Building a good society

This week I gave a keynote speech to the Public Health Association’s Conference in New Plymouth. Here is the speech I gave.


Legend has it that Albert Einstein once described insanity as the practice of repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.

Funnily enough, Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin have also been credited with coming up with the same quote. The next thing you know Steve Jobs will have devised it too.

Actually, I found out this week that the first time that famous definition of insanity appeared was in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet.  Bet you didn’t know that!

As a lawyer, I’m pretty sure that repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results is not the legal definition of insanity, and I’m guessing you’ll all agree that from a public health perspective it’s not a very scientific description of insanity either.

But what we can probably all agree on – you, me, Einstein, Twain and Franklin – is that it is really, really stupid to keep making the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.

So why do politicians in this country keep on doing it?


Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson were wrong. There was no trickle down.

You, more than any group of people, know that.

There was a trickle away from those in the middle and a great gush away from those at the bottom, whose numbers grew, and grew, and grew. Roger and Ruth’s 1980s dream was a huge, grotesque mistake.

After 30 long years, and record levels of inequality, we are pretty clear on that. But the tragedy, the crime, is to keep ploughing ahead making those same mistakes when all the evidence shows they’re failing.

The challenge facing all of us here, especially those of you who work each day with the real human fallout from 30 years of mistakes, is what are we going to do to make things better? I get asked it all the time: What are we going to do to make people care again?

Well, I think people do care.

They care about this compassionate, egalitarian, beautiful country – the first to give women the vote, 120 years ago this Thursday.

They care that this place, which once topped the world on all the best indicators; where everyone does their bit and no one gets left out, has changed.

And they care so much that a momentum is gathering, one that’s going to drive real transformation in Aotearoa. I truly believe it.

We are on the cusp of real, profound change here in Aotearoa New Zealand. I get a sense of real desperation from people who want to rebuild this country into the good and fair and decent place we feel it is, at its core.

And I believe that momentum is leading us towards next year’s election.

“We have the righteous wind at our backs” to borrow a phrase from Barak Obama. And right now it’s blowing a gale.


I reject the notion that New Zealand has become all about “me me me”.

The ordinary people I meet, in the schools, the workplaces, the hospitals, on the hustings, are deeply concerned about poverty and inequality – things that were once strange in this country and which are now in our faces every day.

It doesn’t feel right to any of us, and it’s not right, that despite working really hard, for 40, 50, 60 hours a week nearly half of all families with kids are so poorly paid they need public subsidies to survive.

That’s not our Aotearoa New Zealand.

We are the kind of country that looks after its children, the elderly and the sick, and which believes it is possible for someone like me, who grew up poor, with no school qualifications, someone who was a young Maori mum on the benefit, to eventually became a lawyer, and an MP and a political leader.

The truth is, if I’d been unlucky enough to be a young single Mum these days I would  have been denied that opportunity.

I would be forced to look for part time work to justify my benefit, and denied the opportunity to get a law degree because the National Government would have deemed that going to university was too big a dream for someone like me.

As a young Maori woman on the benefit, there’s a good chance my daughter would be deemed at risk under the National Government’s vulnerable children’s screening tool.

Both of us would have been written off before we even got started.

And then, if I did manage to get a job and get off the benefit, without any qualifications I would have been told to wait, for ever maybe, to be paid enough to adequately support my daughter.

Well my Aotearoa was better than that. It is better than that.

The Green Party has spent the past ten years building a smart, green plan for a compassionate and sustainable future.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have a clear and contemporary vision for how we can achieve social cohesion, based on mutual concern for each other, and a collective sense of responsibility in which we all do our bit to protect the environment, to be good citizens, and contribute to the economy and so, together, in partnership, create the kind of country we all want to live in.

This is about the old-fashioned values of caring for your neighbour, of living up to your responsibilities and about a fresh, smart new appreciation of the environment in which we all live.

It’s about cooperation, not competition.

It’s about true partnership.


Today’s topic asks if, in order to affect change in attitude and practice we have to consider a collaboration and or partnership approach to support this change?

To drive political change, I think it’s clear we do. The Green Party’s inclusion in any future Government is an obvious solution to shaking off the shackles of the past 30 years.

