Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has used his election campaign launch to announce free dental care for under under-30s starting in mid-2025.
It is Hipkins’ latest play to try to outflank National for the voters’ ticks on the cost of the living front.
The new Labour policy would offer free annual check-ups, cleans, X-rays, basic fillings and extractions for nearly 800,000 under 30-year-olds.
It would be staged and offered initially to 18-23-year-olds from July 2025 and then expanded up to all under 30s from July 2026.
Hipkins - who was sung on to stage by Reb Fountain belting out some Don McGlashan with a gospel choir and Samoan drums - said that would mean that about 40 per cent of New Zealanders had free dental care by the end of 2026.
Hipkins said it was the start of delivering on Labour’s long-held wish for universal dental care, an area in which cost was often a barrier for people.
“In 2022 alone, 1.5 million Kiwis didn’t visit a dentist because it was just too expensive. Extending free basic dental care is a huge move and one which will ultimately benefit all New Zealanders,” Hipkins said.
“Children and young people currently have access to free basic dental services but as soon as they turn 18, they face big bills and often drop out of the system.”
The policies were costed at $390 million over the four years from 2024, and Labour would hope that future governments would expand it when it was possible within workforce, healthcare capacity and fiscal settings.
Labour would also increase the funding for the number of places in the Bachelor of Dental Surgery course by 50 per cent.
Labour’s timeline would see funding in the 2024 Budget to expand places in dental training to start boosting the workforce ahead of the first tranche of free dental care kicking in.
From July 2025, 390,000 under 24-year-olds would be eligible for free basic dental, and from July 2026 a total of 800,000 under 30-year-olds would be eligible.
Labour Health Spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall said the policy prioritised younger people because they were least likely to be able to afford dentist care.
“Poor oral health has a lasting impact on both mental and physical health and can lead to avoidable hospitalisations.”
However, such a major change in public health settings had to be carefully managed to ensure there was a workforce to meet it.
“Choosing a start date of July 1 2025 means we have time to enable the sector to prepare, which is why we’re rolling out the policy in stages.”
Labour’s announcement follows the Green Party announcing its policy of free dental care for all – a move it said would cost $1.2 billion and be paid for from a wealth tax on couples worth more than $4 million and individuals worth more than $2 million.
Green Party health spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March says everybody in Aotearoa should be able to go to the dentist when they need to, but for far too many Kiwis it is just too expensive.
“We’re pleased that Labour is picking up our ideas but they need to go further. Labour is unnecessarily constraining itself by ruling out changes to the tax system that would raise enough money from the wealthiest few to support everyone.
“By making sure the wealthiest few pay their fair share through a wealth tax, we can not only provide free dental for every single person in Aotearoa, but an Income Guarantee that will give everyone peace of mind they can always cover life’s essentials,” March said.
Leading dental advocacy group, Dental for All, says it welcomes Labour’s dental announcement and has called for other political parties to offer their dental plans in the lead-up to the election.
“With 72% of people delaying visiting a dentist because of cost, we know bringing down the cost of dental care is one of the key political issues in Aotearoa, and it’s time every party had a plan to address it,” said Hugh Trengrove, spokesperson for Dental for All.
Meanwhile, ACT leader David Seymour says Labour is “attempting to desperately bribe voters with free stuff” but Kiwis are rejecting their cynical and failed policies.
“Even Chris Hipkins knows Labour’s free dental promise is impossible... Labour’s campaign is now win at all costs, and bugger the state they leave the country in.
“Faced with some bad polls and creeping desperation, Labour has resorted to announcing populist fantasy policies they know they can’t deliver and will only cost Kiwis more. It is exactly the cynical type of politics that Kiwis are sick of,” Seymour said.
Hipkins told reporters at stand-up afterwards that he was not put off by Freedom NZ protesters disrupting the conference. Those who interrupted the launch had to register to attend.
On the dental policy, Hipkins said the party has always believed in universal healthcare, .
“We’ve been working on this for some time. I’m confident in all the policies we’re putting forward to the electorate.”
Verall said Labour was making progress on mobile dental clinics.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said free dental care for the under 30s was a sensible policy, as the country couldn’t afford to make it free for everyone now.
Hipkins said eight of Labour’s 10 major policies have been announced now.
“We believe now is the right time to roll out (limited) free dental care.
“It’s never too late (to do this).”
Hipkins said National’s policy on tax spoke for itself.
It would mean $5b worth of NZ homes needing to be sold to foreigners every year.
He said he wasn’t being negative when he challenged National’s tax plan.
“It’s very clear their numbers don’t add up and it’s fair to challenge them on that.”
Earlier the start of Hipkins’ speech was interrupted at least four times by people who had made it in, despite it being a ticketed event. Freedoms NZ protesters had also blocked the stairs of the Aotea Centre, making it hard for Labour supporters to get through.
Hipkins said he was proud of the Government’s Covid record, but it had taken its toll in areas such as health and education.
“These are the consequences of living through a global pandemic.”
He tacitly acknowledged that Labour too had been buffeted as a result of it, saying at such times it could be tempting to think a change was required. However, he said that should be not be a move back to the past.
He also criticised his opponents for “click bait policies.”
He ran through Labour’s record on child poverty, lifting the minimum wage and benefits, and delivering on pay equity deals and pay rises for nurses.
He said he encouraged people to look closely at the different plans of National and Labour. “I back our plan.”
He took aim at National and its tax cuts plan, calling it a “tax swindle,” “sneaky” and questioning the the costings, saying it had overstated the revenue it would get from a foreign buyers’ tax and online gambling tax. He also criticised them for using climate funding to pay for tax cuts instead.
Hipkins also pitched his own leadership style against Luxon’s, saying it was values that drove the way leaders responded to terrible events such as the terror attacks.
He said he liked to think that New Zealanders knew what his values were, and that he believed people should be treated with dignity for who they were.
“I don’t see that on the other side. I see people who want to win the election whatever it takes - and bugger the cost.”
He said some parties on the other side were more than happy to use race and gender to try to win an election: “And that is why I have ruled out working with Winston Peters and NZ First.”
Hipkins’ speech was preceded by one from former PM Helen Clark, who delivered the warm-up hype, telling Labour supporters that no election was easy to win and achieving a third term was never easy. “Believe me, no election is a pushover.” She also pointed at National’s influx of large donations over the last two years. “I know this election is going to take a tremendous amount of work from our entire team. We know we are up against the top end of town and what looks like an unprecedented campaign war chest.” She said National’s tax cuts “don’t help the poor, and they don’t come free.”
She said she could not see how National could afford them without significant cuts to the public service.
She said every country was buffeted by the aftershocks of Covid-19 and the disruption of the Ukraine war. “What we can be proud of is that first Jacinda and then Chris have shown exceptional leadership. There can be no denying we have done better than most in this crisis.”