Sunday, 23 May 2021

Speech: David Seymour – Honest Conversations


Thank you very much to the organisers of ACT’s 2021 rally. It's great to be here with a crowd of 500 people. 

To Malcolm Pollock for his tireless work and Regan Pollock for hiring him out again, and the whole committee, thank you for making this possible.

I should thank the ASB Waterfront Theatre for having us, it really is the best venue and we’re grateful for everyone who works here for supporting our event.

We often forget that our democracy is powered by volunteers, people who never get a cent from the taxpayer or the party. Some of our most generous donors are actually those who give their time.

One of our chief volunteers is actually our president. Congratulations, President Tim. By almost every metric you are ACT’s most successful President and I’m thrilled the membership have elected you for a second term.

Tim is supported by a talented board, especially Vice-President Isaac who has worked so hard on a new constitution for ACT. Isaac in turn was supported by the Rules Committee.

We need a new constitution because our membership has grown so much over the past two years. The Electoral Commission defines a party as 500 or members, so our members literally are the party. Today we have thousands and thousands up and down New Zealand.

One of the goals of the party is to grow our representation in Parliament.  Who of the people who were here last July thought ACT would get 10 MPs?

You’ve seen Brooke and Nicole and Simon and Mark today. How good were our speakers? Our efforts to present a short, sharp show here mean there’s another five you haven’t heard from, today at least.

Chris, James, Karen, Toni and Damien make up the other half of the ten. Together we have formed a tight team that is increasingly respected as the effective opposition in our Parliament. They are supported by the most excellent staff. I want to thank all of our team for the contribution they make.

The ACT Party strongly opposes taxpayer funding of political parties. We depend on the generosity of donors who fund our party. I particularly want to thank the donor who has made the generous pledge today. If you’ve ever thought about giving a dollar to ACT, you can give two for the price of one thanks to their generous offer.

I especially want to thank Chris and Jackie Reeve who helped ACT when there was one of me. Not only financially, which is publicly documented, but with his encouragement. “Every dog has its day,” he’d tell me when we polled under one percent again. It’s because of people like Chris and Jackie and Jenny Gibbs, plus over 5,000 other people who’ve made a financial contribution to ACT that we’re here today.

I‘d like to thank my neighbors in the Epsom electorate for re-electing me again. It’s an honour to represent our electorate in Parliament. I’d especially like to thank another group of volunteers within the electorate, people like John Windsor on my electorate committee who drive our voluntary democracy locally.

I’d especially like to thank nearly quarter of a million New Zealanders who placed their faith in ACT’s team for this term of Parliament. We are be working hard for you to keep your vote and attract new supporter to our cause of a free society.

Finally thank you. Booking the ASB Waterfront Theatre six months after the election was a brave move for the organizing committee. I thought if we sold 300 tickets we’d be doing well. We sold out the floor.  

If you’re like me, you want honest conversations about the future of our country, and that’s why we’re all here today.

Why We Need Honest Conversations

Honest conversations is becoming a popular phrase. I said we needed them in my February State of the Nation Speech. Only three months later I heard Mike Hosking interview a woman from Papakura, and she kept saying it too. She copies me a lot.

Thank goodness we have the ACT Party, I hate to think who the Nats and even on occasions the Labour-Green Government might be getting their ideas from otherwise. It shows why ACT’s ideas and principles are essential to the next Government.

The first conversation you and I want to have is about this Government’s motivations.

People who want only the best for New Zealand. Those who want to build their farms and their firms to provide for their friends and their families can’t understand what is driving this Government’s agenda.

Is it malice? Is it incompetence? Is it ignorance? Or is there some secret agenda behind this Government’s actions?

That’s the subtext to the questions I’ve fielded up and down the country on our Free Speech Tour, and my Epsom Street Corner Meetings.

Some people ask if the Government’s agenda is orchestrated by some unseen organization. The problem with most conspiracy theories is that they give Governments too much credit. Especially this Government that literally can’t organize a vaccination in a pharmacy.

The best way to think about this Government is that they are overgrown student politicians. If you got to the Victoria University Students Association, the Auckland University Students’ Association, or the Otago University Students’ Association, you’ll see the names on the boards. Past presidents like A. Little, C. Hipkins, G. Robertson, A. Verrall.

