Labour has done good politics for once. It’s so refreshing, that it’s bought The Left Estate out of hibernation and energised the writers again.
If managed correctly, Labour’s new announcement on free Tertiary Education could give the party the first big lead it’s had over National (and the Greens, to be honest) in 8 years. Not a polling lead, but a lead in policy. Labour has spent so long trailing after National in most policy areas, offering plenty of criticism but very little initiative. New Labour policy was reactionary, addressing the problems that Labour perceived with National Government policy. KiwiBuild came out of Labour criticism of National’s poor track record on housing, NZ Power was an cynical play at disrupting the asset sales scheme. Where new ground was broken on policy, including Labour’s election year education and KiwiInsure policies, they were not enough to capture the public imagination, or to offer something new and exciting enough.
Of course, it is the duty of an opposition to oppose, but Labour has always thrived when it is aspirational, when it can offer something bold, new and different. Look at Michael Joseph Savage’s Welfare State, Norman Kirk’s bold foreign policy, David Lange’s anti-nuclear stance, and Helen Clark’s Working for Families and KiwiBank and KiwiSaver. All of these policies have broken new ground in New Zealand politics, going where previous governments have been too cautious to go. Labour is the party of change, and creating a better future for New Zealanders, and it is only successful when it can pull this off. During John Key’s term as Prime Minister, three leaders have tried and failed.
However, Andrew Little’s state of the nation announcement is a break in that trend. It has all the ingredients of an important, aspirational, influential and successful Labour policy. Firstly, it has opened up a new conversation. Since 1989, when Labour introduced tertiary fees, many thinkers, parties, and the student movement have tried unsuccessfully to bring free tertiary education into the mainstream of New Zealand politics. No one expected discussions to start happening for many more years, and when they did begin it was assumed that they would be cautious and that any changes would be incremental. In his recent announcement, Andrew Little has delved straight to the core of the issue, offering free post-secondary education with very few caveats. It’s nice to see the old student unionist remembering his roots.
Secondly, this policy identifies several groups of New Zealanders in desperate need of help. Forever branded as the privileged, partying, couch-burning, living-off-the-government class of society, the country is finally waking up to the fact that students are in crisis. Of the $21billion of student loan debt granted since the fee system was introduced, students have only managed to pay out $6b. Despite this, course fees continue to rise at the maximum possible (4%, now 3%) across all institutions each year. That not only shows that the system is broken, forcing students to take out loans that no one could reasonably expect to pay back, it also has created a $15b hole in our economy. Meanwhile, the cost of living continues to rise, transport costs rise, it is harder to find student accommodation, and students are being forced to balance full time study with long work hours. Even that’s not enough. More and more students are taking on additional debt to their student loan, eg. credit card or overdraft debt, to survive. The average credit card debt amongst students is $1771. Students are also having to use their course related costs, intended to buy textbooks and other necessary items, to pay for accommodation costs. They are resorting to desperate measures, including entering into shocking ‘sex for rent’ arrangements. The financial toll is obvious, as well as the mental toll, with a 26% increase in students accessing medical services for depression and anxiety since 2009. We should not be living in a society where serious mental health issues are becoming a normal part of the student experience. This is more than just study pressures – in New Zealand today, students are struggling to survive.
Labour’s new policy shows that someone has been listening. It accepts that tertiary study is an investment in the future of New Zealand, and that it is unacceptable that the future of our country is debt. It is a investment in the professions that make up the backbone of our society, the doctors who can complete their 7 years of study, the teachers who can undergo full training, and then emerge to contribute to society without the cloud of debt hanging over their heads.
However, students are not just young people aged 18-24, studying at Universities. This policy understands and supports the concept of lifelong learning, and offers the chance for older New Zealanders looking for the chance to upskill or pursue post-graduate study to do just that. In the changing world of work, where technology is becoming increasingly more prevalent, the opportunity for New Zealand to develop and upskill is crucial. It’s fantastic to see Labour’s Future of Work Commission ranging far and wide across all policy areas, including recognising the importance of Tertiary Education to the success of New Zealand.
Not only that – but this announcement is good politics, plain and simple. Labour is creating the space to talk about free education in the mainstream political discourse, and is leading the discussion. It is also easy to guess what the responses of the other parties will be. The Greens and New Zealand First, who have both been pursuing free education for a while now, will applaud the policy but say that it does not go far enough, that they would have gone straight to completely free. We’ve already seen National’s response – that it is irresponsible and doesn’t address the real issues. What this in fact does is place Labour smack bang in the moderate centre of this discussion, while still having moved the discourse significantly to the Left. The staggered approach that this policy takes also helps to dispel the idea that Labour is irresponsible, as they are taking a financially reasonable and restrained approach to their spending. In this way Labour have created a space and dominated it, hit back against the stigma that surrounds them, yet still have moved the discussion on education into a progressive area that it has not entered for a number of years.
What Labour has to do now is not drop the ball. They need to continue to show that this policy does not just affect students between 8-24, that it is an investment in lifelong learning. They need to persuade New Zealanders that free education is achievable while still being fiscally sensible, and most importantly they need to ensure that the desperate and quite frankly incorrect and incoherent responses of the National Party (who have quite obviously been caught off guard) do not begin to dominate the discussion.
If Labour can achieve this, and follow this policy up with more similarly original and aspirational policy, then they have found the formula to win in 2017.