I got excited over the weekend. A headline on the NZ Herald website about a Labour policy of free universal dental care caught my eye. I glanced at the article but didn't read it fully (isn't that always the way these days?).

"This is big," I was raving to my daughter on a trip into town. "It's going to make so much difference to people's lives."

I started writing a column in my head, where I had to give credit to Labour. My scepticism was going to give way to political optimism. This was transformational with a small 't' at least.

If we are to get free dental care the Labour leadership is going to have to be pushed from below, by rank-and-file party members and the wider public.

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Free universal dental care, I reckoned, would be the most significant social policy introduced in my adult life.

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I've only lived through erosions of the so-called Welfare State. But universally available dental care, that's going in the other direction. Incredible.

On Monday, I perused the morning paper, eager to get details of the policy. But nothing anywhere.

Health Minister David Clark is lukewarm about making free universal dental care a priority. Photo / File
Health Minister David Clark is lukewarm about making free universal dental care a priority. Photo / File

I went online ... nothing on the homepages of the major news websites either. Was I dreaming it? What did I read?

Could the lack of coverage be explained by the media being run by a bunch of perfect-teeth freaks who don't need dental work?

Bamboozled, I located the original article online.

Ah, it became clear, free dental care is being pushed by grassroots Labour Party members. It was a remit put through by delegates on the floor of the party's national conference.

This doesn't mean it will become official Labour policy. It will have to get through various committees higher up the party machine for that to happen.

Even Helen Clark, who, as prime minister, would never in a million years have introduced the policy, has taken to Twitter to lend her support for universally free dental care. Photo / File
Even Helen Clark, who, as prime minister, would never in a million years have introduced the policy, has taken to Twitter to lend her support for universally free dental care. Photo / File

Labour in Government wasn't going to be introducing publicly funded dental care anytime soon.

In fact, I was disappointed to learn that Health Minister David Clark is lukewarm about making it a priority.

Still, it's not an issue likely to go away. There's widespread concern at people not being able to afford basic dental care and suffering horribly for it.

Even Helen Clark, who, as prime minister, would never in a million years have introduced the policy, has taken to Twitter to lend her support for universally free dental care.

It can happen, and it should happen. But it will have to get past the Labour MPs in Cabinet, and in particular Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

In this one policy idea we see a familiar conflict for Labour, the potential for a gap to open up between grassroots members and supporters wanting action and the leadership of the party expressing caution and fiscal responsibility.

It was notable how much of Jacinda Ardern's speech to the Labour conference was about "not doing this, not yet, maybe later". Expectations are being dampened.

If we are to get free dental care the Labour leadership is going to have to be pushed from below, by rank-and-file party members and the wider public.

The media can continue to play its part too, by shining a light on the gaping hole in our existing health system.

■ Vaughan Gunson is a writer and poet interested in social justice and big issues facing the planet.