These characters graduated from student union politics. They’re now in charge of an entity that spent $140 billion last year, controls an Exclusive Economic zone of four million square kilometres, and makes laws for five million people and their property… It’s going about as well as you’d expect.

That explains the mix of ignorance and malice towards business. When they put cost after cost onto business, they believe they’re just levelling the ledger.

The idea that people in business pay themselves last, in hard times less than the minimum wage to keep their business going, is foreign to our current Government. What’s another holiday… another five days sick leave… more aggressive minimum wage increases? The latest proposal is for employers to pay when parents go to parent teacher interviews.

But that’s not enough to explain everything going on out there.

The Vacuum

No. There has to be some other explanation for the agenda being carried out. It is accelerating to the point it makes so many New Zealanders so uncomfortable… But in a virtually one-party state, they don’t feel that they can say so.

The first thing was the creation of a vacuum. In the hokily-dokily happy-go-go-lucky days of the last National Government, serious thinking about important questions left the field.

The business community abandoned serious advocacy for free markets and limited Government, preferring to just go with the flow. The most basic questions fell off the agenda.

Where does wealth come from?

Why can’t we build enough houses?

Why are our student’s test scores falling?

Where is the aspirational vision for the New Zealand we leave for our kids?

The biggest issue for the fifth National Government was whether we’d change the flag or not.

Complacency ruled while the world changed, first quietly, and now rapidly.

We never thought that one day we’d wake up and find a law where 10 percent workers could force compulsory unionism on the whole hospitality sector.

That’s the so-called Fair Pay Agreements. A policy where 1000 workers can initiate a process that must end in a compulsory union contract for a whole industry, even if everyone else involved votes against it twice.  Those of us in the real world face accountability – if we do a bad job, we’re finished.  Not so for the lucky few, who will be protected for life.  And that means we all lose out.

We never thought kids might be made to apologise for the privilege of their colour.

That’s the new teaching resource, where kids have to acknowledge their ‘white privilege.’  Think about that for a second. Dividing our children according to their race, or heritage… Is that the approach we want to see?

We never thought the Government might actually pass a law where insulting someone could land you in jail for longer than assaulting them.

That’s the proposed ‘hate speech’ law, where you can go to jail for three years just for offending them.

I saw recently that the Police say they are ‘working with gangs’ to reduce violent crime… Now, do we really want to see the Police working WITH gangs… Or actually doing their job, and locking up criminals where they find them?

They are banning oil and gas exploration without so much as a cabinet paper… and plastic bags without studying where plastic pollution came from.

We never thought that our genuine goodwill towards the environment would be hijacked by pure populism that does nothing for environmental outcomes.  It bears repeating - not a single gram of carbon will be saved by these measures… But you can be your mortgage on who will be footing the bill.

We certainly didn’t think Labour and National would form a consensus that a Government Minister should centrally plan the economy by rationing carbon credits.

That’s the Zero Carbon Act where the Minister decides how many carbon credits your industry gets. You can’t buy them overseas even if your offshore competitors are getting them cheaper.  So, if you’re trying to do business and create jobs in New Zealand?  Tough luck - your Government is working for the other side.

We never thought the Human Rights commission would define a lesbian as a biological man OR woman, but that’s happened too.

We never thought that this government would allow children to die through the limited funds given to PHARMAC, but find $486 million to restructure the healthcare system. In ever sane world, restructuring actually saves money.

I could go on, but you get the picture. This had to all come from somewhere… And where is what people would like to know.  And why aren’t we allowed to question any of it?

The Opinionators

Another Group’s busy filling that vacuum I mentioned. I call them the opinionators.

They’re not people who do… but those whose whole job is opine on the lives of others.

Opinionators are thriving throughout the Labour party caucus. 30 per cent of Labour MPs used to be union organisers, compared with only 0.026 per cent of the New Zealand population.  The rest tend to be academics, lawyers and – this may shock you – some are even journalists.

There’s a revolving door between the unions and Labour. If you want to know why Labour spent most of its energy in opposition fighting charter schools then look no further than the former head of the PPTA being a Labour MP.  They didn’t shut charter schools… just made them take on union contracts.

