like this are part of sensible environmental and economic decision-making. They are tough and sometimes unpopular, but if we want to maintain our environmental credibility, we can't afford to shy away from making them.
Protecting New Zealand’s environment and developing a more prosperous future will be a challenge – but it’s a challenge that National is happy to face.

25 June 2007

Putting trades and industry back into our schools

Technology training in our schools is in crisis. Schools are being forced to cancel or reduce their trades and industry training programmes. There is a shortage of teachers, a lack of resources and direction from the Government, and not nearly enough engagement from industry.

Young New Zealanders are paying the price.

Secondary school students should be exposed to the hands-on industries that can fire up their appetite for learning – industries that play a crucial role in our economy such as building, horticulture, automotive repair, farming and plumbing.

Trades and industry training can inspire students who struggle in more academic subjects. It can encourage them to stay in school. It can motivate them to obtain the skills they need to make the most of their talents.

We have a growing shortage of skilled workers in New Zealand. This prevents many Kiwi firms expanding their businesses. It creates bottlenecks throughout the economy. While industry cries out for workers to fill highly-skilled, highly-paid positions, employers report that many school leavers don't have the basic skills they are looking for.

It’s time to put things right. It’s time to put hands-on trades and industry training back into the heart of our school system.

National has a vision for doing this. Last week John Key announced several initiatives that we are pursuing to improve trades and industry training in our schools. These include:

  • Piloting a school-based apprenticeships scheme, similar to the one run successfully in Australia
  • Working with teachers and industry to increase the pool of people able to teach trades and technology classes
  • Encouraging business and industry to help provide schools with resources for trades training
  • Funding a select group of schools to run "Trades Academies" – centres of excellence that specialise in providing school students with learning opportunities relevant to a career in trades or industry
  • Giving schools more flexibility to offer their students trades and industry training outside the school gates

These are just some of the things we are looking at, and you can expect more details in coming months. National will work with trade groups, training organisations, schools, businesses and community groups to develop these initiatives and explore other ways to help school children develop the practical and technical skills they are interested in.

Let’s work together to put trades and industry training back into our schools. Let’s provide an environment that inspires all students to learn. Let’s give our teenagers the opportunities they need to succeed.

15 June 2007

Over-regulated, over-taxed and over-stressed: an economy out of whack

For eight years we have been told how well Labour is managing the economy. For eight years Dr Cullen has said that he knows best how to spend our money. But now a lot of people are challenging that.

Last month’s Budget contained another huge surplus and no tax cuts for hardworking Kiwis and their families. It showed that government spending is growing twice as fast as the economy, while real incomes slip further behind Australia’s. It revealed that Labour is not doing enough to increase the capacity of the economy and help it to grow. All the while, more and more Kiwis are paying more and more tax.

On June 7, the Reserve Bank raised the interest rate for the third time in a row. And for the third time in a row it said that increased government spending is fuelling inflation. Thanks to the Budget, homeowners and businesses will face higher interest rates for longer.

Then, last week, in response to the jump in interest rates, the NZ dollar soared and the Reserve Bank intervened in the currency market for the first time since 1985. The high interest rates, caused by high inflation, forced the dollar to unsustainably high levels.

This is causing manufacturers like Fisher & Paykel, Skellerup and Click Clack to lay off staff. It is causing a great deal of pain for our sheep and beef farmers. Small exporters are struggling to stay afloat, and it’s these exporters who earn foreign currency that pay for our imports - our flat-screen TVs, cars, ipods and petrol.

Eight years ago Labour inherited an economy that was humming along nicely, but now things are out of whack. Our economy is over-regulated, over-taxed and over-stressed.

Labour has been too greedy. It has spent too much effort harvesting fruit from the garden, and not enough effort helping it to grow. It has thrown around taxpayer’s money without enough care for where that money goes or how well it is spent.

Things would be different if National were in government. We would concentrate on increasing the capacity of the economy. We would focus on spending carefully and sensibly where it has the most benefit.

We wouldn’t be facing such high inflation. Our interest rates wouldn’t be soaring. The Reserve Bank wouldn’t be fiddling with the currency to keep our exporters afloat. And Kiwis would have more of their own income to invest in their future.

For eight years we have been told how well Labour is managing the economy. It’s time we realised we have been misled.

11 June 2007

Doing more in our hospitals

Our hospitals will always find it difficult to match the increasing demand for healthcare. But at the very least, they ought to provide an ongoing improvement in the level of service as health spending increases. More spending combined with better technology and better management should lead to more operations, more specialist assessments and less bureaucracy.

The opposite is happening in New Zealand. According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Health, more health spending has lead to fewer operations, fewer specialist assessments and more bureaucracy.

Since 2001 (the year DHBs began), government health spending has increased by almost $4 billion a year – a whopping 58% increase. Meanwhile, the number of patients receiving elective surgery has declined from 100,800 in 2001, to 99,500 in 2006.

