Election 2023: Labour bares teeth with new dental policy as Helen Clark, Chris Hipkins face hecklers in audience

The Labour campaign bared its teeth on Saturday by promising free basic dental care for under 30-year-olds.

It means the price will become less of a fear factor when young Kiwis go to the dentist if Labour's re-elected. 

Once fully implemented, 800,000 under-30s will be entitled to free annual checkups, cleans, X-rays, basic fillings and extractions.

Dental care is currently free for up to 18-year-olds. From July 2025, it'll be expanded for up to 23-year-olds and then up to 29-year-olds from July 2026. Eventually, Labour wants everyone to have it for free.

The cost is $380 million over four years and this announcement marks the official start of the campaign for Labour - which didn't go off without drama.

Hipkins was riding a sea of red to rouse his troops.

It was an all-singing, all-drumming, all-star Labour launch, including with former leader Helen Clark present.

But under the surface, there was a fringe undercurrent, hecklers disrupting, derailing, and disturbing. Security picked them off like a game of whack-a-mole. The police dealt to them outside.

Hipkins was having to grin and bare it as he made a big play for votes with teeth. 

He announced that if re-elected, Labour would deliver free dental care for all New Zealanders under 30.

There is no means-testing involved, so it captures everyone under 30.

"Tooth decay particularly starts to accelerate for people in their 20s," said Hipkins.

Asked if that meant Labour was paying for millionaires' children to get dental, Hipkins said: "The Labour Party has always believed in a universal entitlement to healthcare."

Labour's targeting those in their twenties because its stats show that at age 18, 67 percent of people are regulars at the dentist but by 26 that drops to 31 percent. One in four 18-year-olds have tooth decay and by 26 that climbs to two-thirds. The 20 to 29 age group also makes up 27 percent of dental-related hospitalisations. 

"I haven't actually been to the dentist for years, partially because of the cost," one person told Newshub. 

"I think that's quite good. It would definitely encourage people to go to the dentist more because it is quite expensive," said another.

"After turning 18, the dentist is ridiculously expensive," added a third.

"I think having it free would have a big impact on people," said someone else.

It'll go to under thirties for now but eventually Hipkins said the "ultimate goal is free universal dental care for all New Zealanders". 

So a free for all at some stage Labour hopes, maybe. It's less a vow and more a vague vision. 

The Greens' health spokesperson Ricardo Menendez March says Labour is trying to copy its homework. The party earlier proposed free dental care for all funded by a wealth tax.

But Hipkins said it's not possible right now, with the Government not having enough money at the moment or the capacity.

Labour has saved this surprise blockbuster policy like free dental to launch its campaign.

Hipkins brought his scrap and he's not going down without a fight. 

National leader Christopher Luxon is gearing up for his launch on Sunday and the political missiles are flying at his tax cut policy. 

Hipkins called it a "tax swindle" and "economic sabotage".

"There is a giant cavity that Grant Robertson needs to fill and that is the economic hole he's left New Zealand in," National campaign chair Chris Bishop said.

Hipkins reckons "it's on".