Opinionators are in the legal profession. Law students are learning that Tikanga and the common law must be fused to create a new type of law. Senior judges are finding that Parliament’s laws have to be interpreted with tikanga in mind. New Zealand seems to be pioneering a new form of law.

At least some journalists hold views totally at odds with the audiences they report to, thinking that New Zealand requires what they call a Partnership State between two groups of people, even if it’s totally incompatible with liberal democracy where all people have equal political rights.

Don’t forget the civil service. Only the Ministry of Education could come up with a history of New Zealand that includes Maori, colonization, and the exercise of power…But not a word about, you know, business, technology, science and innovation, which have contributed a thing or two to New Zealand history, too.

The Ministry of Education is easy to pick on though. What about the Treasury? It now produces wildly optimistic forecasts of economic growth and unemployment. Meanwhile the boffins upstairs literally try to put a price on knowing your neighbour and otherwise add up your ‘wellbeing.’

Then there’s the academics. Actually, let’s not bother.  95 percent of the profession vote one way… Which should worry anyone who cares about a real debate of ideas… testing alternatives and, y’know… reasoning for yourself.  As Chris Baillie put it brilliantly last year, ‘I care less about WHAT you think than HOW you think’.  When you think about our kids and the next generation… This stuff really matters.

Altogether the direction of our country is being set not by those who do but by those who opine. Those who report, unionise, lecture, and hector. The one thing they do not like, is other people expressing their opinion.

Most New Zealanders have never felt more shut down, shut out, de-platformed or, in a word, cancelled, than they do today. Someone summed it up for me this year when she said:

This is supposed to be an age of enlightenment, but you have to walk on eggshells with everything you say.

The Reawakening We Need

It is time to reawaken New Zealand to debate the real issues we face as a country. There is a vacuum at the top of our politics, which it falls to us to fill with a fresh approach… One that reflects the values of New Zealanders… One that reflects how people actually think for themselves, become prosperous and free.

We start with enormous advantages, but there is no law to say that a great country cannot decline. Many have before.

We need a set of values to take the field of political contest with. We need to unite New Zealanders behind good ideas.

The first one draws on the liberal tradition that’s built up over hundreds of years. Each person in New Zealand has their own inherent freedom and dignity.  And we believe people should value dignity and respect over ‘compassion’ and ‘tolerance’.

We are not to be classified as having a different set of rights based on our race or identity.

We should not ‘cancel’ people because we don’t like what they say.  If an idiot says something reckless or racist, we should have the confidence in our ideas to win - Not to try to ‘shut them down’… Because then, they win.  We should respect the right of person to freedom of thought, and freedom of speech.

We each face our challenges and are each born with a claim to on five millionth of the opportunity this country has to offer. No more, and no less.

That includes democracy. When there is a governing body with people to be elected, each adult has an equal opportunity to elect seats at the table.

Along with equal rights comes equal opportunity. That’s where we are not doing so well.

We see business as a force for good. Business is not some evil that exploits people and the environment. That’s the view of the opinionators, who are overwhelmingly funded by the taxpayers they patronize. 

New Zealand is a nation of small businesses.  Business is a place for human creativity. It is the nexus of investment, skills, ideas, products and customers. It is people coming together -voluntarily- to achieve together what cannot be achieve alone.

That makes business one of the most beautiful human inventions, and Government should celebrate it, not constantly attack it.

Because we value business, we see wealth as a positive sum game.  That means ‘win-wins’.  There is no limit to how much wealth can be created, if the conditions are right to unleash human ingenuity.

We need Government to stop the miserablist game of setting one group of people against one another…. Taxing and regulating one group of voters to reward another. Instead, Government should be asking the question, how can it create the conditions for more wealth, spread throughout the country?

But these values are not enough on a piece of paper. We need to bring them alive. If we’re going to have honest conversations about the future of our country, we need to rebuild our democratic engagement.

Rebuilding Democracy

Too many of the bad laws we have occur because there is no proper scrutiny or accountability.

Some people ask me why ACT took such a strong position on firearm law reform.  The simple truth is, it wasn’t about guns, it was about the law. If the Government could go after a group of law-abiding New Zealanders for pure political theatre, who’s next?