The number of people receiving a first specialist assessment has also fallen. In 2006, 1500 fewer first specialist assessments were carried out than in 2001. This is despite the fact that GPs referred 40,000 more patients to hospitals for such assessments. Tens of thousands of Kiwis are simply not getting to see the specialist they need to see.

In the last six years the population has increased by over 6%. As a bare minimum, the number of elective surgeries and first specialist assessments should have increased in proportion with that. The fact that they have not means that our health system is failing to keep up with population growth.

When it comes to health bureaucracy, the news is just as grim. Between 2001 and 2006, 1500 extra doctors were hired in the public health service, while 1600 additional health bureaucrats went on the payroll. For every new doctor doing the rounds and performing operations, there is at least one new bureaucrat shuffling paper. That just isn’t good enough.

After eight years in government, Labour doesn’t know how to stop the wasteful spending in our health system. After $4 billion more health spending every year, there has been little improvement in the level of service. After promising to improve our health system, all Labour has done is increase bureaucracy.

Quite clearly, it’s not a lack of money for health that’s the problem, but a lack of good management.

National will change that. We will demand improvements as health spending increases. We will stop wasteful spending. And we will re-focus our hospitals on doing more of what they should be doing – more elective surgery and more first specialist assessments, rather than more bureaucracy and more paper-shuffling.

11 June 2007

Reducing building costs

Every week I talk to more and more Northlanders fed up with the time it takes their local council to process simple building consent applications.

Sometimes it’s a new warehouse or home, but most of the time it’s just a farm shed or a deck extension. People can’t do the building work they need without forking out hundreds of dollars in council fees and putting up with months of delays. This is holding up development and hurting the Northland economy, and it’s not good enough.

The bulk of the blame lies with the Government. It should be making it easier to get building work done. Instead, it is making things more complicated. The Department of Building and Housing is heaping a whole lot of new regulations on our local authorities and they are struggling to deal with them.

By the 30th of November, the government requires all territorial authorities to become approved Building Consent Authorities. This means that councils must become accredited to inspect and approve the building plans that they already inspect and approve.

Sounds crazy? You bet.

Accreditation is expensive and adds a new layer of paperwork, bureaucracy and cost to work that is already being done. It will do nothing to increase the speed and efficiency of processing building consents. Councils are already overloaded with building applications. Applicants are already facing unreasonable costs and delays. The accreditation process will only make things worse.

Many local authorities are struggling to get accredited, and it’s likely that at least one of the councils in the north won’t be able to meet the 30th November deadline. If they aren’t accredited in time, they won’t be able to issue building consents, and that will be bad news for Northlanders who want to do a bit of DIY over the summer.

Labour needs to tidy up this mess, but doesn’t know where to start.

National does. As the National Party spokesman for local government, I’m working with my colleagues to put together our local government discussion paper. This will be coming out soon, and will be the foundation of our policy for the sector. We’ll be looking for your input, but in the meantime, we are focussing on reducing the bureaucracy and compliance costs that are driving up your rates.

Put simply, we want to inject a good healthy dose of common sense into local government – something that Labour has failed to do in the eight long years it has been in government.

5 June 2007

Tough on crime

Too many people tell me they are worried – worried about gangs, worried about drugs in the neighbourhood, worried about thugs threatening their communities.
It’s no wonder. The number of robberies, grievous assaults and abductions is climbing. There were 11,000 more violent offences last year than when Labour came to power in 1999.

Labour is struggling with law and order. Karl Kuchenbecker was shot dead by a murderer on parole. Liam Ashley was killed in a Corrections van. Twenty corrections officers have been stood down or sacked for corruption, and an entire prison is under investigation. Labour needs to do a whole lot better on law and order but doesn’t know where to start.

National does. We are currently putting together a discussion paper that will be the foundation of our law and order policy. We will focus on innovative crime-fighting strategies that deal with the underlying problems in our communities.
We have a growing underclass in New Zealand and too many people see crime as a way of life. We need to restore the rungs on the ladder of opportunity and help Kiwis climb out of the underclass – and that means starting young.

Every child needs a decent education. For starters, they have to turn up to school. It is disgraceful that over 30,000 kids bunk classes every week. We will support truancy officers, principals and parents to help get school-kids off the streets.
National will crack down on habitual criminals. Repeat violent offenders will not get parole. We will give police the right priorities. They will spend less time collecting revenue from speeding tickets and more time putting thugs behind bars.

Other government agencies will play their part. If criminals live in a state house and cause havoc, why shouldn’t the government boot them out and give that house to a family on the waiting list?

Prisons should be tough. Prisoners shouldn’t be waltzing around on heated floors, high on ‘P’, texting their criminal mates on the outside. They should be getting off drugs and developing the skills they need to live when they get out. More prisoners should be on the kinds of courses that get them off the conveyor belt of crime.
A National government will have firm policies on law and order. From preventing crime, to policing crime, to punishing crime – National must do better than Labour is doing. And we will.

