Unfinished Business - Nelson West Rotary Speech 10 Feb 2021

It’s a privilege to again be able to give this my 26th address to Nelson West Rotary in these extraordinary times, albeit in a different role as a National list MP.

It was a disappointment to lose the Nelson Electorate in Election 2020. The Covid crisis, and the Governments competent management of it created a king or shall I say a Queen Tide that was impossible to defeat nor did National help itself.

The Ballot box matters

As much as I am a believer in Nationals core values of enterprise, individual responsibility and freedom, I am first a democrat who respects the ballot box. This may seem like stating the obvious, but democratic values globally are on the slide as we have seen this year with the events in Washington and Myanmar/Burma. That’s an issue I want to cover later in this speech.

There were three consolation prizes in the election 2020 result of which I take some encouragement.

Nelsons Electoral result

I received more votes last year than in the previous election in 2017 and was the only National constituency MP to achieve that. The change that caused my loss was the collapse in the Green candidate vote from 2017 switching in 2020 to the Labour candidate and now MP.

 

The second consolation prize was in being elected as a list MP. It was not my preference, but the role enables me to continue to be an advocate for this region and to help National in the important rebuild.

The third consolation in the election was helping as Nationals Drug Spokesperson defeating the referendum on legalizing cannabis. Drugs are part of the problems and not the solution. We will not make New Zealand a safer or more successful nation by liberalising our drug laws.

I have titled this evening’s speech “Unfinished Business”. There were a number of Nelson constituency issues during the last term that exposed flaws in our laws. I feel a deep sense of duty to the people who have suffered an awful injustice or loss of a loved one to deliver.

But I want to begin with an overview of the big issues for Nelson and New Zealand as we embark on 2021.

In my speech on Climate Change last January, I mentioned the need to be mindful of other risks and specifically mentioned the corona virus in China. Little did I realise then how it would dominate 2020.

Over 100 million have been infected and 2 million have died. New Zealand’s isolation, small population, early lockdown and national teamwork have enabled us to limit our infections to 2300 and deaths to 25. The challenge for 2021 is to successfully roll out the Covid-19 vaccine.

Covid Vaccinations worldwide

It is urgently needed to protect New Zealand from the disease and to enable our communities and economy to recover.

Your Rotary movement has been a trail blazer for vaccines with its incredible work internationally to eliminate Polio.

There is good reason to be nervous about the Governments vaccine program after the problems with delivery of the measles vaccine in 2018 and the flu vaccine last year.

The Government told New Zealand in November on the Covid vaccine “we will be at the front of the queue.” The reality is we are already months behind. A hundred million people have already been vaccinated in the UK, US, Europe, Israel and in Asia and not just in countries where Covid is rife. Singapore, whom has been equally successful in minimising the toll from the pandemic has already vaccinated 200,000 including front line staff. Australia is domestically manufacturing the vaccine to ensure its supply and is ahead of us.

Getting our border staff vaccinated is critical to adding a further line of defence to our borders. Auckland University Professor Des Gorman is right to say that the Governments vaccination strategy is too slow and flawed.

National strongly supports the science of vaccination. It is our best hope for beating Covid-19. We will work constructively to press the government to do this critical job well. It needs to be delivered urgently and competently, and with openness and professionalism.

Government Debt and Nett worth

The second big challenge for New Zealand this year will be economic recovery. We have been insulated from the full pain of Covid by massive borrowing and money printing. My worry is that the Government lacks a plan on how we wean ourselves off this artificial support and builds a sustainable recovery.

New Zealanders need to appreciate just how much the Government is borrowing. $30 billion this year and another $130 billion over the next four years.

It is right to run a deficit to nurse New Zealand through the global pandemic just as National did so in response to the GFC in 2009 and the Christchurch Earthquakes in 2011. But you must maintain fiscal discipline in ensuring every dollar is spent wisely and you must have a plan to get back to surplus.

