Back to school for Cunliffe

Labour leader David Cunliffe visited the Trentham Kindergarten in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Cunliffe visited the Trentham Kindergarten in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Cunliffe was trying to get the sales pitch for his new early childhood policies back on track yesterday, but continued to take flak for exaggerating the scope and generosity of Labour's new $60-a-week baby payments.

Mr Cunliffe has rejected claims he deliberately misled voters on the issue and calls that he apologise for it, saying it was simply a badly drafted sentence in his state of the nation speech and there was no intent to mislead.

In that speech on Monday, Mr Cunliffe said parents of 59,000 newborn babies would receive $60 a week for a year. But it was later revealed that about 26,000 of those would not receive it for six months because they would be on paid parental leave.

Under the policy, parents cannot get both payments - although that was not set out in Mr Cunliffe's speech.

He said the speech could have been clearer and he took responsibility for that. "I did not mislead. The words could have been better but the package is very clear, the policy is very clear."

Mr Cunliffe also stumbled when asked about Labour's policy for free antenatal classes for all first-time mothers, when he could not answer questions about how widely available free antenatal classes already were. Maternity care is largely free for New Zealand citizens and residents and many maternity services providers and DHBs offer free antenatal classes.

His handling of the issue has been a speed hump in Mr Cunliffe's attempts to sell Labour's new policies on the child payments and early childhood education, prompting attacks from National.

Mr Cunliffe sought to get that sales job back on track yesterday, visiting a kindergarten in Upper Hutt to try to turn attention on to the early childhood education promises he had announced in his state of the nation speech alongside the child payments.

Those included increasing subsidies from 20 to 25 hours - although that will not happen until mid-2017, another election year.

Labour has also promised to gradually restore funding to centres where all staff were fully qualified, starting in 2015/16. National currently funds centres for up to 80 per cent of fully qualified staff.

The proposal also includes building new childcare centres which Mr Cunliffe said was likely to begin in South Auckland to help lift participation.

The policies were welcomed by staff at the kindergarten. Teacher Sandra Tukukino said the 25 hours of free ECE would be popular with parents.

"A lot of parents struggle to find the money for the extra hours they need on top of the 20 hours free."

She said restoring the funding for 100 per cent qualified staff was also important, and asked why Mr Cunliffe could not do it earlier if he won the election.

"We really struggled with the loss of that funding."

Mr Cunliffe conceded the changes would be some time away, but said Labour was determined to deliver a surplus each year and had to stagger its new spending promises.

National has set an allowance of $1 billion in new spending in the next Budget, rising by 2 per cent in each year after that. Mr Cunliffe said Labour would release its own alternative budget plans soon.


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