26 May 2007

Turbo-charging charities (even more)

Back in February, John Key spoke about New Zealand’s growing underclass, and how National wants to turbo-charge the voluntary sector. He announced National’s policy on the tax treatment of charitable donations, which aimed to encourage people to give more of their income to charities.

Labour attacked the policy at the time, but they have since changed their mind. In the Budget, Dr Cullen announced that the Government will adopt our policy from April next year.

This is great news for community groups and great news for the thousands of Kiwis who rely on their help.

But the Government can do so much more. That’s why, on the day before the Budget, John Key announced five further steps that National will take to help community groups and encourage the good work of volunteers.

First, payments that charities make to volunteers to reimburse their expenses will be tax free. Currently, if a charity reimburses a volunteer for their costs, it has to be declared as income, and income tax must be paid. That just isn’t fair.

Secondly, we will make honoraria payments tax free up to $500 per year per person. At the moment, when a charity makes an honoraria payment to a volunteer it is seen as taxable income. Again, it’s not fair that the Government takes a cut.

Thirdly, where the Government asks a community group to provide a service, we will expect to pay the full cost of that service, including relevant overhead costs. Community groups must be able to recover their overheads when providing a service; otherwise they can only deliver that service by using volunteers or money raised through donations.

Fourthly, we will reduce bureaucracy and compliance costs. When the Government funds a community group to provide a service, that money should go towards helping out on the front line, not filling in forms that government departments often don't read anyway.

And finally, we will investigate developing a venture capital fund to boost organisations that have capacity to do more, or do things differently.

National supports Kiwis who help their communities, and we support the good work community groups do. We want to promote a culture of generosity and volunteering in New Zealand, and our new policies will be five bold steps towards that goal.

16 May 2007

Doing what Dr Cullen can't

This week is Budget week, and it's a chance to have a good think about where the country is going over the next year or so.

At long last it looks as though Dr Cullen is adopting a few of the policies that National has consistently called for like cutting the company tax rate. But this won't be enough to stop our slide down the OECD rankings.

We need to do so much more. We need to lift Kiwi incomes and improve the performance of our economy. That's why, last week, John Key outlined 10 things that National will announce in its first Budget in government.

We will:

  • Commit to an ongoing programme of personal tax cuts - real tax cuts that give real money back to hard-working New Zealanders. This includes our policy of eliminating the cap on charitable donations to encourage more people and businesses to donate to charities and community groups.
  • Make substantial investments in public transport, roading, telecommunications, water and energy. We will involve both the public and private sectors to dramatically improve these services.
  • Pass an amendment to the Resource Management Act. This will reduce the costs, delays and uncertainties of the RMA while reaffirming National's commitment to the environment and our blue-green vision for New Zealand.
  • Knock the rough edges off our labour laws. In particular, we will introduce a 90-day trial period to give a chance to those people who are most vulnerable in the labour market.
  • Deliver incentives for people to choose work rather than welfare.
  • Reintroduce competition into ACC to cut the costs of accident insurance.
  • Detail a programme to help the 1 in 5 Kiwi children who are not succeeding at school, including implementing our national standards policy for primary education.
  • Stop the flood of new regulations and red tape.
  • Introduce immigration policies that attract the skilled migrants New Zealand needs.
  • Put government on a sensible spending track that recognises the value of the core public service, but doesn't expect it to do everything that communities, families and individuals can do so much better.

We need a bold Budget that focuses on doing these things. We need to lift incomes for every Kiwi. We need to move up the OECD rankings. National's first Budget will deliver what Dr Cullen can't.

13 May 2007

Councils hire thousands more staff in five years

National Party Local Government spokesman John Carter says Labour “buck-passing” is partly to blame for an explosion in ratepayer-funded staff at councils.

Reports today, say local body wage bills have soared by 50% in five years and the number of people employed by councils rose by almost a third.

“That’s in line with my own calculations based on census figures, which show there were 31,407 people employed in local government in 2001, compared to 38,874 at the 2006 census.”

This represents an almost 24% increase over five years, just short of the 28.7% rise reported in today’s ‘Sunday Star Times’.

“Labour has forced local authorities to beef up their numbers in order to deliver on the dozens of pieces of legislation that have loaded costs on to ratepayers.”

Mr Carter says it is hard to reconcile the build up of extra staff, with the long delays associated with the processing of resource consent applications and planning approvals.

27 April 2007

The Three "Es": economy, education and environment

Many people tell me they are sick of hearing yesterday’s arguments. They want to know what we will do to make New Zealand better tomorrow.

The world is changing rapidly, and in order to succeed in it we need to maximise the contribution of every New Zealander. Our success will hinge on three key themes: the three “Es” of economy, education and environment.

We need an economy that keeps up with the best in the world, and provides Kiwis with competitive incomes and meaningful work. Without this we won’t have the quality of life, and education and health services that Kiwis have a right to expect.

