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Free dental care for under-30s - Labour election campaign launch promise

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Sat, 2 Sep 2023, 12:03pm

Free dental care for under-30s - Labour election campaign launch promise

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Sat, 2 Sep 2023, 12:03pm

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. 

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. 

“It’s responsible.” 

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.” 

Labour’s suite of cost-of-living moves is going head to head with National’s package of tax cuts – and both parties are also promising to increase Working for Families by comparable amounts. 

Labour has already announced some key policies on that front, including removing GST from fresh fruit and vegetables, extending 20-hours’ free early childhood education to 2-year-olds and making public transport free for school students and half-price for under-25s. 

The campaign launch at the Aotea Centre will be Hipkins’ attempt to rally the party base and convince them Labour is still in contention after its polling slipped into the 20s in a couple of recent polls. 

Those members will remember the last campaign launch, when the party was at the height of its popularity and leader Jacinda Ardern packed out the Auckland Town Hall. 

The party members and volunteers will be key for Labour in a potentially tight election in which turnout will be crucial, especially in Auckland. 

National leader Christopher Luxon will launch his campaign on Sunday, also in Auckland. NZ First leader Winston Peters is also wooing the region with public meetings in Orewa and Auckland on Saturday and Sunday. 

Hipkins is expected to focus on his leadership style and on Labour’s leadership in government during natural disasters, Covid-19 and the post-Covid economic crunch, which is still being felt. 

He is likely to contrast that record with National’s comparatively untested leadership team, with Luxon being a first-term MP. He will continue trying to depict a National/Act government as a “coalition of cuts” and ask the public to weigh up whether they would be better off with National’s tax cuts than Labour’s offerings. 

However, he is in an arm wrestle with history: while two-term governments are rare in New Zealand, it has proven difficult for prime ministers who take over midway through a term to win the next election in their own right. Recent examples include Bill English and Jenny Shipley – although English came very close to doing so in 2017 and brought National in higher than Labour, only to be deprived by NZ First in the kingmaker role. 

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