New Zealand Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. Image courtesy of New Zealand Tertiary Education Union.
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Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup: Labour’s decaying policy on free universal dental care

Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.

Grant Robertson has once again ruled out implementing a popular Labour Party policy: free universal dental care. He did so yesterday on RNZ’s Morning Report, citing the cost factor. The Acting Prime Minister suggested that spending on dental care wasn’t a priority for the Government and that the health budget had more important areas for funding.

Robertson’s continued stalling on free dental care essentially contravenes his own party’s policy. At the 2018 annual conference, Labour agreed to implement free universal dental care for all adults – extending that available to those under the age of 18 years. This decision was made when the party was only one year into government. The announcement was greeted with great enthusiasm.

Four years later, Labour’s dental policy seems to be decaying, almost rotten. Behind the scenes, officials have worked on the policy and come up with ways to implement it. But the politicians lack the will to prioritise the spending.

Although Robertson cites a $1bn price tag for universal dental care, there have been suggestions of ways that the policy could be incrementally introduced, beginning with either low-income adults or a younger population. For example, if the Government wanted to start by extending free dental to those up until their 27th birthday, the Ministry of Health has estimated it would cost just $148m, and they have come up with many other ways in which various other groups could be cheaply afforded free dental.

Increased dental funding would be popular

There is no doubt that the policy is extremely popular – with numerous surveys showing that the public wants free dental implemented. A 2020 Colmar Brunton survey showed that 64 per cent of the public backs free dental care. The most recent poll, carried out by Newshub’s Reid Research in May, asked “Do you think the Government should subsidise dental care to make it cheaper for adults to go to the dentist?” 84 per cent say yes.

At the time, the Minister of Health, Andrew Little responded by saying, “It’s an area we need to give attention to at some point” and that “there is a lot of room for improvement” in government funding of adult dental care.

Yet Labour’s shifts on this have been only tiny so far – increasing dental grants available through Work and Income. This is an improvement for those that can access them, but is no substitute for the proper reform promised by Labour.

Universal dental care back is on the agenda

The policy of free universal dental care is back on the agenda after the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (Toi Mata Hauora)  – the union representing dentists – released a report this week recommending that the free and universal policy be implemented as soon as possible by the Government. The union complained that although Labour had committed to action back in 2018, there has been “radio silence since”.

The union’s report, “Tooth be told”, showed that unmet dental treatment had become so bad that out of 11 comparable countries, New Zealand now fared the worst. The report showed that unnecessary tooth decay is leading to a quarter of million New Zealanders having teeth pulled each year. This is because 40 per cent of New Zealanders can’t afford to go to the dentist. And it’s getting worse – there has been a 31 per cent increase in those needing hospital medical interventions as a result.

Some dentists have been speaking out about this recently. For example, last week Timaru dentist Fraser Dunbar went on TV3’s The Project to describe the heartbreaking job he has of taking out people’s teeth in hospital due to people not being able to afford to go to the dentist.

He says there has been a large increase in people in their 20s needing all their teeth removed. Dunbar said that “it’s not unheard of for him to take out 100 teeth in a morning at the local hospital” and that this includes “three or four patients getting full clearances”.

The release of the report was also supported by the Auckland City Mission (Te Tāpui Atawhai) because the issue relates so clearly to inequality and poverty. Because private dental treatment has become so prohibitively expensive, the problem feeds directly into overall inequality.

According to the report, 42 per cent of adults cannot afford dentist visits. And of course, for some ethnic minorities, it’s much worse – 53.7 per cent of Māori adults and 51.5 per cent of Pasifika don’t access dental care under the current system.

The dental problem is therefore its own “crisis”, and a key part of the overall inequality crisis that the Government is failing to combat. And this “crisis” categorisation was borne out earlier this year when the international website for dental news, Dental Tribune International, reported, “New Zealand’s oral health crisis rages on”. And it’s not just related to the Government’s lack of funding, but also to a declining dental workforce – New Zealand now has one of the smallest per capita dentist and dental specialist workforces in the OECD.

Cheaper to provide full universal dental care

The Salaried Medical Specialists union argues that the Government is misguided in taking a short-term approach of rejecting free, universal dental services on the basis of the price tag. The union says that the opposite is the case – that the price of neglecting this area of healthcare is actually producing greater costs for the taxpayer and society.

