Kia ora koutou katoa,
Malo e lelei,
Ni sa bula vinaka,
And thank you for the warmth of that greeting.
I’m really pleased to be here in Dunedin.
For all of the creativity, history, and beauty that this city holds, you still had me at ‘cheese roll.’
I’m also pleased to be here because this is my first leader’s speech at a Labour Party conference.
That means my first order of business is a very simple one – to say thanks.
When I took over the leadership from Andrew at the beginning of August last year, the election was seven weeks away.
I said we’d run the campaign of our lives. And we did.
To all those who worked the phones, pounded the pavements, stuffed the letterboxes, erected the hoardings, or did countless other tasks – thank you from the bottom of my heart.
There are a few people I also need to pay special tribute to.
To our president, Nigel. To everyone in our party organisation from branch level to the New Zealand Council.
To my deputy Kelvin, and my parliamentary colleagues. My warm thanks for the support you give me, and for expanding. We welcomed 17 new MPs to our caucus after last year’s election.
And that Class of ’17 included ten women – a fitting tribute to mark Suffrage 125, and let’s be honest, just a bloody good addition to our team.
There are also a few people outside of the Labour movement I want to acknowledge. The Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and his New Zealand First team for their commitment to the success of the Coalition Government.
The Greens and in particular their Co-Leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson for their goodwill and co-operation in this most MMP of governments.
It’s not easy to describe the journey since the Labour caucus handed me the profound responsibility of leading our party.
A number of words come to mind.
Which you could call a polite set of F words.
None of that probably seems surprising.
You’d probably expect that in this job I get to meet amazing people every day. And I do.
That I get thrown a diverse set of challenges and exciting opportunities. And I do.
And that there are some days that are tougher than others. And there are.
But I will be honest, there are some things that have surprised me about this job, and I want to reflect on one of them.
It’s fair to say I get a few. In fact every MP probably does.
I still remember, as a brand new member of parliament, being given the opportunity to feature alongside a National Party MP in a weekly breakfast TV slot known as ‘The Young Guns’.
One day I received an email from a member of the public politely advising me that she thought my hair clashed with the National MP, and perhaps I should consider dying it.
I replied that perhaps she could make the same suggestion to the other MP. After all, his hair was shorter.
But whether they’re positive, negative or indifferent – it’s not the letters themselves that have been surprising, it’s the profound impact they have had on me.
I should have known that was possible. I remember some years ago watching old footage from when David Frost carried out an interview with the late great Prime Minister Norman Kirk in 1973.
He asked him a broad open-ended question – what was his most memorable incident since taking office?
He could have talked about absolutely anything. Instead, he said this, in that quietly spoken way that he often adopted.
“I would think the thousands of letters that came in December after we’d made a nominal payment to social security beneficiaries and not the fact that we’d given an extra week’s pay, but in those letters, and there were thousands of them, came through the fact that there were a whole section of our community who were missing out on ordinary everyday things.
One women wrote in and said “I had my first pair of shoes in seven years” she had trouble with her feet and had to have them specially made and “oh what a comfort to have new shoes” and you know, you don’t think in 1972 or 73 of people not having access to basic things like that but literally, there are thousands.”
A Prime Minister who was gifted a question on national television, had an opportunity to speak on anything, and he talked about a woman who wrote him a simple letter about buying an extra pair of shoes.
There are many things that have changed since Kirk’s time, but the power of this simple form of communicating with the people we are here to serve has not.
They tell me when we are on the right track or the wrong track.
They tell me when we have made a difference, or when we need to make a difference.
They tell me what children think, what adults think, and sprinkled in-between, what my mother thinks.
But there is a particular group you won’t be surprised that I keep coming back to.
They write to me in their hundreds.
About just about everything, like this letter from a young child with some interesting economic philosophy.
“I think we should make everything free because then there would be no such thing as poor people.”
And a seven year old who clearly thinks my powers have no limits and wrote.
“Dear Jacinda, can you change the boring grey toasters into bright colours please. Perhaps you could pass a law?”
The lovely kids of Rolleston Primary in Canterbury sent me a letter with their wish list of ideas to make New Zealand a better place. It reads:
“Stop the pollution.
Make our rivers clean for swimming.
Don’t close any more schools because it makes children sad.
Stop cyber bullying.
No nuclear bombs.
Help the homeless.
Look after the animals.
Help beached whales.
Help the sick, the poor and the old.”
I can assure you Rolleston Primary, it is on our list too!
But if you ask me the same question that was asked of Kirk all those years ago – what has been the most memorable letter since I have become Prime Minister, it’s not quite toasters.
It’s the families’ package. It has been my greatest source of pride, and I hope is yours too.
Under this package some 384,000 low and middle income families will receive on average $75 a week extra once it’s fully rolled out.
In addition, we are helping one million people heat their homes in the coldest months of the year with the Winter Energy Payment.
And we are supporting young families with the $60 a week Best Start payment for their first child, and extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks.
I know what a difference this more than $5 billion package is making, because people have told me.
Just a few weeks ago a mother of three wrote to me and said:
“Dear Jacinda. I have been meaning to email you for a while now.…I have a son, step daughter and step son…times are just so tough.