I am also nervous of the scale of the Government’s $100 billion money printing program. The Reserve Bank warned a year ago that there was a significant risk it would push up house prices and deepen inequality, advice ignored by the Government but proved correct.

My Mum is in her mid 80’s and is no economist or monetary policy expert, but she told me over Christmas printing money was like putting water in the milk and it turns to custard. Economist have likened this massive money printing as akin to heroin, relieving pain in the short term but hellishly hard to get off.

My further worry is the deterioration in Government’s nett worth. It is one thing to borrow to build infrastructure and assets but another to borrow to pay the weekly grocery bill. Governments nett worth is planned to more than halve from $137 billion to just $60 billion by 2024. We need Government to have the balance sheet strength post Covid to face the next crisis that will inevitably come in the next decade or two.

National will be arguing this year that the Government needs to be careful with its spending, that it should prioritise borrowing for infrastructure over day to day costs, that it needs a fiscal plan to get back into surplus and that it needs a plan for growing the real economy.

Housing – current issues

The third big issue for Nelson and New Zealand this year is housing. Our problems have got much worse in the last year with the median house price in Nelson / Tasman increasing 20% or $100,000 to $720,000. Rents are increasing much faster than wages. Social housing waiting lists have quadrupled since 2017. I am being inundated with Nelsonians unable to find a home, struggling to pay rent and frustrated at the lack of help from Government.

The primary driver of house price inflation over the past year has been loose monetary policy. Giving banks access to billions of cheap Reserve Bank money at 0.25% interest, with no control over whether it went to business support or housing was an error. National introduced Loan to Value Ratio limits on banks in 2013 to dampen house speculation with the effect it required investors to have a bigger deposit. It was a mistake of Labour to end these LVR’s last April and I am pleased this was reversed yesterday.

These two measures have just added fuel to the hot property market. The longer term driver of housing unaffordability has been a lack of supply. New home construction collapsed in 2007 through the Global Financial Crisis. We had outward migration and did not have the demand to cause a problem.

This all changed in 2011 as New Zealand’s economy outperformed others resulting in Kiwi’s staying home, strong inward migration and strong housing demand.

The biggest barrier to getting houses built is the Resource Management Act. It is incapable of enabling the pace of new housing developments and related infrastructure to match New Zealand’s growth of the past decade.

It was a source of huge frustration that National in Government never had the Parliamentary numbers to enact substantive reform. Labour screamed at full volume over the growing housing problem but along aside the United and Maori Parties blocked any substantive reform. I welcome Judith Collins announcement that National will do all it can in Opposition to get the RMA replaced.

Nelson housing developments

I was able in government to bypass the RMA to greater and lesser extents in different parts of New Zealand and the results are telling. In Christchurch we bypassed the RMA in 2015 opening up wide areas to housing development.

We bypassed the RMA again in delivering a new unitary plan for Auckland through special legislation and it has been the key to quadrupling new home builds there.

The third RMA bypass tool National used was Special Housing Areas. This was available in other area like Nelson and Tasman, but only with Councils support. Some used it and some did not.

We have hundreds of additional homes built locally because of these measures. Special housing developments like the Betts Apartments adjacent to Nelson Cathedral, the Tahunanui Apartments looking out across the playing fields and beach, new housing in Nayland Road and massive new housing development in Richmond West.

House price increases 2015 – 2020

Wellington were the most reluctant to use Special Housing Areas. These mechanisms did enable us to more than double annual new home construction to over 31,000 per year.

It is noteworthy that house price inflation over the last five years has between different areas mirrored the extent to which we bypassed the RMA. Christchurch, where we intervened most had house price rises of 18% as compared to Wellington, where prices soared by 93%. This just reinforces that in theory and in practice replacing the RMA is pivotal to fixing housing affordability.

Labour's 3 Key housing policies

Labour has instead over the past 3 years been chasing 3 myths on housing that it argued in opposition. It said the answers were Kiwi build, banning foreign buyers and stopping state house sales.