The union argues that any large expenditure on dental health will yield significant savings in the longer term. The head of the union, Sarah Dalton, says that by spending on dental care, “there’s a whole bunch of way more serious, way more expensive conditions, health conditions that would disappear”. Alternatively, chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease end up costing much more to deal with down the track.

In fact, the New Zealand Dental Association has carried out a cost-benefit analysis, using Treasury tools, and found that the Government would get back an extra $1.60 on every dollar spent on extended dental care.

The problem, however, for Grant Robertson and Labour is that such wins for the public would be further down the track than the next election, or even the one after that. So, the politicians have clearly done their own cost-benefit electoral analysis and decided not to invest, even if it would be a sensible way to reduce misery and inequality.

In this sense, the unheeded case for free, universal dental care is a clear case study illustrating the decay of the Labour Party as a force for progressive change. Unfortunately, the rottenness in both dental health and politics seems set to continue.

Further reading on universal free dental care

Background reading:
Bryce Edwards: Is it time for Labour to introduce public dental care?
Bryce Edwards: The missing election policy on free dental visits
Bryce Edwards: Pulling teeth – the fight for free dental care
Bryce Edwards: Time to campaign for free universal public dental care

New material today:
RNZ: Single-step move to universal dental care cost-prohibitive – Grant Robertson
Will Trafford (Te Ao – Māori News): Dental access stats worst for Māori; terrible generally
Jayden Holmes (Today FM): Dentist worried too many desperate kiwis pulling own teeth out
No Right Turn: Grant says “no” again

Other items of interest and importance today

RMA, HOUSING
Luke Malpass (Stuff): It’s not Three Waters, but David Parker’s RMA reforms hit a lot of the same nerves
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Overhaul of ‘broken’ resource rules set to ‘tame’ planning departments, speed up builds
1News: Govt vows cheaper, faster resource consents in ‘broken’ RMA overhaul
Geraden Cann (Stuff): Industry supportive of RMA reforms but concerns remain
Russell Palmer (RNZ): RMA replacements find few fans on cross-benches
Brent Edwards (NBR): Opposition parties signal they will change new planning law (paywalled)
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Industry to be consulted in RMA spatial plan reform (paywalled)
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Resource Management Act reforms: key elements (paywalled)
Anne Gibson (Herald): Resource Management Act reform reaction: what experts think
James Perry (Te Ao – Māori News): RMA reforms to save millions but critics say still wide of the mark
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Resource management: Planner sceptical about Government’s proposed RMA reform
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Government brings Resource Management Act replacements to Parliament
Brent Edwards (NBR): New legislation to replace RMA should be law next year (paywalled)
Bernard Hickey (Interest): New regime to replace RMA to take 10 years to bed in, cost $3.891b and create benefits of $10.039b
Piers Fuller (Stuff): The Wellington car park that’s going to be turned into 280 homes
Miriam Bell (Stuff): More pain, less gain in store for home sellers, CoreLogic says
RNZ: More houses likely to sell at a loss, Corelogic says
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): House price fall ‘biggest since REINZ records began’
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): REINZ figures: House prices plummet 12.7% in Auckland, whopping 17% in Wellington in year
RNZ: House prices drop amid market hesitancy
RNZ: Housing affordability crisis continues to grow in Queenstown Lakes
Maria Slade (NBR): Housing projects face winter of discontent (paywalled)
Kate MacNamara (Herald): Ballooning manager class at public housing agency costs $103m per year (paywalled)

PARLIAMENT, ROY MORGAN POLL
David Farrar: Roy Morgan poll October 2022
Richard Harman (Politik): Luxon’s low point (paywalled)
Matthew Hooton (Patreon): Māori seats will decide it (paywalled)
Johnny Blades (RNZ): MPs warned of ordeals ahead amid disinformation
Audrey Young (Herald): Judge issues new decision after getting law wrong on parliamentary privilege (paywalled)
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): ‘A good day for democracy: Labour and National agree to change Māori electoral rule
1News: Māori electoral roll: Changes on way after Labour, Nats agreement
Pokere Paewai (RNZ): Electoral review does not go far enough to address inequities, Māori advocates say
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): National MP advertising on What’s On Invers, the ‘anti-vax’ website blacklisted by RNZ
Jonah Franke-Bowell (Stuff): Slanted signs show ‘the status quo must go’ – Hamilton West by-election candidate