National will encourage innovation and hard work by taxing people fairly, and ensuring red tape doesn’t get in the way of good ideas. And we’ll make New Zealand attractive for entrepreneurs by ensuring we have world-class infrastructure.

We will up the ante on broadband. It’s shameful that so many businesses, including many in Northland, are in broadband ‘black-spots’, unable to get Internet speeds demanded by global commerce. Dramatically improving broadband speed will be an economic priority for National, and soon we will announce policies to achieve this.

We need an education system that lifts people up by giving them the skills and knowledge to foot it with the best in the world.

We need to help the one-in-five children failing at school. That’s why, last month, National unveiled its policy on setting national standards in reading, writing and maths, requiring all primary schools to test kids against those standards, and ensuring the results are reported to parents.

In the months ahead we’ll make more education announcements, including how National will fix the NCEA mess.

We need an environment that enhances our way of life and helps New Zealand sell itself to the world. Soon you will hear our practical solutions on forests, clean water, biosecurity and tackling climate change.

The three "Es" of economy, education and environment will be crucial for our success. We will come back to them time and again as we outline our vision for the future, but they are not our only concerns.

We need to stop growing crime and to crack down on the offenders who threaten our families. We need welfare policies that motivate beneficiaries to make the best of themselves by moving into work. We will pursue one standard of citizenship, and celebrate the diversity of all New Zealanders. And we will refocus the health system on what is best for patients, not what is best for the bureaucracy.

There is much to do and not much time to do it in. Tomorrow is nearly upon us.

27 April 2007

Supporting the service sector

It was moving to see so many young people taking part in Anzac Day services last week.

They were honouring our soldiers who fell in battle, and paying tribute to those Kiwis who are helping to build a better world today. They were showing their support for the spirit of service, which sustained this country through its most difficult times.

Today, the spirit of service lives on in our charitable organisations. Up and down the nation, voluntary groups provide care, support and enjoyment for their fellow Kiwis, and help New Zealanders of all ages take a greater part in their communities.

These groups are as varied as they are numerous; from sports clubs to cultural groups, from RSAs, Parent Teacher Associations, Salvation Army, Rural Women, etc. They rely on the energy and devotion of numerous volunteers who give their money and time and are seldom acknowledged.

New Zealand is only as strong as its communities, and the best way to strengthen our communities is to encourage the growth, ingenuity and vitality of groups like these.

And yet, too often the government ignores the role that voluntary groups play in our national well-being. Too often Labour’s answer to every social problem is more government. Too often it creates a new law, a new regulation, a new agency or a new layer of bureaucracy, even when these problems are best handled by voluntary groups that deal with them every day.

That’s why National wants to turbo-charge the voluntary sector. We know that what we get out of our communities is what we put into them. We know that sometimes more government is the problem and not the solution. We know that making our voluntary groups more effective will make our communities stronger.

Earlier this year, John Key asked National’s spokespeople to focus on, listen to, and work with community groups. He appointed my colleague, Paula Bennett MP, to a new role as the National spokeswoman on Community Programmes, to raise the profile of charitable organisations and champion their needs. And he announced National’s new policy on tax deductions for charitable donations, which will encourage individuals and businesses to give more support to community groups.

Helping voluntary groups to grow and thrive doesn’t just help people in need. It promotes the spirit of service. It builds a greater sense of belonging and shared pride in our communities. In so many ways, it makes New Zealand a richer place.

20 April 2007

Good parents are not crims

The best way to send a message about violence in the home is to make the law clear and precise and to enforce that law strongly and vigilantly.

Which is what makes the anti-smacking bill, and the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, so extraordinary. According to the MPs who support it, the law will not be enforced strongly or vigilantly.

The bill will criminalise every parent who occasionally corrects their children by smacking them lightly. Supporters of the bill say this doesn’t matter because no one will be prosecuted for correcting children with a light smack. But if they are right, and if no one is going to be prosecuted for correcting their child with a light smack, then it should not be illegal. It should not be a crime.

This is bad law. The backers of this bill are saying “Trust the police and the courts not to enforce it”. The law should not depend on which police officer or which judge or which jury you happen to get on the day.

So let’s take a step back and take a fresh approach.

It’s clear from the debate about smacking that almost every Member of Parliament claims to want the same three outcomes.

We want to prevent parents using the Section 59 defence of reasonable force to get away with violently beating their children. We want to lower the threshold on what is considered acceptable physical discipline, in terms of its intensity and its duration. And we don’t want to criminalise good parents who occasionally give their children a light smack.

If most of us have the same objectives, as Helen Clark and Sue Bradford claim, surely we can devise a sensible replacement for Section 59.

It’s Parliament’s job to determine what does and what does not constitute a crime. It’s not Parliament’s job to determine what does and does not constitute effective parenting. That’s the job of parents.

So let’s replace Section 59 with a law that meets the objectives we all claim to share, and that doesn’t punish good parents who occasionally correct their children with a light smack.

