Free dental care will win those votes
The Labour Party annual conference adopted a policy last weekend that would guarantee the party victory at the next election, and probably the one after that too. The policy?
Universal free dental care. But the parliamentary wing of the party seems reluctant, to say the least, to move on such a policy. Health Minister David Clark isn’t answering questions on the subject. The Finance Minister says he has other priorities and wants to pay down debt.
Health is already the biggest component of a government’s budget. This year there’s $18.2 billion allocated. That’s 21 per cent of government spending.
There is free dental care for all New Zealand citizens and residents until our 18th birthdays, but then we’re on our own. The cost of going to the dentist is the most common reason given for people putting off a check-up, sometimes for years and years.
That’s understandable. The average charge of seeing a dentist is over $400 an hour.
Anybody whose paid $100 or more for a five minute examination and a couple of X — rays will be surprised it’s not higher.
Dentists themselves, perhaps not getting much pleasure out of the many awful mouths they have to work on these days, are now backing calls for either free dental care, or at least some subsidy.
There’s huge irony in that. Dental health wasn’t part of the First Labour government’s Social Security Act in 1938 because of organised opposition from dentists. The free care for those under 18 was the compromise.
Eighty years on it does seem bizarre that every part of an adult New Zealander’s body will get government assistance to fix any health issues — except your teeth. (Although some really serious dental work can be done in a public hospital.)
The late Jim Anderton pushed hard for universal dental care. In 2011 his Progressive Party reckoned it would cost about a billion dollars a year. It wouldn’t have gone up that much in the last seven years.
But if the current government had the courage to ditch that illconsidered and not very successful free tertiary fees scheme, which currently costs around $400 million a year, then it would be well on the way towards paying for dental care.
By the time that no-fees scheme kicks in fully to fund three years free at university in 2024, the cost would be more than enough to pay for everybody to see a dentist.
Considering that the number of those in tertiary education has increased by only 3 per cent this year despite the free fees, and that universal or subsidised dental care will have an impact on everybody, it’s pretty obvious which is the better investment.
Having good teeth as children and adolescents should be a given in this country. That many children have poor teeth is not the fault of government policy. It’s lazy parenting, although having fluoride in every municipal water supply should be mandatory too. (Where are you Tauranga City? It’s 26 years on from that nonbinding referendum where only 51 per cent voted against fluoridation. A lot has changed here since then.)
Having healthy teeth through to adolescence sets a good platform for your oral health later in life. But things happen over time, and midlife dental care can be hugely expensive.
There are two options — pay for it or not have it done. (There is actually a third. Go to Thailand or Vietnam and pay a quarter of the price. But after sales service can be a problem.)
Even worse is that health insurance cover for dental work is so expensive it’s not worth paying the premiums.
I had a work colleague once who was born in England and wisely kept his British NHS number when he came to live in New Zealand.
That meant when it came time for those wisdom teeth to get pulled, he figured it was cheaper to go and see his family and get the teeth pulled for free over there that it was to pay whatever the rate was in this country.
Setting a public dental care policy won’t be easy. But after 80 years of subsidised health care over the rest of our body, it’s time our mouths were looked after too.
It’s sure to be a vote winner. You’d think politicians, of all people, would know that.
If Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and David Clark aren’t keen, how about you Simon Bridges? Paul Spoonley
Last week I attended the Metropolis conference on immigration in Sydney along with NGOs, representatives from government departments, researchers, policy analysts, politicians and communities from around the world. It was a great conference and timely. Immigration is a flashpoint in many countries.
A couple of aspects were intriguing. The first was how some of those presenting characterised Australia. Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, David Coleman, in a case of Trumpian hyperbole described Australia as “the greatest nation on earth”.
This was followed by claims during the conference that Australia offered the best example of multiculturalism, often made by conservative politicians, although this was contested by other Australian commentators.
Another aspect was more troubling. New Zealand was invisible. There were no references made to New Zealand anywhere, unless by Kiwis. This was puzzling given we represent one of the largest overseas-born populations, hence “immigrants”, in Australia.
There was no reference to the way in which Kiwis were treated as immigrants. In 1973, Australia and New Zealand began a process to align and treat each other’s citizens and permanent residents with parity, notably the right to live and reside in each other’s country. This began to unravel in 2001 when New Zealanders were characterised as “dole bludgers” and there was a move to reduce their rights in Australia. This has been compounded by subsequent changes so that Kiwis now have fewer settlement and access rights than immigrants from elsewhere.
To underline this, there are the “501s”, the recent deportation of more than 1300 offenders to New Zealand in recent years.
And there are some new challenges. Gladys Berejiklian, NSW premier, said last week there would be a population review — but made it clear the intent was to reduce the number of immigrants arriving there.
In the 2016-17 year, 104,000 of the net migrant arrivals to Australia ended up in NSW and she wants to drop it to “Howard-era rates” (about 45,000). The concern is the pressure on NSW infrastructure, an issue Aucklanders will be only too familiar with. But how do you control the arrival of New Zealanders heading to Sydney?
New Zealand politicians have been unable to get Australian politicians to even discuss the issues, much less to redress the inequities.
When there was discussion at the conference of other countries and who might provide some guidance for Australia, it was most likely to be Canada. And there are reasons for this. Canada has a managed immigration recruitment and selection policy, a significant investment in post-arrival settlement, actively managing the regional distribution of immigrants, a generous refugee offer and a commitment to social cohesion and diversity recognition.
Don’t get me wrong, the conference provided some engaging and spirited discussion. But New Zealand has a problem. We simply do not feature on this side of the Tasman in immigration debates, at a time when the numbers leaving New Zealand to settle in Australia are beginning to trend upwards again.
"Eighty years on it does seem bizarre that every part of an adult New Zealander’s body will get government assistance to fix any health issues — except your teeth."
There is free dental care for all New Zealand citizens and residents until our 18th birthdays, but then we’re on our own.