Ladies and Gentlemen I greet you in the languages of the realm of New Zealand - English, Maori, CookIsland, Niue and Tokelau.
Kia Ora, Kia Orana, Fakalofa Lahi Atu, Taloha Ni
More specifically I greet you Gail Collingwood, Deputy Mayor of Nelson, you the New Zealand Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux Life Members; you the Association President, Lynne Barraclough; and Chief Executive Kerry Dalton; and you the volunteers, staff and invited guests.
Thank you for the invitation to Nelson this evening to open the Citizens Advice Bureaux National Conference.
A visit to this city and this part of New Zealand certainly makes me think about how lucky we all are to live in this country. We have stunning scenery, wonderful cultures and vibrant towns and cities to be proud of.
We can also be proud to live in a society which embraces diversity, which promotes social, racial and gender equality and which regards freedom as an incontrovertible human right. Nearly 60 years ago New Zealand was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in an international setting.
Our country's Human Rights Commission says that New Zealanders can and should be proud of our country. It says we meet most international standards for human rights and that we are world-leading in some areas.
The Commission's report on Human Rights in New Zealand, undertaken in 2004, contains a number of positives establishing that our laws generally protect the right to freedom from discrimination.
For example it shows the disabled community is gaining a louder voice, that we have a record of tolerance for religious diversity and that we have many measures to ensure governmental and judicial accountability.
The same report, of course, tells us there are still things to do. We still have children who live in poverty with restricted access to medical care and education opportunities. We still have new migrants who experience racial discrimination and abuse; and we still have unpaid workers, such as caregivers, whose work is vastly undervalued.
The Commission's report formed the basis of the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights, launched last year.
All this shows us that while our society lives in a wonderful, progressive country, that we still face some significant challenges.
One of the challenges is ensuring all New Zealanders are able to access the rights that we have worked so hard to enshrine.
While we have legal and social mechanisms in place to provide for these rights in principle, they are meaningless unless those for whom they are created know they exist and how they might access them. Civics knowledge is a vital need for our community.
This is where the work of our Citizens Advice Bureaux, or CABs, is quite indispensable.
It gives New Zealanders the tools and the knowledge to help them lead independent and empowered lives.
As the English philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon once famously said, 'knowledge is power'.
Without hesitation I can say that you have done a remarkable job in sharing knowledge with New Zealanders, and giving them assistance in a confidential and non-judgmental manner.
Just a scan across some of your statistics tells me the impact your many bureaux have throughout the country. I am advised that since 1979, more than 11.6 million enquiries have been fielded. Each day, there are more than 2,000 client contacts.
Each of these contacts represents more than just a number. They represent people who have sought, and have been given your help.
This I may also say is no mere recitation of given facts.
My wife Susan has been a long term volunteer at the Wellington's Central City Citizens Advice Bureau for much of the last decade.
I know the work can be demanding and the hours endless if you allow them to be. But I also know that it is hugely rewarding because it makes a real difference to people's lives. We have a number of personal friends arising from that connection.
I have another reason to be interested in the CAB. It is that when Peter Harwood then Community Officer with the Auckland City Council began the first New Zealand CAB in Ponsonby Terrace in 1973, I was one of a panel of lawyers that were rostered to help.
One of the things I have been pleased to observe is how the CABs have been able to adapt to deal with new things such as inquiries of many kinds brought to Bureaux by migrants. Because of the experience of recent years it can be said that the CAB has made a positive long term difference to migrants' lives in this country. I am advised that as many as 36 percent of your clients today may be from migrants. This shows that you are a significant resource for people settling in New Zealand.
The resultant diversity is reflected in the make-up of your organisation, with I am advised as many as 37 nationalities represented in your volunteer base.
This is extremely positive because it gives you a genuine understanding of the needs of people from the many different cultures you become involved with and ultimately helps you meet the challenges of New Zealand's dynamic and changing landscape.
This brings me to the role of volunteers. The CAB simply would not exist without the hard work and commitment of its 2,700 volunteers.
In the last ten years, I am advised that volunteers undertook more than 3.5 million hours of volunteer work. That is the same as 2,125 people working full-time for a year.
The figure is nothing short of extraordinary. It shows how integral volunteers are to the ability of this organisation to achieve its vision for New Zealand.
I would like to express sincere thanks on behalf of the community to all those who give so much of their time to the various bureaux operating from Kerikeri to Invercargill.
You are making a very real difference to the lives of New Zealanders.
Alongside the dedication and commitment of the volunteers, I think one of the other things that enables this organisation to make a difference is your reach into the community.
In my former role as an Ombudsman I was very aware of the importance of the CAB in helping to raise public awareness of, and access to, the complaints bodies available to them. One of them is, of course, the Ombudsman.
You are able to do this because of the contact you have with so many clients in so many places across the country. And with such reach, you are in a very good position to know where there may be any problems within our systems and to be an advocate for social change.
Thus, not only are you making a difference to the lives of individuals, but to New Zealand society as a whole.
I understand the Association has embarked upon a process of strategic planning, which will shape the ongoing direction of the Association, and that this forms a very important part of the focus of this weekend's conference.
I wish you all the best for the Conference ahead and hope you enjoy this wonderful opportunity for sharing, thinking, and discussing the issues of importance to your organisation, as well as celebrating who you are, what you have achieved, and the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead.
And with those words of thanks and challenge I would like to formally declare the New Zealand Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux National Conference open.
No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, kia ora koutou katoa.