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My great hope for a thriving Wellington

Stacey Shortall's Keynote Speech delivered at the Wellington Chamber of Commerce Wellington Address event, 24 August 2023


For decades, one of my favourite things to do in Wellington has been to hit oriental parade:


  • As a student and young lawyer here in the 90s, many running shoes were worn through on the pavement there.


  • As a former athlete, some cycling lycra that certainly would no longer fit was well-worn on many early mornings as the dawn broke on the harbour waters there.


  • As a parent, constant apologies have been offered over the years to others out walking as every one of my five kids has tested my diplomacy as a result of swerving and going hell for leather on bikes, scooters and skateboards along the parade.


  • As a Wellingtonian – despite remaining fiercely loyal to the Manawatu were I was born and raised in a farming family, and having spent years offshore studying and working – Oriental Parade has also long been a place of solace. A spot where you can sit on a bench, undisturbed, on a winter’s day and quietly reflect on this place we call home.


And so I found myself there earlier this week, thinking about what I could usefully talk about this evening. It was pretty cold and windy - so a typical Wellington day - but nothing that a warm coat and beanie couldn’t fight off. In fact, I could insulate myself from the discomfort around me. Protect myself from it. Stay warm. Stay sheltered. Stay comfortable.


Not tonight. I want to feel the discomfort of what is around me in our extraordinary city. And I invite you to join me.


Let me start by saying that I have great hope for a thriving future for Wellington. And I believe strongly that a more successful Wellington is within our reach. But only if we move forward together: past the politics between left and right; business and labour; private and the public sector. Whatever differences we have, I believe that all of us have a stake in the same goal: a city - indeed a country - in which greater success - leading to more prosperity - is shared widely, and fairly, by all its people.


So the question is this: how do we, together, lay the foundation for a more successful Wellington?


Well, we start in this room. Because businesses like yours are the engines of economic growth in our city. You create many of the jobs. You develop new products and cutting-edge technologies. You innovate and you adapt as markets change. You grow the supply chains that make it possible for smaller businesses to open their doors. So I - we - all want everyone in this room to succeed. We want your shareholders and other stakeholders to do well. We want your workers to do well. Wellington's success in large part depends on the success of people in this room. And tonight we get to acknowledge and celebrate some of that.


But I would like to leave this room without my coat and head into the streets of our city tonight. Because I believe laying the foundation for a more successful Wellington also involves making Wellington more human and nurturing a strong sense of connection to what every city should care about the most – its people.


So let’s briefly talk about some of our city’s people.


We all know that I would not need to walk far from here tonight to find some of Wellington’s people living in emergency housing or overcrowded homes or cars or even on our streets. We also all know that many of those people would have histories of trauma, physical or mental health issues, drug or alcohol dependencies, or some combination of those factors. I suspect it would be fair to say that their connection to those of us in this room would, at best, be limited.


We all know that I should avoid walking anywhere near Te Aro Park unless I want to see challenges relating to alcoholism, addiction, mental health and criminal pasts on full display. If I am honest, I might feel hesitant to connect too closely with many of such people down in Te Aro Park. But we know that we should expect Police and likely also ambulance staff to need to connect with them there tonight.


As we gather here this evening, we know that not all people in our city are safe in their homes. We know that Police respond to a family violence call out every 7 minutes in our country - a country that has the highest rate of reported family and intimate partner violence in the OECD - and that less that 1 in 5 incidents are even reported to Police. You do the maths on how many family violence incidents are happening as we enjoy this evening. They are happening right now in Wellington. Statistics also tell us that children live in at least 70% of the households in which family violence incidents occur.


Many of us will have read the media coverage on Sunday about the number of referrals to Women’s Refuge remaining at epidemic levels. While these are national numbers, I know from my involvement with local women’s refuges that Wellington features. So let us pause for a moment to reflect on how, and why, 52,000 women and children in our country were referred to women’s refuge last year. And an average of 71 crisis calls are answered by Women’s Refuge every single

day.