The Kiwi build promise was for government to build 100,000 affordable homes nationally and 1000 in Nelson and Tasman. It was based on the premise that Government could build homes much more quickly and cost effectively than building companies. Not one Kiwi build home has been built in Nelson or Tasman and only a few hundred nationwide.

Labour blamed increased house prices on foreign buyers and cruelly used the Chinese as scapegoats despite the data showing the numbers were negligible. Their ban of foreign buyers has made little difference. It has also slowed the development of new apartments in Auckland that were being funded by overseas capital.

Labour also drove a myth that the housing problem was caused by a small number of state house sales under National and promised to end them. It has subsequently sold $140 million of state homes including several in Nelson. Such sales can make good sense.

16 Orchard St

This is 16 Orchard St in Stoke where a former state house stood. I supported its sale as Housing Minister to the Nelson / Tasman Housing Trust that built six new houses on the site to help house low income Nelson families. We did the same thing on a massive scale in Tamaki involving thousands of homes with the Auckland Council and the Tamaki Redevelopment Company. Labour claiming that such sales of state houses was the cause of the housing problem was nonsense. The Government in the same vein has just spent $20 million buying Nelson City’s 142 Council flats, claiming benefits from increasing the state housing stock. It is only changing the landlord. The solution is growing the total housing stock and of all types.

First Home Grants for Nelson & Tasman

Labour, despite the Kiwi build failure still believes the government can build its way out of the housing problem but through state housing. Last year it built 1300 state houses but this was no more than was in Nationals plan for Housing New Zealand when we left government. State housing is only a small part of the solution for the most disadvantaged and the Government will never be, nor try to be, the main owner of housing.

National is far more focused on enabling New Zealanders to buy their own home.

The biggest barrier for first home buyers is getting the money for a deposit, particularly while interest rates are so low.

That is why I introduced as Minister the Home Start Scheme in 2015. It enabled first home buyers to withdraw their Kiwisaver funds and receive up to a $20,000 government grant to buy a modest home. The scheme has been an outstanding success. It has helped 80,000 New Zealanders into their first home including over 2500 locally in Nelson and Tasman.

It makes no sense that Government support for first home buyers declined last year when the need for help was at its greatest.

The problem is the house price caps of the scheme that is locally $500,000 for an existing home is just too low with the median price regionally now $720,000. People just can’t find the homes to buy below this cap. Today I call on the Government to urgently adjust the local Nelson / Tasman house price cap of the scheme, so this support for first home buyers can work and grow again.

NMIT & Hospital

A major issue locally this year will be about the Government’s ongoing policy to centralise Public services. This debate matters a good deal to Nelson and Tasman. The two biggest public agencies in Nelson are the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and the Nelson / Marlborough District Health Board.

NMIT was nationalised with 15 other polytechnics into a new national institute called Te Pukenga last year. The new organisation is living up to the concerns of a bloated bureaucracy with 21 chief executive titles, millions on new management salaries and the disclosure this week of a $2 million spend up on consultants for workshops at plush venues. Meanwhile 20 Nelson staff have been made redundant.

We this year have a similar debate over our health services. Labour’s plan is to reduce the number of DHB’s from 20 to between eight and twelve. This requires each DHB to have a population of about 500,000. Nelson / Marlborough falls way short at 150,000. The appointment of only an acting CEO last month reinforces the risk that we are about to lose our own DHB.

The idea that Nelson will get better health services by being run out of Christchurch or Wellington is a nonsense. I will be fighting vigorously for the retention of our District Health Board.

Wendy Hamer Petition

There are three law changes that I want to nail this year.

The first is in respect of victims’ rights in cases where the defendant has been found unfit to stand trial. We have a serious deficiency in our laws in the way our justice and mental health systems interact.

Many of you would be aware of the horrific attack involving Nelson woman Wendy Hamer when she was punched, kicked, stabbed and had boiling water poured over her while working as a mental health nurse in a local care home. The attacker was found not guilty by way of insanity, but soon released in Nelson. The injustice was Wendy being denied the opportunity to make a victim impact statement and not consulted or even notified on the offenders release.

