Dental policy, free care to all
Column – By Jim Anderton.
Free dental care for all may sound like a dream, but it is something I strongly believe should be introduced as a
benefit for the entire population. This week, I launched a dental policy which advocates free dental care to be made
available to all people, starting with vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and those aged over 65 years, then
moving to those aged between 18 and 50 and, finally, those between 50 and 65 years of age.
These steps should be supported by education, publicity and, if supported by a parliamentary select committee enquiry,
the fluoridation of all drinking water.
There should also be a bonding scheme for dentists and dental hygienists who are prepared to work in rural or provincial
areas where dental professionals are in short supply in return for writing off student debt over a 3 to 5 year period of
service. Good oral health should also be reinstated as a priority goal for the public health system, together with the
reinstatement of the requirement that school lunch shops and cafeterias provide only healthy food for our children.
The reasoning for my policy is quite simple. More than 44 per cent of our entire population do not currently receive any
form of dental care and this is set to get worse. Only 50 per cent of young New Zealanders receive dental treatment
because of a lack of available service or cost and dental decay is increasing significantly, often due to poor diet and
the effect of such things as sugar-loaded soft drinks. Along with obesity and diabetes, dental decay is destined to
reach epidemic proportions unless something is done as a matter of urgency.
Between 2011 and 2030, many of the baby-boom generation are due to retire and because most of them have kept their
natural teeth, many will get serious decay from tooth crowns and exposed tooth roots. Clearly this means that many
elderly New Zealanders will need expensive dental treatment, in many cases this will be well beyond their ability to
There will, of course, be questions over the cost and affordability of this policy, and I have done considerable work
researching this. The total cost of universal dental care could be as high as $1 billion, but this could be funded
through a levy on earnings, similar to ACC, along with a reduction in the $17.8 billion tax cuts given to the most
affluent New Zealanders by the National-led government, a levy on sugary soft drinks (such as we have on tobacco or
alcohol), or a mix of all these possible sources of funds.
It is not that difficult and I hope that this policy will be promoted across the political spectrum and be an issue for
debate during this years' general election campaign.
Christchurch CEO appointment process contaminated
If ever a process looked contaminated, it is that being followed for the recruitment and appointment of a new chief
executive of the Christchurch City Council, and it is high time the process was abandoned and started afresh.
To cap what has already been a controversial course of events, the Council has restricted advertising for its chief
executive position to seventeen days, and included in the advertisement that the current chief executive ,Tony Marryatt,
is applying for a further five years in the job. It sends a clear message to other potential candidates that they need
not bother applying.
There are a number of troubling aspects to the current process, none less so than Mayor Bob Parker silencing council
members from expressing a view on Marryatt's performance, by saying that it could expose the Council to legal action,
but then publicly proclaiming his own support.
Marryatt, Parker said, was the best chief executive he had ever worked with, before being reported in The Press as
threatening to resign if Marryatt was not re-appointed. He then apparently went on to ask each member of council
individually, in front of the others, whether they personally supported Marryatt. Attempting to silence, then badger,
elected members of Council is not part of a healthy, democratic employment process, for any position, let alone such an
important one as this.
Add to this mix, the curious position where prominent business people, led by Chamber of Commerce and Solid Energy
bosses, respectively Peter Townsend and Don Elder, published an open letter setting out the qualities they felt were
needed in a chief executive to lead our city. According to Townsend and Elder, the sentiments expressed in the letter
were a mild version of the discussion within their Chamber. Since then, others have added their voices, with a
collection of "very influential businessmen" and public office-holders expressing "a considerable amount of
dissatisfaction" with Marryatt's performance
Something is amiss here, and I cannot help but draw the conclusion that this recruitment and appointment process cannot
continue. This appointment is not something that has to be rushed, and it is imperative that Christchurch has a chief
executive who can unite the city and inspire confidence in tackling the very important tasks which lie ahead.
Maori suicide prevention
This week I was fortunate enough to speak to the Kia Piki te Ora national hui, although perhaps the word fortunate is
not quite the right as the discussion was on suicide prevention. Alarmingly, around 500 New Zealanders each year commit
suicide, that's ten a week and, of that number, suicide among Maori is the highest of any demographic group.
I know that researchers have identified a high risk factor for Maori in attempted suicide among those who are not
connected to their Maori heritage and Maoritanga. Other major factors include poor general health, the use of drugs,
including alcohol, and, especially cannabis, and the number of suicides is high among those who have been the victims of
While suicide figures still remain too high, it is not to say that nothing has been done to deal with the issue. Suicide
rates have dropped by around 25 per cent since a peak in the nineties and, while I was the Minister responsible for
suicide prevention policies, the then Labour-Progressive government funded research into an all-ages suicide prevention
as part of a suicide strategy.