It can be done. This is what we do. We deal with legislation of far greater complexity than this all the time. And, given the Government’s light legislative agenda, we have the time to get this right.

Parents have the most important job in our society. We owe them nothing less.

18 April 2007

Tolerating Violence

No one should have to tolerate violence in this country. No one should have to live with the crime that blights so many of our neighbourhoods.

We have a low population and small communities. The government should be able to get crime under control, keep repeat offenders in prison, and meet its most basic obligation to its citizens – establishing and maintaining law and order.

Yet crime is increasing, and it’s getting nastier. According to statistics released last week by the Police, crime in 2006 was 4% greater than 2005. Violent crime was up 5%, burglaries were up 6%, and sex crimes were up 8%.

Violent crime has grown under the Labour government from 39,688 offences in 1999 to 50,731 offences in 2006. That’s an increase of almost 28%.

Worse, we are suffering a wave of violent youth crime. Since 1999, total apprehensions of 14- to 20-year-olds for violent offences have increased by 43.4%. In the same period, apprehensions for property crime have increased by 29% and for sexual offending by an astonishing 82%.

People often argue about what crime statistics mean, but one thing is clear – the government is not delivering safer communities. It is gradually losing control of law and order. While it struggles with parole problems and a Corrections Department in chaos, violent crime is relentlessly increasing.

Inaction is not an option. A National government will confront crime in our communities and focus, in particular, on reducing youth crime.

Too many young New Zealanders are falling into lawlessness. Only by breaking the inter-generational cycle of violence can we protect our neighbourhoods, halt the increase in crime, and give teenagers at the margins of society a real chance.

We will get tough on truancy. We will encourage innovative policing. We will demand enforceable outcomes from family group conferences.

We will encourage non-government organisations to become more involved in social work and run innovative programmes for preventing crime and helping crime victims. We will cut bureaucracy to allow government agencies to work together more closely to combat crime. And we will introduce education and welfare policies that promote achievement and help young Kiwis escape from the underclass.

For too long we have tolerated violence and youth offending in our communities. It’s time to do all we can to put a stop to it.

23 March 2007

Papering over the cracks

When the first sleepy days of the New Year were shattered by the news that Graeme Burton had murdered an innocent man and maimed several others while on parole, New Zealanders rightly looked for answers from the government.

In the past few weeks those answers have hardly given them, or the victims, cause for comfort.

Corrections cleared itself of wrongdoing in its handling of Burton’s parole. This was in spite of the fact that it left Burton to his own devices for a week after he’d breached parole twice because his probation officer was on leave. And it was in spite of the fact that Corrections failed to undertake the required visits to his home to make sure he was there.

Unlike Corrections, the Parole Board at least had the decency to admit some responsibility for its decision to parole Burton in the first place. But it’s still baffling that the Board came to a pre-determined view that he should be let out early, despite his 91 previous convictions, his escape from prison, six psychological reports that put him at high risk of re-offending, and allegations that he was beating up other inmates. In this case, as in all parole decisions, the Board should have given the public the benefit of the doubt, rather than Burton.

The public might have looked for solace in the Prime Minister’s announcement this week of changes to the parole system, as well as the hint of a wholesale review of the justice system.

Trouble is, we’ve seen this all before. In the wake of the mass murders committed at the Panmure RSA by parolee William Duane Bell in 2001, the government also made changes to the parole system. They created a zero tolerance register, to keep a close eye on the most dangerous offenders. Graeme Burton was on that register. And like Bell, he was left without supervision while his probation officer was on leave, and did not receive regular home visits.

Changing the rules around the edges isn’t enough when dealing with a department like Corrections. The Liam Ashley tragedy revealed at least ten instances where Corrections procedures were not followed, any one of which could have otherwise saved his life.

The PM’s talk of wider changes to fix “cracks and fissures” in the justice system appears more promising, but with no terms of reference, no deadlines, and no details of who will actually undertake the review, it looks suspiciously like papering over the cracks instead.

In fact, the only specific idea she mentioned was National’s proposal to re-merge Corrections back into the Ministry of Justice. The biggest problem with law and order is the lack of leadership, as the various agencies seek to absolve themselves of responsibility or shuck it on to each other. Corrections and its cowboy culture need to be dragged in from the frontier and put under the watchful command of a unified Ministry of Justice. Only then will there be consequences for failure, and New Zealanders will get the answers they deserve.

19 March 2007

Cancer treatment troubles

MPs often have heartbreaking conversations with constituents who are worried about what’s happening in our hospitals. Some of them are patients struggling to get radiotherapy treatment. Some are friends and relatives of patients who want to know why our hospitals are failing to meet the Ministry of Health’s best care guidelines for treatment.

Rapid treatment for cancer is vital. The longer patients wait for treatment, the less effective it can be. The Ministry of Health’s best care guideline for treatment for most breast cancer patients is four weeks. This means that if you have breast cancer, and you’ve had, for example, a partial mastectomy, you should not have to wait more than a month for radiotherapy.

