At Labour’s campaign launch, Chris Hipkins announced widened access to free dental, just not tomorrow, and played Whack-a-mole with protesters. Toby Manhire was there.
A recurring theme in the Labour policy platform for this campaign: 2026. That’s the year when a slew of promises would bear fruit. What do we want? A lift in the Working for Families abatement threshold to $50,000, four weeks’ paid partner parental leave, and a compulsory common practice model to teach reading, writing and maths. When do we want them? In three years’ time.
To the list above can now be added, free dental care for New Zealanders under the age of 30. As with other policies, the benefits would be phased in, with dental care expanded first from under-18s to under-23s by 2025, under-28s by 2025, but 2026 is the sweet spot. A brighter future, just a few years hence. Or, to adapt another of John Key’s phrases, we’re on the cusp of the cusp of something special.
Announced today at the Labour campaign launch in central Auckland, the dental care push is the eighth of 10 pledges from the party to address the cost of living crisis. The trouble is the timing. That crisis is playing out right now, but big spend-ups to address it are not fiscally responsible today. In the case of the dental policy, there wouldn’t be the workforce to do it tomorrow anyway. But it leaves a mini-anachronism: we shall deal with the crisis bedevelling us immediately, by announcing something to be introduced when that crisis has largely abated.
Still, at least it is more imminent than, say, the plan to begin a second harbour crossing in 2029. And in contrast to the GST exemption for fresh fruit’n’veg – a boondoggle which would kick in next year – here is a policy with a compelling evidential base. Failure to deal with ill dental health when it occurs sends the public an invoice for the future. It comes back to bite us all – if there are any teeth left to bite with.
In principle there is something arbitrary about exempting the contents of a specific orifice from universal healthcare, and while this policy would not reverse that, it would go some of the way, with 800,000 benefiting (by 2026, that is). “Labour’s ultimate goal is to provide free universal dental care to all New Zealanders,” said Hipkins.
It went down like a spoonful of sugar at the Aotea Centre. The audience had been roused by an afternoon that saw proceedings interrupted five times – four during Hipkins’ speech and one during that of former prime minister Helen Clark – by protesters attached to Brian Tamaki’s conspiracy-infused Freedoms NZ movement, who appear to have determined their best chance of getting a crowd in the campaign is by inserting themselves in front of someone else’s.
After previous Labour and National campaign events were interrupted in the last fortnight, here a huddle of purple-signed protesters gathered outside. That seemed fair enough, too. They went further, though, smuggling themselves into the theatre and pinging up at various points shouting slogans before being scooped up and removed by security in a tedious game of disruption Whack-a-mole.
Hipkins later said he did not think security had been lax; those who disrupted the event would have had to register their attendance and to have done so under false pretences. He said he intended to continue to run an open campaign. But while it’s worth keeping it all in perspective – these were peaceful protests – the proliferation of this kind of thing does risk a slide into higher-security, less open approaches to campaigns and politics in general, depriving us of the accessible, ungated style we’re used to.
As the interruptions went on, Hipkins improvised away from his speech. “To our friends at Vision New Zealand, if you want real vision, join the Labour Party”, he said. And a few minutes later: “I think this is about the time that I say, ‘Up the Wahs’.” Later: “We are the party that says a small group of loud people should not drown out the majority.” And on the fourth attempt to hijack the event, more solemnly: “I’ve been around politics quite a while, and this one does feel quite different.”
By the time the fifth shouty disruption was launched, the audience had their response down to a fine art: leap to feet, chant, “Let’s go, Labour, let’s go,” and surround the irritant with branded T-shirts – to shield them from media attention, I think, rather than as the red rag of a bullring.
By the time – finally – Hipkins was able to get through his speech and to the big policy announcement, the crowd could hardly have been more warmed up. “I’m pleased to announce that if re-elected, Labour will make dental care free –” said Chris Hipkins, at which the roar in the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre was so loud I fear some of the Labour faithful may have missed the qualifier that followed, ”– for all New Zealanders up to the age of 30.”
For organisers quietly worried that the turnout and energy at the Aotea Centre might be visibly lacking compared to the fervour of the campaign launches at the last two elections under Jacinda Ardern, just around the corner at the Town Hall, there was relief. Whether there was real belief in Labour’s prospects it’s hard to say; there was certainly plenty of enthusiasm, not least at Hipkins’ numerous swipes at his National opponents, and their “tax swindle” and another in New Zealand First’s direction: “Parties that want to win at all costs and bugger the consequences.”
“It’s a bold vision,” said Hipkins of the newly announced policy. “It’s a Labour vision. And it will be a gamechanger for many.” Less clear is whether jam tomorrow can deliver the campaign gamechanger Labour so sorely needs.