It is too early in Andrew Little's career as a party leader to be ruling out realistic answers to problems he would face if he leads Labour to power. We already have a Prime Minister incapable of updating the terms of national superannuation because he made an unwise commitment as Leader of the Opposition. The subject cannot be frozen forever.
It is patently clear that human life expectancy has lengthened considerably, even in the short time since the age of entitlement was raised from 60 to 65 in the 1990s. We do not need the Census to tell us that, or the fact that a rapidly increasing proportion of today's superannuitants are continuing to work in jobs they enjoy. Mr Little cited their double-dipping as an issue of fairness when asked after a post-Budget speech whether Labour would consider means testing superannuation. He said Labour would be looking at it.
Within hours his office issued a disclaimer, insisting Labour would most certainly not be looking at it. Means testing would not be part of any review it made of New Zealand Superannuation. That statement is most unwise because means testing is quite likely to be an important element of a change in the age of entitlement. While many are finding age 65 too soon to retire, for people in physically demanding work it cannot come soon enough. Rather than raising the age of universal entitlement, it would be fairer for superannuation to be available from the point at which a person 65 or older ceases to earn an income. That is a means test.
Labour could regret the statement from its leader's office long before the next election. Act MP David Seymour has already approached opposition parties seeking their support for a referendum on the retirement age. Labour is reported to have urged him to get others on side before it commits itself. If Mr Seymour can persuade John Key that a referendum offers a way out of that unwise commitment he might get National's support, and if his proposal is a variable entitlement it might be supported by his fellow Government partner, Peter Dunne.
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One opposition party, New Zealand First, can be guaranteed to oppose any change to superannuation, so much so that Mr Seymour has not bothered to ask it. But Labour and the Greens will not be seen to be hidebound on an issue of such importance for young voters. As Mr Seymour says, "Anyone currently at university or entering the workforce is going to have two workers per retiree when they retire. That is just not sustainable."
Labour went to the last election with a policy to increase the age of entitlement, which Mr Little blames for its loss, alongside its intention to impose a capital gains tax on rented housing. Since taking over the leadership he has backtracked on both policies, leaving him in an awkward position now that National has activated just such a tax on rental housing resale gains. That announcement, five days before Mr Little's difficulties on superannuation last Friday, ought to have been a lesson to keep his options open. Otherwise he will be often overtaken by events.