While I was Minister, we ran the hugely successful John Kirwan advertisements that encouraged people who were depressed
to seek help. We also launched a website, thelowdown.co.nz, where kids could go and find out about how to get help, and
that was also effective.
When we talk about Maori suicide, we need to talk about adapting tools that work for individuals, and not thinking that
one solution fits everyone. And we need to be committed enough and tough enough to implement our strategies, because not
all of them will be popular.
Every single suicide is a tragedy, and I understand the distress and hurt of those who lose their loved ones. A caring
country needs to respond when it sees a problem such as this. We need to make a difference if we want to create a
society where New Zealanders feel valued and nurtured, where we care for each other and where we value lives.
Privatising ACC will lead to higher costs
Those who believe the rhetoric that privatising workplace accident insurance and open up ACC to competition will cut
costs and provide a better, more efficient system need only look to Australia to see the opposite is the case.
An independent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Sydney in 2008 showed that ACC costs in New Zealand, at around 0.8
per cent of wages, are substantially lower than the Australian average of 2 per cent of wages. ACC costs for farmers are
much lower in New Zealand than in Australia.
It is inevitable that insurance premiums will rise for businesses and farmers when ACC workplace coverage is privatised,
but worse than that, taxpayers could end up on the hook for another AMI-style bailout
There will be little to stop those same Australian insurance companies coming over here and underfunding their
liabilities, which is what happened in 1998, when HIH went under with billions of dollars of liabilities that had to be
picked up by Australian taxpayers.
In New Zealand, taxpayers are today on the hook for up to a billion dollars because AMI didn't carry enough reinsurance
and regulators were never warned of a problem. Why would workplace insurance be any different?
Live animal exports banned from Australia
It isn't often that Australians admit to being behind New Zealand, but earlier this month I was interviewed by ABC, the
Australian national broadcasting corporation, about the banning of live animal exports. The Australian Government
recently banned live cattle exports to Indonesia after revelations of cruelty to those Australian cattle in Indonesian
In this case it has taken the Australians some time to catch up with New Zealand's lead and, in particular, the ABC was
interested in the consequences to New Zealand's economy of banning live animal exports for slaughter.
What happened in New Zealand is that most live animal exporting stopped in 2003, but it was finally brought to a
complete end in 2007, after I intervened over the planned export of live cattle to Korea.
I was able to tell the ABC reporter that, although many farmers opposed the live export ban in 2003, by 2007 most of the
agricultural industry in New Zealand supported the ban for a number of obvious reasons. These ranged from concerns about
animal welfare to the potential reputational and economic backlash as consumers in other countries stopped buying New
Zealand meat they believed was being transported and killed through inhumane processes.
But aside from the issues of animal welfare, I was concerned that sending live animals overseas represented the lowest
form of commodity export. When asked by the interviewer whether there had been an economic backlash to the banning of
live animals for slaughter, I looked to Indonesia as an example New Zealand currently exports high quality, processed
meat cuts to Indonesia, so it would make no sense at all for us to send them live animals. Shifting the processing from
New Zealand to Indonesia would simply export our jobs and reduce the benefit to the New Zealand economy. There is
nothing to be gained and plenty to lose by sending live animals overseas in this manner.
Family violence must be stopped
If I was to look at one alarming crime statistic, it would be that half of the homicides in New Zealand each year are
the result of family violence. And it I was to look at another, 70,000 physical, including sexual, assaults take place
every year. That is 1350 recorded assaults each week, or 172 each day, and, whatever way you look at it that is
Police believe they only hear about one in five family violence incidents. And they respond to one somewhere in New
Zealand every seven minutes, meaning, literally hardly a minute goes by when there isn't a family assault.
At a recent hui at Tapu te Ranga marae in Wellington, I told the audience that the only way we are going to make a
substantial difference in reducing domestic violence is to front up to the extent of the problem.
The causes of domestic violence are multiple and complex, but there are some plain differences we can make. To start
with, if people believe that violence has taken place (or is taking place), then they have a responsibility to act. It
is no longer "just a domestic" as it was called when I grew up in New Zealand.
There is one common factor affecting sixty per cent of people who are arrested for violence and other criminal acts;
alcohol. Alcohol, unarguably, is the most serious drug in terms of influencing violent and criminal behaviour in NZ and
that's the context in which ten kids a year are killed by a member of their own family.
Ninety per cent of people in prison have drug and alcohol abuse problems, and if we want to reduce the level of crime
and particularly violence in New Zealand, the fastest way we can make a difference, and the biggest difference we can
make, would be to make alcohol less available.
And that is just as true of family violence as it is for any other crime. The best law changes I can think of to assist
tackling these problems would be to put up the price of alcohol, reduce the drink driving limits and raise the drinking
age. That would be a good, practical and effective first step.