An equally appalling attack occurred against another Nelson woman Sarah Preece. The offender had sought mental health help at Nelson Hospitals Emergency Department, got so frustrated at not being attended to and left on a mission to randomly assault and rape some woman. Sarah was the victim and like Wendy was treated very poorly under our laws by the Justice system because of the offender’s successful insanity plea.

I worked with these two brave woman on a petition that was strongly supported by thousands of Nelsonians. I also worked with colleague Louise Upston on a bill to reform these laws that is now before the Justice Select Committee. 

Not guilty by Insanity Plea

There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people successfully pleading unfit to stand trial, from 4 in 2000 to over 30 in recent years. This reinforces the importance of fixing these laws. I will be doing all I can through supporting Wendy’s petition, submitting on the Rights of Victims Insane Offenders Bill and as a member of the Justice Select Committee to get these laws fixed this year.

Matthew Dow Petition Picture

The second law change is pushing for the urgent introduction of roadside drug testing. My interest in this issue was spurred by the horrific smash on the Appleby straight on New Year’s Eve three years ago, that killed 23 year old Matthew Dow.

This was not an accident but a reckless killing. The offending driver was high as a kite on meth and cannabis. There were multiple reports immediately prior to the crash of reckless driving. It could have been any one of us, or our loved ones. I commend Matthews mum and dad, Karen and Peter Dow, who have been relentless in their determination to get random roadside drug testing into New Zealand. Their cause has been joined by dozens of other families who have lost loved ones in similar tragedies around New Zealand.

Drugged Driver fatalities

Matthew Dow was the 79th person killed by a drugged driver in 2017 and that was the first year deaths from drugged driving exceeded those of drunk drivers. The annual fatalities have surged from 14 in 2012 to 103 in 2019. My frustration is how slow the government has been to respond.

The Transport Ministry and Police put a comprehensive proposal to government in 2018 but it was rejected by the Green Party Transport Safety Minister Julie-Anne Genter on the basis that saliva testing was too intrusive and that it was too difficult to measure impairment.

I contrast the Government snail’s pace on addressing this problem of drug driving with the urgency given to law changes on gun control and party pills.

We passed in a week in 2019 laws banning semi–automatic firearms in response to the horrific Mosque shooting of 51 people in Christchurch, yet double that number have died from drug impaired drivers in the last year.

In December we passed in a day a law allowing party pill testing at music festivals despite no documented death caused by drug impurities in New Zealand in the last decade.

The Government has quickly slashed speed limits all round New Zealand despite drug use being a more significant killer than speed in road accidents.

The Government dragging its feet on this important road safety initiative reflects a soft stance more generally on drug use.

I reject the argument that a random roadside drug saliva test is an unreasonable infringement on human rights. I am happy to give my saliva sample as the quid pro quo for me being safer on our roads. It is little different to the alcohol breath test.

The argument that it is too difficult to measure impairment from drug use also lacks merit. We set clear numerical limits on alcohol breath and blood limits despite different people having differing tolerance levels. It is impractical to require proof of a level of impairment.

Australia, Canada and the UK have introduced random roadside drug testing and it is working effectively. I also heard all these same arguments against random roadside alcohol testing when National introduced this road safety measure in the 1990’s. History shows it was dramatically successful, halving the drunk driving toll within 5 years.

Random roadside drug testing has the same potential. It will not save every life, but it has the potential to likewise half the toll saving 50 road deaths a year.

The Government realised in the run-up to the cannabis referendum that it was on the wrong side of this issue and belatedly introduced half-baked legislation just prior to the Election. I will be working hard this year to see it patched up, passed and roadside drug testing put into place.

Picture of Snowdon’s Bush

The final last project I want to see through this year is the expansion of Snowdon’s Bush in Brightwater.

This 100 year old reserve is the last remnant of the once huge podocarp forest that spanned the Waimea Plains.

