Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Oh baby, it must be election year

Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / APN
Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. Photo / APN

After years of Labour and National concentrating on winning the political middle ground, both party leaders have launched their 2014 election campaigns by reaching out to their respective left and right heartlands. Labour leader David Cunliffe's baby bonus is a return to his party's welfare state glory days, while National's proposed education reform is a variation on the trickle down theory so beloved of right-wing market economists.

Prime Minister John Key got in first, dangling $359 million of danger money in front of senior teachers - his aim, to lure them into missionary duties in the educational badlands of deciles 1 to 3. On offer is a bonus payout of up to $50,000 for any brave volunteer willing to don flak jacket and mortar board and enter the war zone. Their mission: to transform the under-performing poor kids of Otara and Porirua into little Einsteins.

Labour's likely coalition partner, the Greens, have come at the same problem from a rather different direction.

They argue the under-achieving at low decile schools is the result of serious poverty and inequity, and are offering a $90 million package to tackle this underlying problem. Included in their solution are free lunches, free after-school and holiday care and school-based hubs to co-ordinate health, welfare and other support. It's a policy which Labour has endorsed.

Labour's "Best Start" baby bonus proposal has similar welfare state roots, offering $60 a week for the first year of a baby's life for parents with a combined annual income of up to $150,000. Parents earning less than around $75,000, will receive the grant for two more years, the amount abating progressively on incomes above $50,000.

Like the Greens, Labour targets struggling parents in other ways as well, offering free antenatal classes and extending early childhood education subsidies from 20 free hours a week to 25. Already in Labour policy is extending paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks.

Those with a long memory will recognise Mr Cunliffe's "baby bonus" scheme harks back to Labour's ill-fated 1975 campaign, when doomed Prime Minister Bill Rowling announced a one-off "motherhood allowance" to new mothers. On offer was $600, which could be taken either as a lump sum, a weekly addition to the family benefit, or as a deposit in her NZ Superannuation Scheme account.

Labour was on the way out anyway and the proposal didn't go down very well. National leader Rob Muldoon coined the phrase "baby bonus", denouncing it as a bribe, as did Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham who predicted it would trigger accelerated population growth. The New Zealand Family Planning Association was "extremely opposed", spokeswoman Jenny Gibbs declaring, "We see irresponsible breeding as a result."

Values Party deputy leader Mrs C Wilson called it a "cynical insult to New Zealand women", demanding that women in the home "be paid a fair wage for caring for dependants".

Ironically, the future scourge of welfarism, Roger Douglas, was one of the authors of the policy according to Dr Michael Bassett's inside history of the third Labour Government.

Of course "baby bonuses" are not necessarily a creature of the left. The Howard Liberal Government in Australia ushered in the new millennium with a generous scheme to try and reverse a falling birthrate. Treasurer Peter Costello colourfully explained it was to encourage Australians to have "one for your husband and one for your wife and one for your country".

One of the last acts of the Gillard Labour Government last year was to abolish the scheme, which was then paying $5316 a baby to parents earning up to $159,000. By then a more targeted payment was in place. Timed to start on March 1 this year, the reduced baby bonus will be $2130 for parents with a cut-off joint income of $107,000.

Compared with the revised Australian scheme, the proposed Cunliffe scheme, with a yearly payout of around $3000, and a parental salary ceiling of $150,000, seems generous.

Mr Cunliffe has defended the "near-universal" nature of the grant, denying the threshold was set high in order to bribe middle income earners to vote for him. He says "nobody is going to make a profit on having children". This is no doubt true. But if the primary aim of the scheme is to help address child poverty, he has made a rod for his own back. There are few potential voters who would go along with his belief that any couple on an annual income of $150,000 qualifies for poor relief.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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