Herald on Gold Card costs

The Herald editorial:

It is little wonder that superannuitants applauded long and loudly in 2008 when the Labour Government, at the behest of New Zealand First, added free off-peak travel on buses, trains and Waiheke Island ferries to the list of SuperGold Card entitlements. Even today, they must be pinching themselves. Many have taken full advantage, undoubtedly thinking such largesse would come to an end at some point. It has not, but the time has surely arrived for the Government to pull in the reins.

It has every reason. The scheme was originally budgeted to cost taxpayers $18 million a year. That has now swollen to $26 million, and will continue to rise if nothing is done.

Only the most essential public services should be made free of charge. If you make users of a service pay nothing for it, then demand will inevitably increase.

During the Northland byelection, Winston Peters pledged to gain free ferry travel in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga. If Aucklanders benefited from free rides to Waiheke, it was only fair that Northlanders should get the same for Paihia to Russell and Rawene to Kohukohu, said the NZ First leader.

Why stop there? Why not free flights up and down the country?

The increasing pressure on the concession should be enough to persuade the Government to be far more decisive. But that seems unlikely. Superannuitants represent a strong voting bloc, and any administration is bound to be wary of losing their support. In its defence, the Government can also point to the merit of giving seniors mobility and greater access to the community. Surely not to the extent that is being provided, however.

The vast majority of active superannuitants do not need free public transport. It is no coincidence that the entitlement was introduced during the dying days of the Clark Government. It was a blatant vote-catcher, along the lines of the interest-free student loans wheeled out three years earlier. The SuperGold Card concession wasn’t enough, however, to turn the electoral tide. Taxpayers have paid the cost ever since.

It may be too much to expect the Government to kill off the entitlement. But it is time to limit it to a sensible and sustainable level. At the very least, seniors should have to pay a reduced fare for their days out, so the cost of the concession is no more than that originally intended.

That is exactly what should happen. There should be a part-charge so that there is some incentive for the service not to be abused.

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