Money doesn’t go very far at all so I had started working as a cleaner part time….Anyway, I just wanted to say that the extra money in family tax credits that we receive because of your government has meant I can work one less cleaning job, creating less stress, less tiredness and a bit more of the mother I want to be.
Thank you from the bottom of me and my family’s hearts.”
And another wrote this in a letter:
“With the extra money I am able to buy my kids some more school socks with no holes in them, I am able to buy warm sheets and blankets so they are warmer at night.”
But whether it’s shoes in the 1970s, or sheets and socks now – it’s the fact people are going without these things that stands out to me the most.
These letters may have been written to convey thanks or acknowledgment, but I just see further work that needs to be done.
Kids should be warm at night.
A mum shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs to get by.
There are still huge systemic problems that we all know we need to address. And that’s why I want to pay particular tribute to our Finance Minister, Grant Robertson.
Grant knows and understands those challenges, and has made it a priority to transition New Zealand to a sustainable and inclusive economy, where everyone benefits from prosperity.
He is completely focused on well-being, and I know our well-being budget next year will demonstrate that.
But alongside this transformation, sits one of the issues that we campaigned so hard on, and that remains one of our most pressing issues.
Because if we want to increase the incomes of families we need to reduce their biggest cost – housing.
Housing will be one of the things that our success or otherwise, will be measured against. And I welcome that challenge.
Already there are over 1200 more public housing tenancies than a year ago.
In our last budget we funded 6400 more public homes and housing New Zealand are investing $4 billion to not only build this new stock, but to renovate existing state houses so they are warm and dry.
And then there is KiwiBuild.
Last Saturday I stood alongside Phil Twyford as we welcomed 18 families to their new neighbourhood in McLennan, Papakura. They were the first families to buy a KiwiBuild home.
It was a huge day. I was standing near the front of one of the families’ new homes when I overheard Phil Twyford say to one of the people gathered at the street party “this is one of the most important days of my political life”.
And I can see why.
KiwiBuild will give thousands of young families who have been locked out of home ownership a chance to buy their own affordable home, not through a subsidy, but through the government using our scale and buying power to do what the market hasn’t.
It’s an example of the government seeing a problem, and fixing it. And that’s exactly what Michael Joseph Savage did.
I like the way he summed up his housing agenda though. As new state house tenants were moving into their new homes, Savage once told a gathered crowd that:
“We are trying to cater for everyone…we do not claim perfection, but we do claim a considerable advance on what has been done in the past.”
But housing is not the sum of our ambition. We are after all the Labour Party, we will always have a focus on the value and dignity of decent work with decent wages.
That’s why we have increased the minimum wage, extended the living wage to core public sector workers, and improved our pay equity laws.
But it’s also why we are so focused on skills and training, especially for the next generation.
I’m really proud for instance of our Mana in Mahi, or Strength in Work, programme. It will help some 4000 young people to gain apprenticeships.
I know it will make a difference, because people in the industry have told me that. Here’s just one letter I received after we introduced this programme:
“Mana in Mahi trade training initiative is the most intelligent skills training proposal witnessed thus far.
The proposal of businesses topping up wages to the minimum wage is a step in the right direction. Implemented across the whole work spectrum should be the next move. It will promote business expansion and God forbid it may even claw back some ownership of our economy.”
And that of course is not the only tool we’re using to drive job opportunities.
We will continue to work with our regions on regional development strategies, and supporting them through the Provincial Growth Fund.
And we will continue to reach out to communities, including Māoridom, to find solutions to economic and social challenges through partnership.
We have set up the Māori-Crown Relations: Te Arawhiti portfolio to oversee the Government’s work with Māori in the post-settlement era – our recent partnership on housing in Porirua with Ngati Toa shows just what is possible.
But so have the existing partnerships with Maori around governance and the environment.
I’ve talked a lot about the environment in the past year.
Our changing climate.
Our dirty rivers.
The pollution of our precious coastal and marine areas by plastics.
And yes, I do think plastics warrants its own special mention. And why? Because the kids told me so. And they didn’t tell me just once. They wrote and told me hundreds of times.
Like the student in the Waikato who wrote me a letter to say:
“Dear Prime Minister, I’m only 10 years old and I am trying to convince you to ban plastic bags. They are killing our wildlife, they swallow the plastic and it gets stuck in their bodies and they can’t breathe. It is our responsibility to stop this.”
I agree. And so with the help of Green Party Minister Eugiene Sage, we have.
The past year has also seen David Parker pursue a comprehensive plan to restore our rivers to becoming swimmable again, James Shaw’s progress on our climate change goals, and with the ambition of New Zealand First in the mix, our plan to plant one billion trees is well under way – for those who don’t follow the tree counter as religiously as I do, we are up to 60.6 million.
As you have probably picked up by now, if you pick a subject, I will have received a letter on it.
It is fair to say some subjects generate more mail than others, and as much as Grant will be disappointed to hear this, the Budget Responsibility Rules haven’t been the subject line of too many messages.
