Finance Minister Grant Robertson received a much warmer welcome at the Dunedin Club on Wednesday than he did 25 years ago as president of the Otago University Students Union.
Robertson was guest speaker at an Otago Chamber of Commerce political lunch at the club where chamber members paid $65 a head to hear some pre-Budget thoughts from one of South Dunedin's favourite sons.
The minister warmed up the audience by relating a story of former club president and University of Otago chancellor Sir Eion Edgar deciding Robertson needed a few lessons and inviting him to give a speech to club members.
“You've already been far more welcoming than that audience,'' he said too much laughter from the 40 who attended the invite-only lunch.
On a more serious note, he told the audience to expect an emphasis in next month's Budget on rebuilding New Zealand's public service. To compete on the world stage, New Zealand needed the best possible education and health services, along with more affordable housing.
Answering a question, Robertson said the Government was ambitious and his priority in his first Budget, being delivered on May 17, was the rebuilding of the public service because a strong public service underpinned business growth.
“We have to get these things right.”
The economy, while strong, had been built on earthquake repairs and natural disasters, housing sales and population growth through immigration. None of those were sustainable, he said.
The minister hit the right note with the audience when he talked about the development of a regional immigration priority list.
Labour would continue to recognise the part immigration played in the economy because New Zealand did not always have the skills it needed. However that did not abrogate the Government's responsibility to ensure New Zealanders were trained properly to give them the right skills for a growing economy.
In Christchurch, specific skills were needed for the earthquake rebuild and Robertson could see a time when special skills would be needed in places like Queenstown but not in some other places.
“We should be doing that right across the economy - understanding the needs of Otago, the skills you need and applying them.”
Robertson also found favour with his thoughts on school leavers being better prepared for further training.
Though 80,000 students would this year benefit from the Government's free first year of tertiary education or training, only 30,000 of those were at universities. The remaining 50,000 were in trade or industry training.
“We have to do much better supporting training in the work force. It is important to shift the emphasis so we can lift productivity.”
One of the major problems Robertson saw was in the number of pupils leaving school and not going to university when the secondary school system was built around everyone going on to tertiary education.
There was a need to create better pathways to training. He had recently visited a large boy’s school where a teacher had only five hours a week to deal with careers advice for 700 pupils.
In the rest of his 30 minutes address, Grant Robertson touched on trade and sustainability issues for the economy and the environment.
Looking ahead, next year's Budget would the first well-being Budget for New Zealand where Government actions were measured against outcomes.
*Dene Mackenzie is business editor of the Otago Daily Times.