Turns out it was property investors.  Or as the government calls them, ‘Speculators’.  The Government’s tax policy masquerading as a housing policy was a full-frontal attack on property investors, supposedly in aid of first home buyers. But it ended up helping nobody – apart from the PR department, of course.  First home-buyers are still priced-out… And now property investors are getting clobbered, which means renters are squeezed too.  But that’s not the picture they want you to see.

We could add to that the freshwater laws imposed one size fits all on farmer regardless of the varying soils, topography, climate and practices up and down New Zealand.

We could add the knee-jerk oil and gas ban.

We could add the constant impositions on employers, a return to compulsory unionism being only the latest threat.

Or we could add a simple-but-bizarre story I heard about earlier this week.

I visited a daycare centre where they told me they face 303 regulations the minute they open every day. They are forced to scan Government announcements constantly, just to find out what the latest rules are.

They thought they were following them all when ERO paid a visit. They were told that Nappy Cream is a medicine, and, as such, parents must sign for each and every application.

I wish I was making this up.

They tried it for a while, but it was ludicrous. Parents had to sign for multiple applications each time they picked their kid up.

Then they realized that if they applied a medication the parents provided, then they only needed one signature every three months.

So, you can see where this is going. They now have a shelf of near identical nappy creams with each child’s name on them.

The Prime Minister once adorably posted on Instagram that she got nappy cream on her blazer. I wonder if she knew her Government had subjected it to a comprehensive regulatory regime. If you thought the nanny state was bad, now we have the nappy state.

What all these laws have in common is that they are ineffective yet good for a quick headline, and the people affected are never consulted.

Because I believe New Zealand deserves better than this, I’m launching ACT’s democracy policy. It is two pieces of legislation that together will make three changes to our constitutional settings.

The Regulatory Standards Bill

The first is the Regulatory Standards Bill. It has already been drawn from the biscuit tin and it will be debated in Parliament in July.

The Regulatory Standards Bill requires that politicians and civil servants ask and answer the right questions when making a law or regulation.

  • What is this law for?
  • Does another law already address the problem?
  • Have the relevant people been consulted?
  • Do the benefits of the law outweigh the costs?
  • Who pays the costs, and who gets the benefits?
  • Are private property rights impaired, and if so what is the justification?

The bill has two features to give it extra bite. The first is that if any group or individual feel a law or regulation has been made without adhering to these principles, they can get a declaration in court that the law was made in a way that’s inconsistent with good lawmaking.

That doesn’t cancel the law, but it changes the incentives for politicians and bureaucrats. It says, if you want to make knee-jerk pointless laws without regard for the rights of people they effect, you’re going to rack up a lot of hostile declaration.

The second bite is that it doesn’t just require Parliament to pass it. Like the End of Life Choice Act, it will only become law if the majority of voters vote for it to become law. It is putting the final say in the hands of the people… Not the politicians.

Four-year term

The next initiative, and the subject of my second Members’ Bill, is the four-year term. But it’s a four-year term with a catch that I’ll come to.

Our democracy is rare in having a three-year term. Of 190 countries with parliaments, 103 have five-year terms, 74 have four-year terms, and just nine have a three-year term.

This does not make for sensible, sober lawmaking. Governments are elected near the end of the year, and barely negotiated coalitions arrangements get their feet under the desk before it’s Christmas.

Then they come back to Parliament after Waitangi, remember New Zealand all but shuts down for the best part of two months every summer.

To properly consult and design a policy, then get it through the cabinet process, then draft the legislation, then get it through parliament, then implement it, to do all of that properly, takes two years.

By this time you’re ready for another election. No politician in the real world is going to risk all their work being undone because they lost by a couple of seats, so they have to compress their program into one term.

That may sound doable. In reality there are events. Financial crises, earthquakes, pandemics, terrorist attacks, and just plain old politicking.

In reality almost no other country has a three-year term because it’s nearly impossible to get anything sensible done in that time.  Even local Councils have ten-year plans… Why on Earth doesn’t a national Government?

A four-year term is something nearly everyone agrees with, but nobody has the courage to actually campaign for. It’s time to make it happen.

But, we wouldn’t just give politicians an extra year without a catch. The catch is independent select committees.

