Finance Spokesperson for the Maori Party Prime Minister’s Debate Tuesday 9 February 2010There was a statement that the Prime Minister made in his speech this afternoon that I am sure would be endorsed by every single member of the Maori Party – and I’m talking about the 23,000 members not just the five in this House. It was the recognition that he was “impressed and heartened by the resilience and optimism of New Zealanders and by their desire to do better for themselves, their families and their communities”. As I travel across Te Tai Tonga I am frequently in contact with people who are struggling to survive. The median family income for my constituents is $54,500 – some five thousand less than the median family income for New Zealand as a whole. Five thousand dollars that makes a difference at the petrol pump, at the supermarket checkout, at the pharmacy, at the bank. Today we are asking those same people to agree to a rise in GST to 15 percent. GST, of course, is an issue dear to my heart. Tomorrow, I will once again submit into the ballot my private members bill, the Goods and Services Tax (Exemption of Healthy Food) Amendment Bill. This is a bill which has directly responded to the situation for the people of Te Tai Tonga; the people of the Maori electorate, every day New Zealanders who are powerfully motivated by the desire to do better for themselves, their families and their communities. These every day New Zealanders have suffered from the impact of food prices which have risen more than twenty percent in the last three years, while real incomes have risen only very slightly. Within that, we know that increases for the staples of a nutritious diet – such as fruit, vegetables and milk – have been particularly high. In response to the long term impacts this could have on public health, organisations such as the Public Health Association of New Zealand Inc and the Heart Foundation of New Zealand, have called for goods and services tax to be removed from foods which constitute a healthy diet to make them more affordable. I repeat – their call is for GST to be removed – not to rocket up to 15%. I want to make it absolutely clear that the challenge faced by many of our families is of the harshest kind. It is our families who suffer from the reality that New Zealand’s after tax distribution is one of the most unequal in the OECD. It is our families, disproportionately, who are suffering from the unacceptable level of child poverty. Rates which are so dire that the 2008 Survey of Living Standards reported 19 percent of children are experiencing serious hardship and unacceptably severe restrictions on their living standards. Mr Speaker, these are the faces of the families that I take with me into this debate. We are pleased that our consistent call to remember these families has been reflected in the announcements made earlier today by the Prime Minister. We have welcomed the decision of the Government that any decrease in personal tax would be done across the board. If there are across the board personal tax cuts, then we will certainly be doing everything we can to ensure that our people will see some sort of benefit. We have certainly noted the statement of the Prime Minister that fairness is a very important consideration to this Government. And so we will be talking closely with the Government about finding a common context for what we mean by fair. Is it fair that 51% of beneficiary families with children are ranked as experiencing serious hardship? Is it fair that 28% of families with children had serious health problems for at least one child in the past year? Is it fair that for 22% of families keeping the house warm is described as a major problem, with another 17 percent saying that dampness or mould were major problems? The challenge we face as a Parliament, is to ensure that the current levels of inequality and poverty are not intensified by the tax package highlighted today. It would appear that we are shifting the burden of taxation from the people who can pay it to those who can’t. For those at the top income level, there are ways and means of claiming the GST back – they can set up trusts, they can increase rents, they can make the end user pay. But for those at the bottom level, there is no other place they can claim the money back from. And so we will be greatly interested in the discussions around fairness and equitable outcomes, particularly as they relate to the low income. The key thing for us is that there is an opportunity for dialogue; and within that we hope to put forward some of the key ideas that we have promoted from the Maori Party. And so I go back to that collective desire that I would hope we share across this House, to respond to the aspiration of the people to do better for themselves, their families and their communities. As a first start we must do something to unacceptable levels of serious hardship that compromise living standards. We must increase the minimum wage – and by more than 25 cents – we want to see a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. We are greatly pleased that the benefits, superannuation and working for families policies will be increased to assist people on low incomes. Now if we were really to show a level of responsibility for those more vulnerable, we would put measures in place to ensure that the first $25,000 of income is tax free. We need leaders who see that small is the new big. We need visionaries who can create opportunities for a new economy, who are not mired in old thinking and tainted by the existing economy. We need more Grameen banks - we need community banks. Vision is what we need – not more of the same. And so as a Coalition Partner with the Government we expect to be involved in discussions concerning the nature of the income support provided to New Zealanders. We do support the goals of reducing dependency on benefits, but it is absolutely critical that at the same time we maintain an appropriate safety net for those in genuine need. We are really concerned about the vulnerability of sole parents to fluctuating income. Sudden change can often have a detrimental effect on the whole whanau. We know that far too easily families go further into debt just to meet the basic costs of food, rent and power. For too many of these families the opportunity to take up full time work is simply not available. While we are supportive of efforts to gain better entry of Maori into the workforce, we will not accept any proposals which threaten the capacity of whanau to be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living. We do not want to see our whanau in a worse off position through any of the ideas being floated. And in this regard, I am honour bound to remind the House that in the design of the Working for Families, the policy architects of that scheme effectively cut out the poorest 200,000 children who have been left, floundering, in increasing poverty. Finally I bring us back to a concept that resonates with tangata whenua – He aha te mea nui o te Ao, what is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.