ECONOMY, BUSINESS, EMPLOYMENT
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): ‘Time for a tax-free threshold’: Should we give low-income earners a break?
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Economy: Grant Robertson says ‘tough 2023’ ahead amid warning ‘soft landing’ for economy looking less likely
Joseph Los’e (Herald): The Māori economy is booming and will be worth $100 billion by 2030
Cameron Bagrie (BusinessDesk): Why pain and hardship are on the way (paywalled)
Jonathan Mitchell (NBR): Chances of a soft economic landing get slim: Westpac (paywalled)
Dita De Boni (NBR): To the ‘Taxpayers Union’: Cry more (paywalled)
Brigitte Morten (NBR): Social Insurance Scheme could be the sleeper of 2023 (paywalled)
Ian Llewellyn (BusinessDesk): Threat of petrol price intervention is needed, says Treasury
Eric Crampton (Stuff): We all turn a little bit crazy when prices rise in a crisis
Herald Editorial: Prices surge as energy companies reap dividends (paywalled)
David Williams (Newsroom): Power discord: The battle over NZ’s biggest water take
Logan Savory (Stuff): Economist: Smelter closure impact would be ‘far less pronounced’
Damien Grant (Stuff): Bank profits aren’t the problem, the Reserve Bank is
Ben Gracewood (Spinoff): I would simply fix banking in New Zealand
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): RBNZ still mulling ‘material’ anti-money laundering breach by ANZ NZ
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Gender and ethnic diversity on boards improving globally, report finds
John Gerritsen (RNZ): Union reduces university staff pay demand to match inflation rate
John Gerritsen (RNZ): Teachers ‘insulted’ by govt offer of $6000 pay increase
RNZ: WINZ and Defence Force partner to place job seekers with employers

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Paul Buchanan: On NZ foreign policy “independence.”
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Cheap limes for your Corona: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gets down to business in Vietnam
Claire Trevett (Herald): Mojito and Corona lovers rejoice – PM’s Vietnam trip opens door for more limes to New Zealand (paywalled)
Jo Moir (Newsroom): From elbowing into summits to Hanoi garden tours
Claire Trevett (Herald): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern puts Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor on stunt double duties in Vietnam
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern celebrates Xi, Biden meeting amid pageantry in Vietnam
Gyles Beckford (RNZ): PM Jacinda Ardern in Vietnam: Day of top-level meetings and ceremony
1News: Prime Minister hoping for big trade boost with Vietnam
Peata Melbourne (Te Ao – Māori News): NZ ‘puppets for the USA’ – Rawiri Waititi
Rebecca Howard (BusinessDesk): Canada insists it is meeting its dairy trade obligations (paywalled)
Ford Hart (Stuff): Will NZ’s relationship with China be driven by fear and greed?
James Halpin (Stuff): Son of Auckland woman who raised money for Russian army dodged conscription

ENVIRONMENT
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): COP27: New Zealand blasted for ‘obstructing’ fund for climate damage
MIchael Neilson (Herald): COP27 climate change: NZ gets ‘fossil’ award at conference as new adaptation funds announced
University of Auckland’s Nga Are Whetū Centre for Climate, Biodiversity and Society: (Newsroom): NZ should lead the climate change fight, not just pay reparation
Rod Oram (Newsroom): Will this be the COP that loses the 1.5 C target?
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): As COP27 goes nowhere, the Govt is still lost in climate ideology
Thomas Coughan (Herald): National’s bonfire of climate policy leaves Auckland-shaped hole in targets – Labour
RNZ: Key trading partners beating NZ efforts in sustainability reporting
Richard Prebble (Herald): Human ingenuity needed to beat global warming (paywalled)
Christina Laalaai-Tausa (Spinoff): Climate change is a harsh reality in Sāmoa – and the world’s leaders need to face it
Stefan Dimitrof (Te Ao – Māori News): Investment in seed banks could pay off against climate change
Farah Hancock (RNZ): Scientist’s dairy factory concerns over unsafe drinking water

PRIMARY INDUSTRIES
Maddy Lloyd (1News): Waimate District returns record-high levels of nitrate in water
Rachael Kelly (Stuff): Will anyone from the Government meet with Groundswell NZ?
Dean Baigent-Mercer (Stuff): It’s time to resolve carbon forest conflict
Nikki Mandow (Newsroom): Dairy land being lost at 1 percent a year, Fonterra
Gerhard Uys (Stuff): No workers to harvest, so farmer sacrifices 300,000 heads of lettuce
Jacqueline Rowarth (Stuff): What impact will farming levies have in a world of growing food insecurity?