Now, finally, after decades of the big political parties treading an almost indistinguishable middle ground, there will be a stark choice next year.

I was really heartened that, in the selection process for a new leader, we saw senior labour MPs committing to a living wage and the hint of a return to that party’s compassionate roots.

But Labour can’t do this on its own.

The Green Party understands that communities don’t function in isolation from social forces; that marginal communities need to have control over the definition of their problems and then the design and implementation of the solutions.

We’ve got people who are steeped in this kaupapa, people like Kevin Hague whose work with the Aids Foundation’s HIV prevention shows he gets this, at its most fundamental and at its most complicated level.

For Kevin, and the rest of the Green Party, the Ottawa Charter means government creating supportive physical, social and economic environments around marginalised communities, empowering them, and resourcing their own problem identification and solutions.

The Charter is crucial to making the most marginalised central to our society and to our government.

If New Zealand wants to improve the health of communities, we believe it must improve the social and physical environment surrounding those communities and give those communities greater control over their lives.

But too often we see this Government acting in isolation from public health objectives. Or even in opposition to those objectives.

Building a convention centre in Auckland, and trading off the public health protections in the Gambling Act in order to pay for it,  is a classic example.

There is no evidence – none – that the public health consequences of increasing gambling at SkyCity were even considered before the Prime Minister offered the casino an opportunity to massively increase gambling opportunities in exchange for building the convention centre.

The social and health consequences of the deal were simply never costed. It was a short jump from there to claim the harms were unquantifiable and a small step from there to simply write them off as irrelevant.

This is what happens when a Government doesn’t consider social forces, but rather sees society as an aggregate of individuals, affected by the singular force of their own individual willpower.

This attitude was evident in the National Government’s White Paper on Vulnerable Children. It ignored poverty. How is it possible to address vulnerability without addressing the social forces that create it?

It ignored family violence.  How is it possible to address violence against children if you don’t also address violence towards women?

And in both cases, it did so in the face of overwhelming evidence of the interconnectedness of these factors – the structural, the community, the family, the child.

The Green Party remains committed to the five principles of the Ottawa Charter.

I have always believed that my father died early from a stroke, at 48, because of the economic policies of the 1980’s which robbed him of decent work and the welfare reforms of the 1990’s which robbed him of dignity.

This belief is the driver of my political ambition, for myself, my party and my country.

The Ottawa Charter, the whole purpose of public health, is the best structural articulation of my personal experience, one I have been lucky enough to help promote and which so many thousands of New Zealanders know in their hearts.

The Green Party’s commitment to the Charter is manifest in our political commitments.

Our promise to repeal the New Zealand International Convention Centre Act, if it is finally passed, and to continue the fight against child poverty, are two such examples.

Rather than water down the public health protections in the Gambling Act, by exempting SkyCity from some of it, we would increase the obligations on casinos to prevent and detect problem gambling behaviour.

And, in the spirit of the second charter principle, we’d put more energy into the social marketing that de-normalises gambling behaviour.

We would strengthen community action by working with, for example, communities in South Auckland to support them to run their own anti-gambling campaigns.

And we’d reorient health services – we’d look at what health services need to do to prevent the harm in the first place.

I’m sure this room is full of good ideas for how primary care providers could be trained to ask about gambling behaviour, spot danger signs and use brief interventions to help prevent harm.

Meanwhile, we are focussing much of our efforts to tackle child poverty on the huge potential of schools to act as the anchors, the centres of their communities.

The Green Party believes that schools can be the heart of the community, where both the minds and bodies of children should be nurtured so they can achieve all they were born capable of achieving.

We think this involves equipping communities to look after the wider needs of the child and their whanau and acknowledging the forces that shape their lives. Our policy for a public health nurse in every school was a key part of that plan.

We see these nurses as the backbones of school hubs, responding to and coordinating the specific health and social needs of the communities in which they work.

A school nurse is a vital part of many school communities already. But schools should not have to dip into their operations grant to fund them, as a survey we undertook of lower decile schools shows many are having to do now.

Our survey shows many kids are missing out on vital healthcare through school nurses who are spread too thin now as they are called away from school nursing to respond to immunisation and other work.

We are working on other ways to enable schools to function as community hubs, as magnets for community and health services, and would appreciate any ideas. Expect more announcements soon.


