Opinion: Good marks for Labour’s new tertiary education policy


Andrew Little's "three years of tertiary education for free" is one of the better policy announcements I've seen Labour make in quite some time.

The rays of sunshine beating down at the Albert Park band rotunda yesterday should have summed up Little's success. Except there was a "but": a big political bogeyman lurking in the shadows.

More on that later -- first to the policy. It offers free fees for any school leaver or anyone who hasn't studied at a tertiary level before.

Labour is aiming this at some crucial target markets -- obviously students, but also their middle class, centre-voter parents worried about the costs their kids face.

This obviously comes straight out of Helen Clark's interest-free student loans playbook and is aimed at grabbing the attention of those centre voters who shifted to John Key and never came back. But it's also aimed at people who have been in decent jobs and suddenly face being laid off and having to retrain.

Think of a printer facing redundancy because so much is being done online now. This kind of job disruption is exactly what Andrew Little has been talking about with his "Future of Work" plan.

The policy is essentially a big bribe linked to a big idea. That kind of thing works in politics.

Labour have got around the spendthrift allegations by phasing it over a long time -- the first year of fees would be free in the first term; another year in the second term; and the third year would kick in for the third term in 2025. That's a big catch -- Labour would have to win three elections for this to happen.

Still, the policy wasn't full of holes like many of the Labour policy shockers of recent times. The picnic-style announcement at the rotunda, complete with a tie-less Little cruising around in his sunnies and a hat, was relaxed, original and professional.

Opinion: Good marks for Labour’s new tertiary education policy

Dare I say it, "the vibe" was good for the Labour supporters.

But then Andrew Little started taking questions about Labour's position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from journalists. The TPP bogeyman came out of the shadows and rained all over Labour's parade. Little is all over the show with the TPP and has been for months now.

In his speech, he talked up Labour's opposition to the TPP to cheers from the party faithful. Then he came over to journalists and admitted Labour would support certain laws that put some parts of the TPP into action, confirming Labour would vote for legislation that reduced tariffs for Kiwi exporters, which the official advice shows will be required.

Opinion: Good marks for Labour’s new tertiary education policy

So Little is loudly saying he is opposed to the TPP one minute, and then the next minute he's quietly admitting he'd vote for the good bits. It is a Jekyll and Hyde show where Little is Jane Kelsey one minute and Phil Goff the next. It is a political con-job aimed at keeping his own supporters on side by opposing it while emotions are running high with the signing next week, but not wanting to get caught out as being against New Zealand exporters when the benefits kick in down the track.

If Little really opposed the TPP, he would refuse point-blank to vote for any legislation that enables it. Until he does that his position lacks credibility, and that means the TPP is quickly becoming a big problem for Little. He's got MPs Goff and David Shearer going rogue with their public support but -- unlike him at least they are up-front and easy to understand.

All in all, Andrew Little did well with his State of the Nation speech. The big idea and the big bribe around free education and the future of work did the business.

But just not quite enough to hide the big problem he has with the TPP.