However, following the radiotherapist technician strikes last year, waiting times for radiotherapy soared. Current waiting times for many patients in most of our District Health Boards (DHB) are between 8 and 12 weeks, and have been as high as 16 weeks in Auckland and 18 weeks in Palmerston North.

This is soul-destroying. A delay in radiotherapy increases the chances of the cancer coming back.

Waiting times have become so bad that the Auckland and MidCentral DHBs are sending patients to Australia for treatment. While I support this measure as a stop-gap, packing Kiwi patients across the Tasman is not ideal.

A course of radiotherapy is about five weeks. That’s five weeks patients spend away from families and jobs, five weeks of stress and dislocation that takes its toll and hinders recovery. Surely we should be able to care for our own people here?

Five years ago, when our DHBs first sent cancer patients to Australia due to a lack of radiotherapy resources, the government promised to put things right. It hasn’t.

The Ministry of Health’s data for radiotherapy planning is 13 years out of date. The linear accelerators, used for radiotherapy, are in some cases old and on the verge of breakdown. Astonishingly, despite our population increasing by more than 8% in the last 7 years, the number of functioning linear accelerators has increased by only one. And while we are training more than enough radiotherapy technicians, they are finding it hard to get jobs and, like our patients, are heading overseas.

This is another case of poor spending and poor foresight in our hospitals, which the government is incapable of fixing, despite spending $4 billion more on health. And it proves that it’s not a lack of money for health that’s causing problems, but a lack of good management.

Cancer patients deserve better. They deserve certainty. They deserve recommended treatment times. And they deserve a health system that doesn’t force them to leave the country just to get the basic treatment they need.

12 March 2007

Tackling Truancy

A good education can be one of the only true escape routes from poverty, crime and welfare dependency for many Kiwis. It’s also a way of making sure that more New Zealanders have a fair crack at getting higher-paid work.

We cannot have a knowledge economy without New Zealanders who can read and write at a level which enables them to participate in a modern society.

Reducing New Zealand’s disgraceful truancy rate in schools is one of the most basic things any government can do to improve the achievement levels of many young New Zealanders. It‘s common sense. Young people cannot learn the skills they need if they do not attend school and get a basic education.

The statistics from the Ministry of Education’s latest truancy report are bleak. In a typical week in 2006, the equivalent of 45,000 children bunked a day at school – an increase of more than 6000 since the last truancy survey two years ago. That’s the equivalent of an astonishing one in five secondary school students failing to show up to class.

Truancy is a huge problem and it is harming the welfare of young people. Studies show that persistent truants are more likely to be violent when they grow up, more likely to be victims of crime, more likely to abuse substances, and more likely to be in long-term unemployment.

Getting truant kids back to school and engaging them in learning must be one of our highest education priorities.

Most of us know that the right to an education in New Zealand comes with responsibilities. Teachers and truancy officers work hard to get students to school, but ultimately it has to be the responsibility of parents.

The great majority of parents know that ensuring their child is in school is part of being a parent. Some parents of truants face big challenges, but make huge efforts to get their kids back to school.

Unfortunately a small number of parents thumb their noses at truancy officers and principals who work tirelessly to reduce the truancy rate. We need to give truancy officers greater support and more options when faced with disinterested parents. Increasing the number of prosecutions for truancy is the best way to drive home the message that parents are legally responsible for ensuring their children are at school.

If a parent continually ignores their parental responsibility to get their children to school, then they should be prosecuted so that a strong message is sent to that family and the rest of the community. Taking this issue more seriously will play a vital role in stemming the increasing rates of truancy in New Zealand.

Northland charities to benefit from National’s charity tax policy 1 March 2007

Charities in the Northland region will benefit through National’s bold new tax policy on charities, says National Party Member of Parliament John Carter.

“There are many community groups and organisations in Northland doing fantastic work in our community. The people of Northland are also very generous with their time and hard-earned money to these groups.

“This policy means community groups registered as ‘donee organisations’ working in Northland will receive a significant boost.”

The policy will:

  • Remove the $1,890 cap on charitable donations. Donations of any amount up to an individual’s total net income will be eligible for the 33.3% rebate.
  • Remove the 5% cap on the level of donations that can be deducted by companies and Maori authorities, meaning they will be allowed to claim a deduction for any level of charitable donation. In addition, all businesses, not just publicly listed or widely held companies, will be able to claim deductions.
  • Remove gift duty from all donations.

“The benefits for the sector in the Northland region are huge, given that for every dollar rebated, the charitable sector will have benefited to the tune of $3.

“National estimates the policy will result in foregoing tax revenue of around $60 million to $90 million a year.

“In his Burnside speech, National Party Leader John Key said he wanted to turbo-charge the efforts of private and community groups making a difference. This policy shows National means it.

“It’s a fundamental part of a civilised society that people do things for one another, and do them selflessly, without being compelled, and without the Government organising it.