Independent Select Committees

One reason people oppose a four-year term is that we have so few checks and balances.  And with Labour given a sweeping overall majority, now even those checks on its power have been weakened further still.

Under ACT’s policy, a four-year term is only possible if the Government turns over Select Committees to the opposition.

Let me explain.

There was something different about the Epidemic Response Committee last April. People were captivated, and not just because they were stuck at home under house arrest.

I think it was the fact that, very oddly, it had an opposition majority and an opposition chair.

The Government was wielding extraordinary powers, and the Committee was not supposed to consider any legislation, so the Government was prepared to consider an opposition majority committee in return for Parliament not sitting.

These odd circumstances meant a committee where:

  • Opposition MPs got to ask hard questions of what the Government was up to
  • The witnesses were often people the Government would rather not have had called
  • The majority of the time was used for scrutiny

People say Parliament as it should be, run by people who are not conflicted as representatives of the Crown.

That is far different from the fiasco we saw on the Health Committee earlier this month. Because that committee is dominated by a Labour majority, with a Labour chair, we saw the Minister, who was supposed to be held accountable, getting fawned over and peppered with patsy questions by junior members of his own party.  Great coverage for the Minister, I’m sure… but a poor show of accountability.  New Zealand deserves better.

Now, imagine these select committees have real legislation to deal with. They can actually change it. The Government can still change it back in the Committee of the Whole House Stage –they did win the election—but there’s going to be a lot more debate

  • Government backbenchers will have to defend their Government’s policy, massively increasing their leverage within Caucus
  • Select Committee submitters will know that the Committee can actually change the legislation
  • Committee of the Whole House stage of law making will be much more intensive, as Ministers often argue to change legislation back to their original position.

Now, I recognise that talking about parliamentary procedure is not a great way of driving voters into ecstasy… So let me put it this way.

Independent Select Committees would amount to a voice of the people asking the tough questions of Government laws. They would be a dozen or so mini parliaments where dissenting voices would dominate.

They would really make ministers and civil servants justify every part of their law, transparently and openly for all to see.  Where a policy’s a winner, its support would be justified.  If it was divisive or damaging… Then that would be exposed for all to see.

Under ACT’s four-year term with a catch, the three-year term would actually remain the default. It would offer an incoming Government the possibility of going four years, if it turned control of select committees over to the opposition.

Like the Regulatory Standards Bill, the Four-year term with a catch would need approval by referendum.

ACT’s democracy policy brings New Zealanders back into the conversation about the future of our country.

With these rules, the Government of the day would not be able to run roughshod over the rights on New Zealanders with a hail of knee-jerk regulations lost in a slew of wedding announcements.

We would rebuild and retool our democracy to give ordinary people a greater say in the future of the country they’re paying for.  The Government says, ‘trust us’.  I say, ‘we place our trust in you’.

Investing in the Next Generation

More than anything else happening today, what kids are learning will affect what sort of country New Zealand is in 30 years’ time.

When we look at the sustained slide of New Zealand students in international comparisons for reading, science, and maths… Well, it is right to be worried about our future.

I talk to high school principals worried about the knowledge base of new students they’re receiving. University lecturers say they increasingly get students who cannot string a sentence together.

The slide shouldn’t be surprising once you consider the fads that have taken over education over the past 30 years. In fact, it is almost intentional.

‘Child-centred learning’ tells us that children should not be taught the knowledge our civilization has built up over thousands of years. They should play and discover the world in their own way. Constructing their own reality.

It seems almost quaint to say it in the current environment, but teachers should be experts in their subjects… Passionate about knowledge… And transferring it to the next generation.

If you believe in social justice, you should want teachers to transfer knowledge to all kids, but especially those who won’t get it in the home.

Denying them the opportunity for real knowledge is a form of cruelty.

The requirements for teacher registration are a real eye opener. Code and Standards of professional practice go on continually about:

“Promoting the wellbeing of learners and protecting them from harm… Being fair and effectively managing my assumptions and personal beliefs… demonstrating a commitment to a Tiriti o Waitangi based Aotearoa New Zealand.”

The closest it gets to actually enhancing knowledge to pass on to students is:

“Select teaching approaches, resources, and learning and assessment activities based on a thorough knowledge of curriculum content, pedagogy, progressions in learning and the learners.”

