As Labour waits and hopes for a good landing for its new election policy of free dental care for under-30s, it can at least congratulate itself for managing to announce that policy without National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis doing it for them first.
Labour certainly needed a big hit of a policy - a policy with some teeth, if you like - as it tries to halt its drop in the polls and to give it a fighting chance against National’s tax cuts policy.
Its first attempt to do that had not had the desired impact. Willis had found out it planned to announce it was taking GST off fruit and vegetables and told everybody well in advance.
The element of surprise was lost, and as soon as it was announced it drowned under a tsunami of criticism. There is no sign it has done anything to help Labour win a third term: it has succeeded in making them look a bit desperate.
Labour leader Chris Hipkins would not tempt fate by saying that the new free dental policy was the game changer he needed, but it is a much stronger policy than the GST move, which looked expedient.
The move would see free dental care extended to 18-23-year-olds in July 2025 and to 24-29-year-olds from mid-2026. Which is conveniently just before the next election.
It was an excellent choice as an announcement to use for the campaign launch. It was big enough, Labour enough, and voter-friendly enough. Importantly, it addresses an issue many voters have moaned about: expensive dental care.
If it lands right, the dental care policy could be the slightly more modest equivalent to Labour’s 2005 promise of interest-free student loans. The success of that policy was in its cross-generational appeal. It directly benefited younger people, mostly. But parents and grandparents liked it because they didn’t like to see their children and grandchildren saddled with crippling debt at a young age.
Hipkins would not say it out loud, but he will certainly be hoping the dental care policy could carry some of the same benefit.
It definitely addresses a need. The cost of dental care has long been a problem and for just as long political parties have said it is too expensive to do much about.
The policy, costed at $390 million over four years, was immediately put through the same tests every 2023 election policy will face.
Is it affordable, where will the dentists to deliver it come from, how will it be paid for? It was described by the Greens as not going far enough, and by Act as a “desperate bribe” and “populist, fantasist policies”.
Labour hopes doing it in two tranches and waiting until 2025, when the economic outlook will hopefully look a bit better, will help ease concerns about the affordability and allow time to get more dentists.
Campaign launches are about galvanising the troops and grabbing the attention of voters.
In that regard, the campaign launch itself also hit the spot – even with Freedoms NZ trying to blockade the venue on the steps outside, and a few protesters inside disrupting proceedings as much as they could.
One started shouting while former prime minister Helen Clark was speaking and had to be dragged out. About four or five more did the same during Hipkins’ speech.
Hipkins handled the interruptions well - including with an “Up the Wahs” - and it had the effect of uniting the Labour faithful behind him: each time, the audience would simply start chanting to drown them out.
Hipkins might try to paint himself as just Chippy from the Hutt, but Labour’s experienced hype-producer, Barbara Ward, knows sometimes a bit of theatre is what is required.
That is at the campaign launch, and especially when your chips are a bit down.
So rather than Hipkins simply shuffling onto the stage, he made a grand entry while Reb Fountain belted out Don McGlashan songs, backed by a gospel choir and some Pacific drums. It was loud, it was upbeat, it was high-energy and it was what was needed to get the supporters’ blood thumping.
(McGlashan was supposed to perform, but was sick. Not many events would be able to get Fountain in as a last-minute ring-in.)
On Sunday, National’s leader Christopher Luxon will have his turn on the stage to give a right of reply. That is not expected to be heavy on new policy, but rather focus on Luxon and attempt to build trust in him.
In her speech at Labour’s conference, Clark issued a warning to National not to get too cocky - saying “believe me, no election is a pushover”, before pointing at National’s “unprecedented campaign war chest”.
In his speech, Hipkins got in enough thwacks at National to please the party base and an extra one for NZ First as the cherry on top: that got the biggest cheer.
Hipkins sledged National’s tax cuts and then announced his own dentist measure. Asked later if it was the last of Labour’s Big Ones, all Hipkins would say is that he was only up to No 8 on his 10-point cost-of-living plan.