Another day, another big campaign promise for voters to weigh up.
Labour’s official launch event on Saturday came with a significant new policy of extending free dental care for all people aged under 30. It’s currently free to those under 18.
The plan is to focus first on people aged 18 to 23 from July 2025. It is promised to be a step towards a goal of universal free dental care.
The policy would have elicited eye rolls from the Green Party, which is pitching free dental care funded by a wealth tax.
But Labour, which has had few promises both big and memorable to promote so far, won’t care. The policy accomplishes a few different things.
It is costed at $390 million over four years, will not be implemented fully until 2026, and is set to eventually benefit 800,000 Kiwis.
That puts it out beyond immediate economic concerns. At present, it can’t help but look more prudent and targeted when placed against National’s sprawling $14.6 billion package of tax pledges and credits last week.
With post-tax package debate focused on whether National’s costings work, a less ambitious plan might seem more credible. That’s not to say the offered tax cuts won’t shift voters National’s way. It tried to balance the ‘is this the right time’ question with both taxes on potential foreign housing investors and spending cuts.
National, at its launch yesterday, kept it simple with a pledge card to voters summarising eight main promises.
They covered getting inflation down and boosting the economy, the tax cuts, transport, crime, education, health waiting times, some support for seniors and confirming a long-term climate goal.
National leader Christopher Luxon judged yesterday’s event as the time for selling headline messages - on policies, values, himself - to the public. It’s something the party has been most effective at.
Labour’s leader, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, is betting steadiness and caution will be the tortoise to National’s hare and that his rivals may have made a mistake in over-promising on tax before the Government books are opened on September 12.
Labour’s counter-offering is simple to grasp, and dental bills are something most people fear as much as the toothache and drill.
It gives younger voters a practical reason to turn out on election day. It’s good preventive healthcare to ensure teeth are looked after in early adulthood. It’s wide in focus: free dental care for under-30s would help both a young shop assistant or farmhand.
However, the delay in the plan kicking in, while sensible, is also a drawback for people who want bold policies at a faster rate, and some might wonder if the time lag might mean this policy will fall into a hole of not arriving at all.
It will require a recruitment drive for overseas dentists. Labour also acknowledges more dentists will need to be trained in coming years.
Getting to overall free dental care would be a very long-term goal given the expense involved, the years of training for dentists and the difficulty of ensuring access for people in remote parts of the country.
As voters compare and contrast the policy gambits, the campaign launches have probably done their job in firing up the party activists to go out and sell them a month out from early voting.