LOCAL GOVERNMENT, THREE WATERS
Thomas Cranmer: Five Waters and a Park
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington mayor Tory Whanau will not renew Green Party membership (paywalled)
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Former Auckland Council mayoral staff lose their jobs
Erin Johnson (Stuff): Auckland mayor Wayne Brown disappointed alternative Three Waters proposal rejected

HEALTH
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): North Shore Hospital: Nurses criticise lack of privacy for patients awaiting treatment
Cécile Meier and Murray Jones (BusinessDesk): GPs and pharmacists in tug of war over minor ailments market
Victoria Young (BusinessDesk): We investigate the $30b business of health
Alexa Cook (Newshub): Man dying of cancer wins battle with ACC for palliative treatment funding
Ruwani Perera (Newshub): First phase of three-year project to reduce vape-related harm among young people launched
RNZ: Lead levels allowed in drinking water taps to be cut significantly from 2025
Will Trafford (Te Ao – Māori News): Seymour backs purchase of rehabilitation centre from developers
Ben Wheeler (The Conversation): 100 years after insulin was first used, why isn’t NZ funding the latest life-changing diabetes technology?
Melody Smith (The Conversation): New Zealand scored C+ for physical activity in children and teens – what’s driving this and what can be done?

TRANSPORT
Giles Dexter (RNZ): Government reaches compromise with National on electoral law change
RNZ: Plan to reduce speed limits on some highways will save lives, Automobile Association says
1News: Lowering the road toll: Advocates debate speed reduction proposal
1News: NZTA proposes sweeping state highway speed limit decreases
John MacDonald (Newstalk ZB): Reducing speed limits is a cop-out
Quinton Hurley (Stuff): Could rail be the future for Christchurch? Maybe not, but buses provide hope
Melanie Carroll (Stuff): By the numbers: How Air NZ brings its planes in the desert back to life
George Weeks (Spinoff): ‘Free’ car parking and roads cost drivers – in stress and wasted time

IMMIGRATION, POPULATION
Maiki Sherman (1News): Frequent travellers from Samoa to soon bypass visa requirements
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Migration turnaround gains momentum
John Weekes (Herald): Brain drain gone away? New stats show more people entering NZ than leaving
RNZ: What New Zealand’s population looks like as the world reaches 8 billion people

JUSTICE, CORRECTIONS, CRIME
Tara Shaskey (Herald): Home detention for Taranaki beneficiary who pocketed $50k in Covid wage subsidy fraud
George Block (Herald): Police criticised in damning watchdog report for ‘major deficiencies’ in their handling of fraud complaints
Kirsty Frame (RNZ): IPCA calls for ‘fundamental overhaul’ of fraud investigation processes
Phil Pennignton (RNZ): Fewer ram raids despite slow rollout of police security assessments
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Grant Robertson concedes ram raid support rollout too slow, lashes out at ‘criminals’ targeting businesses
William Hewett (Newshub): Calls for better education in prison to tackle New Zealand’s ‘high’ reoffending rates

BLACK FERNS
Abbey Wakefield (1News): Black Ferns hailed by MPs – ‘Pay them well’
Herald: PM Jacinda Ardern says Black Ferns should get equal pay and opportunities
Damien Venuto (Herald): The Front Page: How much the Black Ferns earn playing for the country
Trevor McKewen (BusinessDesk): Does NZ Rugby have the same courage as the Black Ferns? (paywalled)

COVID-19
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Cabinet scrapped masks against health advice
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): Daily Covid-19 cases top 4000 for first time since August

OTHER
Brooke van Velden (Herald): Why we need to protect free speech
John Gerritsen (RNZ): Teachers ‘insulted’ by govt offer of $6000 pay increase
David Skipworth (Stuff): TVNZ has already spent almost $600,000 on proposed merger with RNZ
Merepeka Raukawa-Tait (Bay of Plenty Times): Foster case of ‘Moana’ and the ‘Smiths’ unlikely to set a precedent (paywalled)

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