Editorial: And a child policy shall lead them

Last updated 05:00 29/01/2014

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OPINION: Steven Joyce is rolling his eyes. The moment the economy starts to look up, he scoffs, you get Labour trying to bribe people with "massive extra spending".

In response to Labour's early childhood package, Mr Joyce feels the need to remind leader David Cunliffe that "you can't spend your way to prosperity" and "the real answer to lifting Kiwi incomes is attracting investment that boosts jobs growth and people's incomes".

Now there's an argument that could be used, no less tritely, against National's own new education policy unveiled last week. Labour's focus on the families of the under-5s is upstream of National's concentration on improving the wattage of teaching for the school-aged, but certainly hip-deep in the same stream.

And the legitimacy of investing (albeit not just more heavily but more wisely) in the years of early childhood is something that in recent times has gained conspicuous support internationally and across the political spectrum.

Labour's already inviting the likes of Mr Joyce to consider the harmony between its policy and a bunch of OECD initiatives. As Mr Cunliffe was intoning yesterday, there's no better investment than early childhood; it leads to lower spending on health, welfare and law enforcement. He put the return at $11 for every dollar spent.

All well and good in the long term, but it doesn't deflect the question of where the money for Labour's policy comes from in the shorter term, before all these happy consequences kick in. There's $147 million to be found in the first year, 2015-16, rising to $528 by 2018-19.

National yelps the answer. Taxes! Mr Cunliffe's retort is by way of a scold, more likely to irritate the rest of us than the Nats, to wait our patience. It's all fully explained in the alternative budget the party will release when it's good and ready. This is fine, as long as he accepts he's keeping the credibility of the scheme on hold in the meantime.

Labour's baby bonus package is worth $60 for new parents on a family income up to $150,000 for a baby's first year, and up to the first three years for parents on low and middle incomes. So it's not universal but the initial threshold is way up there, reaching right through all those lovely middle class voters to a point that reportedly excludes only about 5 per cent of parents.

Then in the babies' second and third years, Labour's less inclined to target with a blunderbuss. The criteria narrows to pretty much those households that fall into society's poorer half.

Labour's policies also include extending paid parental leave from 14 to 26 weeks; leading to a reasonably prompt acknowledgment from National that it's looking for an increase too, only not that much. Labour would also increase paid early childhood education by 5 hours a week to 25 and provide free antenatal classes for first-time mothers.

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The Greens, meanwhile, are zooming in on decile 1 to 4 schools. Sucks to be decile 5, then. On-site community hubs, each with their own co-ordinator, will recruit adult and community educators, early childhood, social and health services to explore "unique" good ideas for each school. Free after-school and holiday care, a school lunch fund and dedicated school nurses will also be provided for the budgeted cost of $100 million a year. They see their policy meshing nicely with Labour's, though the Nats would be entitled to tally the two costs and brandish the combined figure far and wide.

Decisions, decisions. But for parents aplenty, picking the superior offering from that little lot is not such a disagreeable task. Those who are not parents would be wise to do the same. Plenty at stake, here, for all of us.

- The Southland Times

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