“Unlike Labour, National doesn’t think that more government is the solution to every social ill.”

23 February 2007

Bike Wise Week

People often say that you should be thankful if you’re in good health, and I completely agree. I’m sure there have been times when we have worried about the health of our families above many other material concerns. When a family member or friend is taken ill, it can be very stressful.

During these times, we turn to our health system. We have to rely on health providers, GPs and hospitals for their expertise and levels of care. And while health practitioners work long hours and are dedicated to the care of others, I know that many of us have concerns about the state of the system itself. We hear of people being dumped from waiting lists, patients who cannot access the most effective drug treatments, and cancer patients being sent to Australia for radiotherapy.

I know that people have these worries, and I share them – there is nothing worse than feeling powerless when we feel the system has let us, or our families, down.

However, taking some responsibility for our own health and well-being is important too. There is much we can do to keep ourselves in good health and prevent many lifestyle-related illnesses.

I know from personal experience that it is often hard to find the time to get to the gym or pool, especially when juggling work and family commitments. I’ve particularly noticed this since becoming a Member of Parliament! But trying to incorporate some regular exercise into our lifestyle is something we can all do - and will all benefit from.

This week is ‘Bike Wise Week’ (24 February – 4 March). Bike Wise Week is a nationally coordinated event promoting biking as an easy, fun and healthy means of transport and enjoyment.

Tens of thousands of people are taking part in events throughout New Zealand. The national event is coordinated by regional and city councils, sports trusts, businesses, environmental groups, parents, public health units, cycling advocates, retail sector, schools and more.

In Northland there are events currently taking place. Go to www.bikewisebattle.co.nz for more information if you’d like to take part.

Cycling is excellent exercise, and can be easily integrated into our daily lives. It can be a form of transport to and from work, or a leisure activity at the weekend to enjoy the wonderful countryside around Northland.

23 February 2007

The ‘anti-smacking’ bill

A lot of people have spoken to me in recent months about the proposed ‘anti-smacking’ bill. I’ve heard from many people worried they’ll be criminalised for being ordinary parents, and giving the odd light smack.

I’ve also heard from people who support the bill and think that no one should be able to hide behind Section 59 and get away with assaults on children.

This week Parliament voted on the bill’s second reading. I voted against the bill. I want to be very clear with you about why.

I think New Zealand’s record on child abuse is a terrible shame to us as a nation. I think a strong message must be sent to all New Zealanders that our children are precious and should be free from harm in their families. I also think we all have to take responsibility for our record on child abuse and be role models for good parenting.

However, does anyone seriously believe that the bill to repeal Section 59 will change anything for the children growing up in violent families? No, no one does. What people who support the Bill hope is that by changing the law we will send a message to all New Zealanders that child abuse is not acceptable.

I agree that a message needs to be sent. Child abuse is not acceptable. But neither is criminalising good, ordinary parents who are doing their best.

My colleague Chester Borrows is proposing an amendment to the bill. It is intended to be a sensible compromise. We do not want to see parents and guardians using the law to get away with committing serious assaults on children, so some amendment to the Crimes Act is desirable.

We also believe that parents who give the odd light smack should not have the burden of fearing prosecution. Parents have a right to know they are parenting within the law.

The proposed amendments seek to limit rather than abolish the use of reasonable force in disciplining children so, for example, the use of implements would be outlawed.

We all want to see our children safe. We all want to send a message that child abuse is not okay. What we’re proposing is a commonsense way of doing this, allowing good parents to continue what they’re doing without breaking the law, and stopping those who do harm their children from exploiting that same law.

If you would like to read more about the proposed amendment, please visit the Members Bills section on our homepage, at www.national.org.nz.

16 February 2007

Labour: light on ideas, heavy on hype

In her opening speech to Parliament [last week], Helen Clark set out her legislative agenda for the coming year. She called for substance not slogans, yet the speech was littered with her latest slogan - sustainability. In fact, the new buzz word featured no less than 33 times.

Helen Clark says she wants New Zealand to be carbon neutral. But this is a far more ambitious target than any country in the world has ever adopted and is ever likely to adopt. And the policies the Prime Minister announced in her speech are a drop in the ocean compared to the substantial measures required to move us towards carbon neutrality.

The proposals will amount to a total reduction in emissions of less than 1 million tonnes of carbon each year. Compare this with the 75 million tonnes of carbon we currently produce each year - a total which is rising all the time and at a rate faster than in almost all other OECD countries.

The Government wants to introduce a minimum biofuels sales target - something National proposed in its environment discussion paper last year. But Labour’s scheme won’t take effect until 2012, meaning it won’t contribute anything to meeting Kyoto commitments. The real priority should be to offset the forest clearance that has accelerated under Labour. The 11,000 hectares lost last year alone represents a loss of 1.2 million tonnes of carbon - double that gained by the biofuels target.