Fundamentally, I think these winds that are blowing at our back, this momentum for change, is about New Zealand reclaiming its core values, and us all working together to become  A Good Society again – one grounded in fairness, equality, sustainability and wellbeing and which understands that we can’t have an economy without our environment.

Mother Theresa had it right when she said “we belong to each other”.

This, I believe, is the kind of society Kiwis want. This is what we’ve always been about.

For hundreds of years Maori traditions have embodied a deep sense of whakapapa and whanaungatanga that recognises we each rely on one another and our environment to survive. Our culture has always been about reciprocity, and empathy.

Maybe that’s why New Zealand, in the 20th century embraced these values with such enthusiasm. Till we allowed Roger and Ruth to change it all in the 1980s.

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the passing of the Social Security Act, which enshrined in law the fundamental right to a reasonable standard of living, for everyone, no matter where the social forces blew them, or what mistakes they made in life.

That’s a good reality check for all of us.

Its time to thoroughly throw off the shackles of the past 30 years, to learn from the mistakes, and to remember who we really are.

The country that cares.

13 Comments Posted

  1. “Yet look at “think big” projects like Clyde Dam. Even decades on, is STILL NOT WORTH what it cost to build. And that’s in same dollar terms.”

    In true right wing blinkered fashion Photo looks only at direct costs and earnings. AND even that, depends on the accounting parameters used.

    The savings in imported oil we do not have to buy since the dam was built, the interest on the increased deficit that would cause,the reduction in pollution and pollution related health issues and the greater energy self sufficiency the dam allows in future, are all benefits which do not figure in Photo’s accounting.

    The refinery, for one, made its private owners more money in its first year in their ownership than they paid for it. About the same as the Government paid to upgrade it before the sale. Just like current asset sales. Outright theft by the sellers.

    If we used Photo’s, and Ports of Auckland’s accounting parameters we would have sold all the roads in Auckland off, for housing development!

  2. Phil,

    Okay, lets tax you at 100%. “Who cares”, right? Think of the children.

    It does not follow everyone will be “healthy, happy and well cared for” if you raise tax rates. Higher tax rates can result in lower tax takes overall, which does no one any good.

    I am not advocating eliminating welfare and not offering people a hand-up, so you’re arguing a straw man.

    “Amen Metiria, the winds of God are indeed at our back! pushing Aotearoa to its roots of the land of New Zeal (also known as Godzone). Where everybody worked together with good old fashioned values for the betterment of all. Yes cooperation not competition as you mentioned”.

    The wind is coming rather more directly in the form of hot air and empty puffery.

    Just saying “everyone should hold hands and have old fashioned values” doesn’t achieve anything. It’s a wish. The trick is “how”?

    So, how?

  3. Phillip Pears says “A little investment in the short term has potential to reap big rewards in the long term”

    Yet look at “think big” projects like Clyde Dam. Even decades on, is STILL NOT WORTH what it cost to build. And that’s in same dollar terms.

    Take inflation into account, and it was an enormous waste of money.

    Saying Muldoon did a lot of things right, is like saying the captain of the titanic did a lot of things right.

    When Muldoon finished with NZ, were were totally stuffed.

  4. I agree bjchip, that Muldoon made some mistakes like the price & wage freeze for example. However one of the good things he did was the think big projects. Creating assets for the country which ultimately would have lent us toward self sufficiency, and if managed properly would create revenue toward a surplus.

    A little investment in the short term has potential to reap big rewards in the long term. It’s a shame the current National party have learnt nothing from his legacy, and are hell bent on selling all the infrastructure put in place before them, and running the countries coffers at a deficit.

    But it is abundantly obvious that the wealthy in this country are not willing to make a short term sacrifice (i.e. capital gains taxes etc, which would raise the revenue to make these investments, without having to borrow and burden the country with debt. Thus making it susceptible to fiscal failure), for the long term objective of improving the economic stability and growth, which once achieved would mean that the taxes could be eased again. Unfortunately short term vision seems far too predominant in the world today!

