Hail Mary, with toothpaste
Labour's irresponsible, unfeasible and popular policy
In American football, a Hail Mary pass refers to a desperate, long-range throw made in the waning seconds of a game, often with little chance of success. It's a last-ditch effort to change the outcome when all else has failed.
A bit like the Labour Party's announcement to offer 'free' dental care to all under 30s (eventually).
The 2005 Precedent: Interest-Free Student Loans
In 2005, Labour promised implemented a policy of interest-free student loans, a political masterstroke that won voters over and probably played the decisive role in election victory.
Now, as then, the policy is poised to be a crowd-pleaser.
It's worth noting, however, that the economic climate in 2005 was very different. Back then, the government had accumulated record budget surplus after record budget surplus. There was more than enough fiscal space needed to launch such a generous programme.
The Current Fiscal Reality: A Bloodbath of Red Ink
Today, we are in serious trouble. The country’s finances are in a precarious state, reeling by pandemic-related expenditures and a general lack of fiscal prudence. Just a week ago, the government announced it had to trim billions in spending in response to declining revenues. It is no surprise that, even if we take the government’s promises at face value, the free care will be phased in over time as fiscal conditions allow.
There are also serious questions of capacity. Currently many people forgo dental work due to the cost and the fear of such cost. Eliminate the cost barrier and the latent demand for dental care will likely skyrocket, with no guarantee of the system's capacity to cope with such an influx.
For critics of Labour’s plans, this is a pretty hollow defence, however. The virtues of managing demand through prohibitive cost is not something voters are likely to be persuaded by. And rightly not, given how important dental care is, not just for the sake of your teeth but the whole body.
Voters won’t care about the politics
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that even Health Minister Ayesha Verrall and Chris Hipkins, expressed scepticism of the viability of free dental care at this time. In fact it was only weeks ago that both highlighted that the health workforce and infrastructure are could not be delivered.
The cynical timing of this policy and its blatant contradictions with earlier statements from Labour leaders might, in another environment, be a point of contention. But voters are likely to overlook these issues. In politics, the substance outweighs the the politics.
Critics, therefore, should confined themselves to the two criticisms that carry real weight. The first, as above, is the state of New Zealand's finances. The other is the credibility of the promise.
Overpromising and underdelivering
Where Verrall and Hipkins are relevant is the incongruence between Labour's grand promises and the terrible track record of practical delivery. Twitter savant Ben Thomas quipped that he would enjoy “[t]aking the Auckland light rail through the undersea tunnel to my free dental appointment.”
He could have added that he would thereafter return to one of the 100,000 Kiwibuild homes nestled in the shade of one of the government’s one billion new trees.
Labour has ingeniously framed its promise with enough caveats to give them a escape route if implementation falters should they win the election.
This calculated ambiguity is the soft underbelly for opposition attack given the government’s poor record.
Succesful opposition on this front will demand real skill, discipline and exceptional communication chops. National will need to artfully navigate the fine line between critiquing the feasibility of the policy and appearing to oppose a widely popular initiative.
The onus now rests on Luxon, Willis and Bishop’s ability to dissect these caveats without alienating an electorate likely to be keen on the substance of the promise itself.
High reward, high risk stakes
In an election where fiscal responsibility should be at the forefront, Labour's dental policy appears to be a risky gamble, both economically and politically. As history shows, a Hail Mary pass may occasionally result in a miraculous catch, but it's not a strategy to rely on, especially when the stakes are as high as a nation's fiscal health and political trust.
Voters should look beyond the flashy promises and consider whether this is the kind of governance they want to endorse come election day. But will they?