The Labour Party annual conference adopted a policy last weekend that would guarantee the party victory at the next election, and probably the one after that too.

The policy?

Universal free dental care.

But the parliamentary wing of the party seems reluctant, to say the least, to move on such a policy. Health Minister David Clark recognises there is unmet need for dental care in New Zealand, but has said the government is unlikely to move on this in this term. The Finance Minister says he has other priorities and wants to pay down debt.


Health is already the biggest component of a government's budget. This year there's $18.2 billion allocated. That's 21 per cent of government spending.

There is free dental care for all New Zealand citizens and resident until our 18th birthdays, but then we're on our own. The cost of going to the dentist is the most common reason given for people putting off a check-up, sometimes for years and years.

That's understandable. The average charge of seeing a dentist is over $400 an hour.

Anybody whose paid $100 or more for a five minute examination and a couple of X–rays will be surprised it's not higher.

Dentists themselves, perhaps not getting much pleasure out of the many awful mouths they have to work on these days, are now backing calls for either free dental care, or at least some subsidy.

There's huge irony in that. Dental health wasn't part of the First Labour government's Social Security Act in 1938 because of organised opposition from dentists. The free care for those under 18 was the compromise.

Eighty years on it does seem bizarre that every part of an adult New Zealander's body will get government assistance to fix any health issues – except your teeth. (Although some really serious dental work can be done in a public hospital.)

The late Jim Anderton pushed hard for universal dental care. In 2011 his Progressive Party reckoned it would cost about a billion dollars a year. It wouldn't have gone up that much in the last seven years.

But if the current government had the courage to ditch that ill-considered and not very successful free tertiary fees scheme, which currently costs around $400 million a year, then it would be well on the way towards paying for dental care.

By the time that no-fees scheme kicks in fully to fund three years free at university in 2024, the cost would be more than enough to pay for everybody to see a dentist.

Considering that the number of those in tertiary education has increased by only 3 per cent this year despite the free fees, and that universal or subsidised dental care will have an impact on everybody, it's pretty obvious which is the better investment.

Having good teeth as children and adolescents should be a given in this country. That many children have poor teeth is not the fault of government policy. It's lazy parenting, although having fluoride in every municipal water supply should be mandatory too. (Where are you Tauranga City? It's 26 years on from that non-binding referendum where only 51 per cent voted against fluoridation. A lot has changed here since then.)

Having healthy teeth through to adolescence sets a good platform for your oral health later in life. But things happen over time, and mid-life dental care can be hugely expensive.

There are two options – pay for it or not have it done. (There is actually a third. Go to Thailand or Vietnam and pay a quarter of the price. But after sales service can be a problem.)

Even worse is that health insurance cover for dental work is so expensive it's not worth paying the premiums.

I had a work colleague once who was born in England and wisely kept his British NHS number when he came to live in New Zealand.

That meant when it came time for those wisdom teeth to get pulled, he figured it was cheaper to go and see his family and get the teeth pulled for free over there that it was to pay whatever the rate was in this country.

Setting a public dental care policy won't be easy. But after 80 years of subsidised health care over the rest of our body, it's time our mouths were looked after too.

It's sure to be a vote winner. You'd think politicians, of all people, would know that.

If Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and David Clark aren't keen, how about you Simon Bridges?