  5. Ron, Ruth and Roger. Is it something about the letter R?

    I got it, it’s a pirate thing… say ARRRRGGHH 🙂

    Reagan liked “trickle down” but it isn’t originating with him either. Nobody much uses the phrase except pejoratively but the theory behind it was in quite clear evidence as the wealthy were handed the keys to more wealth and less taxation in the USA, the result being a massive surge in the GINI there and then as Ruth & Roger followed their matinee idol, here.

    Not smart. Not smart at all. Yeah… Muldoon made mistakes but he did a lot of things right. Ruth & Roger didn’t do anything right at all.

    Now New Zealand is paying the price. Will be paying for it for another decade at least.


  6. I am well aware emploers get a wage subsidy, called Working for Families. Rather ironic really.Removing it could be fiscally nuetral but …

  7. The current health care crisis is the funding cut pressure on low cost clinics. This has arisen as each year more contracts are taken from them – presumably the contracts are given to new providers (is this how whanau ora health care is being funded?)

  8. photonz, only those with children under 18 get WFF. Those yet to have children and those without children over 18 do not. Given most people now have only a few – that means that only for about 20 years of their life (they will work for 40-50 years) will they get WFF.

  9. Lol

    “Anale Posted September 20, 2013 at 2:37 PM
    Douglas and Richardson didn’t claim it would “trickle down”. That a pejorative term used by opponents of monetarist economic policy.

    Your post is total waffle, Metiria.

    *How* specifically are you going to bring about a “a Good Society again – one grounded in fairness, equality, sustainability and wellbeing”? For starters, what is a fair tax on those who work?”

    Anale, is a good name for you, it shows how retentive you are! Who cares about how much tax you pay if it means that everybody around you is healthy, happy, well cared for? Oh and do not forget that also means you benefit when you need a little support yourself (do unto others as you would have them do to you!) I would much rather live in a selfless society where you don’t have to bar your doors and windows, and hide in your little money grubber fortresses.

    Amen Metiria, the winds of God are indeed at our back! pushing Aotearoa to its roots of the land of New Zeal (also known as Godzone). Where everybody worked together with good old fashioned values for the betterment of all. Yes cooperation not competition as you mentioned.

    Also I liked the quote you borrowed from Obama, but would never believe that he says that with any integrity. After all he’s leading the way in converting one of the world’s supposedly greatest democratic countries into a farcical dictatorship in disguise. And then through puppets like John Key trying to influence us the same way. Well not if I can help it! And as you have noted, many core kiwi’s are rising up in opposition to this.

  10. Graham Howell says “Certainly we can look at tax rates so that those below the 20% percentile do not pay any extra tax.”

    With working for families, effectively the bottom 40% currently don’t pay tax.

  11. Anale, some might regard the notion of who gets paid what under current labour conditions as is flawed. Are senior managers so banks really worth what they are paid…. Are stay at home mothers really worth nothing as far as being paid for the work they do.
    It seems to me taxing paid workers is one of the few ways we can distribute the wealth of the nation so as to ensure everyone can consume what is needed, be it power in their uninsulated homes (or betetr, funding the insulation process so that they consume less power), being able to pay to travel further than walk be it by public transport or private vehicle, get their children to “non-curricula activities such as theatre or museums, having access to land to grow their own crops…
    Certainly we can look at tax rates so that those below the 20% percentile do not pay any extra tax.

  12. Douglas and Richardson didn’t claim it would “trickle down”. That a pejorative term used by opponents of monetarist economic policy.

    Your post is total waffle, Metiria.

    *How* specifically are you going to bring about a “a Good Society again – one grounded in fairness, equality, sustainability and wellbeing”? For starters, what is a fair tax on those who work?

  13. Thanks Met,
    In 1984 we were given a false dream. I recall Keynes saying to a critic when he was criticized for changing his mind on some an issue, he said he would always change his mind based on the evidence. Thus we should change our minds based on the evidence..and all of us should be able the trees (the error of the choices we made in 1984).
    Max Rushbrooke’s Inequality A NZ crisis quotes the increasing inequality and the horrors this is causing.
    Seemingly the middle incomes finds it safer to blame thos eon lower incomes and benefits rather than look at the political directives made since 1984.
    Two good things about Labour’s leadership the process and an awareess attacking the growing inequality (call it compassion) is needed.
    Well done Met.

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