This month the Government is commissioning the 385 MW E3P gas turbine in Huntly - the second biggest thermal power station ever built in New Zealand. This new station will emit millions of tonnes of carbon ever year and has a projected life of 40 years. How will this bring us closer to Helen Clark’s goal of carbon neutrality?

The Prime Minister’s speech also did nothing to address the issues that could really improve the lives of New Zealanders. It ignored the issue of tax cuts and failed to address the increasingly wide gap in wages and living standards between New Zealand and Australia.

The speech also failed to acknowledge the fact that severe hardship is increasing, tens of thousands of kids are going to school hungry, violent offences are going up, drug use is rising, and the police are overwhelmed. The parole changes she outlined are timid and simply show that the Government has lost confidence in Corrections and its Minister.

Just like the empty rhetoric of previous speeches, the sustainability hype will become yet another broken promise. Last year we were given the slogan ‘economic transformation’, yet we remain in the bottom third of the OECD.

13 February 2007

Opportunity in education

The end of the summer holidays was marked last week with a return to school for the majority of Kiwi kids.

We all know the importance of a good education. It is fundamental to providing children with opportunity and helping them get on in life, regardless of background.

There are huge social costs that we all bear when a child somehow slips through the gaps and fails to get a basic education after ten years of compulsory study. Research shows that while our best students can foot it by any measure on an international stage, many of our poorer students are being left behind.

Ministry of Education figures state that almost one third of our young people leave secondary school without even the basic NCEA level one qualification. In low-decile schools, the picture is even worse - only two in five students leave school with a qualification.

Figures released last year by NZQA show that 27 per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds are failing the most basic literacy standards as part of their NCEA qualification. And 21 per cent are failing their numeracy core skill requirement.

The Education Review Office tells us that 36 per cent of schools are either ‘not effective’ or only ‘sometimes effective’ at engaging Maori students.

National wants to see greater standards, excellence, and choice in education. We want to see national literacy and numeracy standards and a system that delivers fair and consistent school qualifications. We want to empower parents by giving them access to accurate and straightforward results information.

Addressing these factors is important, but ensuring our poorer students have a fighting chance of success means we also need to tackle broader social problems in our communities and homes. It is common sense to expect a student’s home life to play a major role in his or her development.

This where our Foods in Schools initiative plays a part. Right now, we are encouraging the business community to work with us in backing a programme of providing food in low-decile schools for kids in need, to ensure that no one turns up to primary school without a proper breakfast.

National understands the severity of the problem, we’re not pretending this is the magic bullet to our social problems, but it is a positive first step.

Our aim is to make sure that all kids, regardless of background, have a chance to lift their skills, achieve their goals, and ultimately make a positive contribution to New Zealand.

2 February 2007

The Kiwi Way: a fair go for all

Recently our leader, John Key, gave a speech setting out his priorities for a National-led Government. I would like to outline some of those themes.

We have, over generations, evolved a set of essential New Zealand values. What John calls ‘The Kiwi Way’. Part of The Kiwi Way is a belief in giving people a fair go and a belief in opportunity for all kids, regardless of background. Today, however, too many are being left behind – a growing underclass.

We’re not just talking about poor communities, but about places where the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have been broken.

Around the country there are many places like this. The worst are home to families that have been jobless for more than one generation; home to families destroyed by alcohol and P addiction; home to families who send their kids to school with empty stomachs and empty lunch-boxes; places where LA-style gangs roam the streets. Places where there is a complete lack of hope.

Dealing with these problems is a priority for National, both in opposition and in government. Our response will be based on our enduring principles - individual responsibility, support for families and communities, and a belief that the state can’t and shouldn’t do everything.

John makes three important points. Firstly, the solution does not lie in simply throwing more money at the problem. If it did, this Labour Government would have solved it a long time ago.

His second point is that we must tackle the interconnected issues of long-term welfare dependency, crime, illiteracy, poor parenting skills, social exclusion, malnutrition and drugs. This requires changes to a whole range of government services and National’s spokespeople will be coming up with policy proposals to address these problems.

The third point is that we are all in this together. National knows there are not-for-profit groups, businesses, and individuals who have good ideas and who are dedicated to making their communities better places - City Missions and the Salvation Army; the people who work at Barnardos, or on their local marae.

A National government will team up with these organisations to deliver better services to those in need. John pointed to two examples where this could be achieved.

We will challenge the business community to work with us in backing a programme of providing food in low-decile schools for kids in need, to ensure that no child turns up to primary school without a proper breakfast. Secondly, we will work with schools, sports clubs, businesses and community groups to ensure that kids from deprived backgrounds are not excluded from sport because their parents can’t afford it.

Listening to, and working with community and business groups to develop these kinds of practical solutions will be led by our new Community Programmes spokeswoman, my colleague and National MP, Paula Bennett.

We are determined that we can do better as a country; that our children’s futures will be determined by their abilities, their motivation and their hard work, and that we can preserve The Kiwi Way.

 

Archives

My Columns
Media Reports
Photo Gallery
Press Releases
Speeches