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Progress on social issues key test for Labour

Opinion Piece

The attention of the new Labour-led Government is expected to turn to major social issues in the near future, subjects that present both opportunities and huge challenges for the Government — and not the least for its leader Jacinda Ardern.

A big part of Labour’s election campaign was based around criticism of the way the previous government handled issues like mental health and suicide, child poverty, homelessness and wealth inequality, and this struck a chord with large parts of the electorate.

Now, however, having raised expectations of meaningful change, Labour has to deal with these problems which, in fairness, have seemed intractable to all the country’s previous governments.

Take mental health, where the dreadful key indicator is 606 suicide deaths last year, the highest number ever recorded. New Zealand has the worst rate of teenage suicides in the developed world, and second worst for people under 25.

Heading this battle is Health Minister David Clark, a doctor of theology, who has taken hands-on control to try to reach Ardern’s highly ambitious target of zero suicides. He is having a ministerial inquiry into mental health problems to get a big, broad picture of what is behind them. His early proposals include restoring the Mental Health Commission, discontinued by National in 2012, and making GP visits for mental health issues free.

Ardern says child poverty is the reason she went into politics at the age of 17. She will legislate targets for reducing child poverty in the first 100 days of her administration.

Experts say these social issues are all linked. For example, housing costs take up half the net income of the poorest fifth of households, and 140,000 children live in households earning less than half the median income before housing costs (a benchmark for child poverty).

The new Government has a number of policies planned to help those who are struggling, including a boost to family tax credits to help the working poor — said to cost $743m a year. Even with this sort of investment, creating real and lasting change will be a challenge.