You’re also required to pass a police vet and be mentally and physically capable of teaching, whatever that means, and committed to develop and practice te reo me ngā tikanga Māori.

Now, I’m of a generation that sees Māori language and culture as a strength of New Zealand, but here’s the problem:  What about maths? What about English? What about science? Is it possible that those things would be helpful too?

The education system is not going to transfer basic, foundation skills to the next generation if the requirements for teachers don’t put it front and centre for professional development.

ACT’s policy for teacher standards is simple. Alongside the requirement for being committed to develop and practise te reo me ngā tikanga Māori, teachers should be committed to developing their passion and expertise for maths, English, and science… Those things that will also determine our future.

At a minimum new primary and intermediate teachers must be proficient in mathematics to NCEA level 2. How can teachers inspire students to love numeracy if they themselves didn’t get past NCEA Level 1?

Teaching Excellence Reward Fund

Finally, some people might wonder, will increasing the requirements reduce the supply of teachers? It might. The truth is that the Government does not value teachers enough by the amounts they are paid.

What’s worse, perhaps the greatest insult is that they are all paid the same. The best teacher and the worst teacher in New Zealand are paid the same. Under union contracts, the only way for a teacher to get paid more is to serve more time.  And, I know this drives good teachers nuts, as it does parents… They too want to be accountable for doing such an important job to the best of their ability.

ACT’s solution is the Teaching Excellence Reward Fund.

It is modelled on Auckland Grammar’s Academic Endowment Fund. The fund at that school is funded by donations. The school community pitches in and the Headmaster awards good teaching with cash bonuses.

ACT says this innovation should not only be available to teachers at New Zealand’s wealthiest state school. We say every principal should have such a fund.  Every teacher should have the opportunity to earn more – much more – for a job well done.

ACT’s Alternative Budget, set aside $250 million for a new education initiative.

There are approximately 50,000 full time equivalent teachers in New Zealand.

Each principle would get a fund equal to $5,000 per full time equivalent teacher employed, but they don’t have to give $5000 to each teacher.

Instead, they will have to have a policy for rewarding teaching excellence.  They might emphasise teachers that mentor others.  It might be their goal to attract staff in subjects that are difficult to fill, such as science, technology, engineering and maths. It might be for teachers who contribute to the extra-curricular life of the school.  The bottom line is this - Standards in our schools will get driven up…. As will the pay of the best teachers.

They might choose to give $20,000 to a teacher for excellent teaching.

Now, you can imagine all the usual objections… Education is just so different from every other sector in the economy that the same rules couldn’t apply.

Really? People who think that just need to say it out loud a few times so see how silly it really sounds.

If we are serious about where we want this country to be in 30 years’ time, then we need to invest in education now.  We need to invest in teachers.  No amount of restructuring, as this Government loves to do, could possibly match investing in the people who are actually at the chalk face.

ACT’s Teaching Excellence Reward Fund will help reward the best of the profession and bring the best into the profession. It is an idea that nobody but the union organisers, inside and outside the Labour caucus, will be against.  And that is as good a reason as any to get behind it.

Conclusion

Honest Conversations is a call for bringing New Zealanders back into the debate about the future of our country.  There are many, many hard-working people who are anxious about the future direction of our country, but feel they cannot say so.

The last decade shows how dangerous it is for those who do to leave the direction of our country up to those who opine.

I say that we are listening… We know that you deserve better – that New Zealand deserves better. And ACT is your voice in the parliament.

Building an alternative vision for a genuinely free society.  A nation where your efforts make a difference in your life, and the lives of those YOU care about is a major project. We should not underestimate the challenge of it… the desperate need for it… or the worth of it.  And we need your help if we’re to get it done.

I hope you’re with me, because this country doesn’t belong to the opinionators, it belongs to the do-ers and creators… The free-thinkers and the hard-workers.  It starts with us.

We have made a start, but with your help we will go much further.   A year ago, they said ‘you’re just one’.  Well, now we are ten times that size… And outside parliament, we number in the tens of thousands.  So join us, and take part in the vital, urgent, honest conversation we all need to have about our country’s future.

Thank you.