Labour’s promise yesterday to provide three years’ free tertiary education is part of a much bigger redefinition of the party’s economic policies.

The proposal, outlined at the Albert Park Band rotunda, by Leader Andrew Little, in his State of the Nation address will offer the education to anyone at any stage of their life or career.

The only proviso will be that they have not received any tertiary education at the point they pick it up.

It springs out of the Commission on the Future of Work, being led by Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson.

At the heart of Mr Robertson’s work is an attempt to address the challenge that technology poses to many existing jobs which will mean that many workers, particularly unskilled ones, will find their jobs disappearing.

“Just think about what this means for the worker who’s been on the job for twenty years only to find out that their job is being automated<” said Mr Little.

“With this policy, they can retrain for a new industry, with new skills for a new job. Their families will have that security.

“Think of the doors that we can open for our young people if we make it easier to get the skills they need without taking on huge debt.”

But if Mr Little was pointing to Labour’s future for much of his speech he also was on the defensive over his recently sharpened up opposition to the TPP.

“What the text of the TPP makes very clear is that this Government has traded away our democratic rights.” he said.

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“Under the TPP, our democracy is under threat. New Zealand’s parliament will be constrained in its ability to pass laws in our – your, mine, our kids’ interests.

In fact, on issues like labour laws, and environmental laws, our government is now obliged to give the governments of eleven other countries – and their big corporate players – a say on the laws we make. 

“New Zealand MPs will no longer be solely responsible to the people who elect them.

“And I cannot accept that.”

There are some questions about whether what Mr Little has been saying is strictly correct.

In a commentary on Mr Little’s views, the former diplomat and now executive director of the pro-free trade International Business Forum, Stephen Jacobi, said TPP did provide for our partners to make their views known on any measure, which may be introduced that could have an impact on trade. 

“But these provisions are far from ‘unheard of,” he said.

“They are already enshrined in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other FTAs concluded by Labour including the China FTA. 

“Importantly these provisions retain the right of the Government to continue to regulate: the Government may have to listen to the views of trading partners but not necessarily heed them. 

“Bottom line is we do this already and have been doing so for years now.”

Nevertheless Labour is clearly upping its anti TPP campaign.

It will get a boost — and a link to its Future of Work — with the arrival of the noted American academic economist and former Clinton administration Secretary of Labour, Robert Reich, for Labour’s Future of Work conference later this month.

Mr Reich is a strong opponent of the TPP.

He says it would further erode the jobs and wages of working and middle-class Americans while delivering its biggest gains to corporate executives and shareholders.

Meanwhile Mr Little’s free education plan will be something of a slow burner.

The plan will be introduced in phases, with one year’s education available from 2019, two years from 2022 and three years available from 2025.

The first phase, implemented in 2019, will cost $265 million per year.

The party says this is money that is already budgeted for and which the current government has earmarked for tax cuts.

The Working Futures Plan will cost $1.2 billion once fully implemented in 2025.

It thus sets up a simple contest at the next election — National will be offering tax cuts (modest ones, says Finance spokesman, Bill English) whilst Labour will be offering its education and retraining.

If, as looks likely, unemployment is still high in 2017, Labour’s policy might find a surprising amount of support.