And yet we all know that some of our critics gloomily forewarned that Labour in government wouldn’t be able to balance the books.
But Grant – a proud Dunedin boy – has proved the naysayers wrong.
He has kept a firm grip on the country’s finances and he is focused on running surpluses which is a vital part of our plan.
A surplus is a safety net.
Nobody knows what’s around the corner. The surplus is insurance against those risks.
Right now the volatile international situation means having that cushion is more important than ever.
But we are also balancing that financial security with the pressing social needs that the Government promised to deliver on. That is what we were elected to do.
We can’t do everything at once, just like it doesn’t make sense to spend every cent you earn.
But we are investing carefully in the areas that need it most. Things like health, housing, education.
In the seven or so years since the Canterbury earthquakes, there has been insufficient investment across these important areas.
Over the next four years we’re turning this around, and significantly. In fact we’re investing $24 billion more than the last government in those priority areas, because that’s what we need to start rebuilding New Zealand’s infrastructure, and improving the wellbeing of our people.
We’re also prioritising managing the debt that arose from the GFC and Canterbury earthquakes, because we always need to be prepared for the challenges of the future.
And there are challenges.
We may have a lot to be proud of – long list of things we have managed to do these last 12 months – but we have many things we are yet to do too.
But we will miss the urgency if we just characterise that list as statistics or numbers.
If I say for instance that there is a lot to do in education, that there has been significant under investment over the last nine years, that we came into office facing the reality that not even population growth had been factored into future spending by the last government – all of that may be true – but it doesn’t factor in the human face.
I want to share with you an example of what does, with a letter written to me by the aunty of a boy with special needs.
“We as a whānau have tried with dead ends where ever we turn so I then turn to you Prime Minister and plead for your help, he is missing out on so much and it just isn’t fair. Please help us find a solution for this young boy who deserves the best chance living with autism.”
There’s a lot in that letter that stood out to me – including the words “the best chance.”
You may have heard me talk about my goal to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child.
We simply will not achieve that unless we ensure that every single child, no matter where they live, no matter their background or ethnicity, their ability or disability, has the best education possible.
We’ve already begun the enormous job of rebuilding our public education system.
In the last budget we provided funding for 1500 more teachers.
We provided the first per-pupil funding increase to ECE in ten years.
We have begun plugging a massive hole – running to hundreds of millions of dollars – in New Zealand’s schools rebuild budget.
We got rid of National Standards to free teachers up from the red tape and hours of compliance so they could focus on teaching.
And we provided the biggest increase in learning support in over a decade.
This funded around 1000 extra places for students with complex needs so they could get specialist support such as speech therapy.
Teacher-aide funding received an extra $59.3 million.
About 2,900 deaf and hard-of-hearing students and approximately 1,500 low-vision students got more help, and around 1,900 more children with high needs in early childhood education will now receive support each year.
Yet there’s more to do.
There are still children who need extra support to learn.
Maybe it is help to hear, or concentrate, or to be calm.
If a child needs support and is not getting it, that’s not fair, and I’m not prepared to tolerate it.
So today I want to say to parents, to kids, to teachers, to aunties, to anyone who has asked for more support for those with additional needs – we’ve heard you.
Today, I am announcing that we’ll be employing a new workforce of approximately 600 Learning Support Coordinators to work alongside teachers across the entire country.
Their job will be to make sure that children with extra needs are identified. They’ll work alongside classroom teachers to ensure kids with high and complex physical needs get the support they deserve.
This will be a game changer for those children.
It will be a game changer for teachers, who’ve been crying out for these roles, so they’re freed up to do what they do best – teach.
And it’s a game changer for those children who don’t need additional learning support, who’ll get more quality learning time with their teachers.
These coordinators – similar to what we now call SENCOs – are part of a new way of doing things and have been developed by my New Zealand First colleague and Associate Minister of Education, Tracey Martin, through the draft Disability and Learning Support Action Plan.
But teachers have been urging governments for some time for this kind of role to be dedicated and fully funded. And for good reason.
At the moment schools ask their existing teaching staff to do the work of Special Education Coordinators. But teachers tell us this is a drain on their time and takes them away from their classroom teaching.
That’s why these coordinators will not only do that job for them, they will also support teachers, with professional advice and guidance about how to teach children with additional needs.
But more than that – these new roles will give parents a single point of contact with someone who understands the needs of their child, and will advocate for them as they move through their time in the school.
This is a big change.
It will mean investing $217 million over four years – and these 600 fully funded Learning Support Coordinators are just the start.
Taken as a whole, this investment alongside what we have already done, means that in just 12 months in office, we’ve committed nearly half a billion dollars to special education and ensuring every child has access to the best education possible.
Thank you Tracey for your work in this area. And thank you to Chris Hipkins for your leadership in education too.
I’ve shared with you today what people say when they get in touch with me.
In finishing I will tell you what I would say if I was writing a letter to New Zealand.
I’d start by saying thank you.
Thank you for supporting us.
For giving us this incredible privilege of being in government.
For allowing us to create a fairer, kinder New Zealand.
And I would finish with a big giant PS,
Let’s keep doing this.