The problem that arose two years ago, is that the frontage onto Waimea West Road is actually owned by the St Pauls Anglican Church. They proposed to sell it for subdivision for about a dozen homes that caused community concern. My solution was to set up a Trust, secure a deal with the church to purchase the land, raise the funds and expand the reserve. The church generously agreed to a price of $350,000. We were not able to meet the 1 February 2021 deadline with the disruption from Covid, but have raised just over $300,000 and secured an extension until November 1st. I am determined to raise the last $50,000 and see these ancient local totara permanently protected.

Democracy around the world

The last issue I wish to canvass is democracy and electoral law. Abraham Lincoln said it so eloquently 150 years ago at Gettysburg “Government must be of the people, by the people and for the people.

For most of my parliamentary career democratic values have been on the rise. The collapse of the iron curtain and the liberalisation of Eastern Europe in the 1990’s, the growth of democracies in Asia and South America in the 2000’s, the Arab spring in the early 2010’s all gave hope that the world was becoming more democratic.

The Economist publishes an annual report and democracy index that came out last week. It shows a backward slide over the past 5 years.

Only 8% of the world live in a full democracy like ours. Four times as many live under authoritarian states.

We see so many examples in places like Hong Kong, Venezuela, Myanmar, Eastern Europe and in so many African states where authoritarianism is on the rise.

Last night I spoke to protestors on Parliament steps concerned about the military coup in Myanmar, formally Burma. We have hundreds of former refugees in Nelson from Burma where the persecution of minorities has gone on for over 30 years.

It is more important than ever that New Zealand stands up for democratic values. I take strong issue with West Coast – Tasman MP and Trade Minister Damien O’Connor for last month telling the Australians they should follow New Zealand’s example, and show China more respect rather than not calling them out on human rights and other issues.

I am all for having a strong trade relationship with China, but that must not silence us on issues like Hong Kong or the Uighur (we-gar) people.

NZ Democracy

New Zealand can be proud of our ranking in the Economist as the fourth most democratic country in the world, but we must also note that our rating out of 10 dropped for the first time since 2010. It was on governance standards that we mostly slipped.

This adds weight to my campaign to repeal the Electoral Act changes foisted on Parliament by Winston Peters in 2018 giving the power to party leaders to dismiss MP’s.

The origin of the law change was Winston Peters anger during the first MMP Parliament when several NZ Firsts MP’s disagreed with him over breaking up the 1996 Coalition Government Agreement with National. Winston Peters felt his MP’s should act on his direction and should be expelled from Parliament if they dared disagree.

Our Parliament

Our last Parliament saw a chorus of constitutional law experts from Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago University damning this retrograde law change in 2018. They rightly pointed out, as did the Bill of Rights report, that it would have a chilling effect on free speech in our Parliament.

No such law exists in any of our comparable democracies. In Germany the home of MMP it breaks their constitution written so carefully to avoid a repeat of the Nazi abuse of power. Nor could a country be a member of the EU with such a law. It would breach the constitution of Australia and the United States and be considered an outrage in the British Parliament.

The sort of countries that have these sorts of laws are authoritarian states like Zimbabwe and Pakistan.

The Bill in my name repealing this law is currently before the Justice Select Committee. It got there as a consequence of the Greens last August reverting to their previously strong opposition to such laws. Act too strongly supports its repeal. Labour, now no longer beholden to NZ First, needs to do the right thing and support my bill to remove this blemish on New Zealand’s strong democratic credentials.

In summary, the big national issues this year are successfully deploying vaccines for Covid, recovering the economy and addressing housing.

National will play a constructive role in each of these pushing the Government to do better for New Zealand.

My personal unfinished legislative business involves getting law changes to

  • Better support victims of crime involving insanity pleas
  • Getting random roadside drug testing in place
  • Repealing Winston Peters draconian electoral law changes

My hope is that when we next meet in 2022 that our country and world, is well on the road to recovery from the Covid pandemic.