We all know that mental health is at a crisis point. According to media reports, wait times for mental health treatment for those under 18 in the Wellington region has jumped from almost 28 days in 2018, to closer to 70 days in 2022. A brief walk along Courtney Place would perhaps confirm for me how self-medication is filling some of that wait time.


It is tempting to pick up my coat. To put it on. To seek to buffer myself against the discomfort that all this knowledge causes me. To chalk it up to social problems that central and local government should tackle. To roll these problems into complex issues of inequity and poverty and even, perhaps according to some of us, personal responsibility. And to compartmentalise whether and how business should engage with them.


But I believe that laying a foundation for a more successful Wellington requires me not only to keep my jacket off, but also to roll up my sleeves and try to help. And my money’s on you joining me.


Why? Because business leaders like you, in this room, understand that private enterprise comes with public responsibility. Like me, you know that business can wield great power to effect positive change.


And change we must.


Because the failure to connect to the tough people issues in Wellington will stymie us from

becoming a more successful city.


And that is because the types of social challenges I have just mentioned, and the inequality that often sits at the heart of those challenges, carry business risk.


They limit productivity and have the potential to constrain customer spending and growth. Just ask the retail staff dealing with homeless people lying on the street outside their businesses or grappling with the addict who frightens customers by their very presence in the area. Perhaps also ask such staff whether the fact half at least their pay check goes in rent or mortgage payments leaves them much spare cash to spend in Wellington stores.


The business risk does not end there. “Bread and butter” concerns around education, jobs, housing and health spill over into all aspects of workers’ lives. They render your - our - workforce and supply partners distracted and less productive.


Other pressures on people can also hit the bottom line.


According to statistics from the Public Services Association, in any given year, close to 50 percent of all New Zealand businesses and other organisations will have staff affected by family violence in some way. Often they will need time off work.


Social challenges and inequality can also destabilise supply chains, trigger civil instability, and jeopardise social licenses to operate. We, here in Wellington, particularly know this.


Whatever different views may sit in this room about the Parliamentary lawn occupation in early 2022, I suspect most of us would agree that many of the people there were poor, unemployed, marginalised, or otherwise vulnerable. While misinformation and social media may have fuelled the anger on display, they were not the only accelerant.


But let me tell you that I believe addressing social challenges and inequality as part of laying the foundation for a more successful Wellington is a business opportunity too:


  • We all know that if we pay our workers a salary they can afford housing and raise a family on, they feel more loyal and work harder to grow our business.


  • We all know that if we support giving a child, regardless of postcode, a world-class education, it doesn't just benefit that child or their family, it benefits the business - perhaps yours; perhaps mine - that may need to hire them down the road - not to mention benefits our city in which they might live.


  • We all know that if we encourage health and well-being in our workplaces, people carry that positivity into their homes. And into how they interact with their families. And into what they use or abuse in their social time.


Ask any recruiter and they will tell you that talented workers are increasingly shifting from businesses that only create value for shareholders to those which create long-term value for all stakeholders, including staff, customers, suppliers and communities.


Indeed people increasingly expect the businesses they work for, buy from and invest in to channel their knowledge, resources and influence toward tackling society’s toughest challenges, including social inequality.


There need be no trade-off between running a successful business and contributing to the community. In fact, I say we need to connect around people issues in Wellington for our city to successfully thrive.


Creating opportunities where family background, ethnicity or disability are not major determinants of individuals’ life chances and offering a wage that pays for decent housing and covers the cost of living matters.


And there’s always volunteering and donating. Whether led by your workers or backed by your business, offering resource and support to local and national charities can directly help people who have found themselves in difficult circumstances.


Whether we thrive or stall as a city does not depend on some economic forces or government action beyond our control. It depends on us — on the calibre and conviction of the business leaders in this room, and on our commitment to our city’s people.


It challenges us to leave our coats off. And something tells me that our chilly Wellington wind might actually be good for something here. It will certainly help encourage us all to get moving quickly. Otherwise we, as a city, will simply freeze.

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