John Armstrong's opinion: National's 'dispiriting' discussion document misses chance to push for justice reform

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

The 52-page discussion document issued by National Party this week as the first draft of its overhaul of the party’s law and order policy is variously disappointing, dispiriting and downright depressing.

What seemed to be a commendable exercise in consultation has turned out to be a missed opportunity.

Were the party’s MPs capable of seeing beyond the end of next week, National could have positioned itself in the vanguard of those pushing the case for substantial reform of New Zealand’s increasingly sub-standard criminal justice system.

There is a growing consensus that the current system is not working. In particular, it isn’t working for Māori.

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to conclude that such a consensus will become the prevailing view across the justice sector and beyond. It is only a matter of time.

The supposed solutions to criminal offending are not delivering the results in terms of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending anywhere near the scale expected given the extent of the taxpayer dollars currently expended in the sector.

It is time for new thinking in sentencing. It is time to experiment. The new solutions might well turn out to be as devoid of success as the ones they replaced. It is hard to envisage, however, them making things worse than is currently the case.

The inclusion of radical initiatives in sentencing law and the way prisons are pose huge risks for the politicians who are accountable when things go drastically wrong — as will inevitably happen on occasion.

It is high-wire stuff. It requires much the same courage of one’s political convictions of the sort displayed by Jim Bolger in the 1990s when he and Doug Graham kickstarted the Treaty settlement process.

National’s rank-and-file members came close to open rebellion in reaction to hundreds of millions of dollars being handed to Māori. Labour backed Bolger’s and Graham’s enlightened stance, however.

The many National supporters unhappy with what was termed the “fiscal envelope” were left with nowhere to go.

Simon Bridges might well contemplate adopting much the same modus operandi with respect to policy on the similarly sensitive issue of law and order.

But he won’t. That is in part down to him being innately conservative when it comes to dealing with such matters. There would be another aspect in play, however.

Taking on board a more liberal approach to policy development in the law and order field might annoy some National voters. But that could hardly justify them jumping ship to Labour, which is far more liberal on justice matters than National is ever likely to be.

Those voters, however, do have somewhere else that they could go instead — New Zealand First.

Bridges is not going to gift votes to Winston Peters. But burying one’s head in the sand and hoping the coming revolution in the development and operation of justice and penal policy never arrives is not a viable alternative either.

National’s discussion document might give the impression that the party would welcome a nationwide dialogue on those matters.

It would be a one-way conversation, however, and one, moreover, which National would not permit to stray beyond the party’s hermetically-sealed comfort zone.

That said, it is somewhat unfair to dismiss the contents of the discussion document out of hand. It contains ideas which are sensible, innovative and laudable— and thus worthy of inclusion in next year’s election manifesto.

For example, few would question the potential value of a clean-slate policy which would see the criminal records of young offenders wiped, rather than a brief lapse from the straight-and narrow handicapping them for the rest of their lives.

There are also some bad ideas lurking within the document’s covers.

By example, the suggestion that some prison sentences be served cumulatively rather than concurrently is likely to be prohibitively expensive. It would also be excessively punitive.

Yet, punitive measures dominate the extensive number of policy options listed in the document. There is constant resort to stick — but minimal dishing up of carrot.

That sets the tone of the document. That is exemplified by Bridges’ declaration of war on gangs.

By enlisting himself in such a quixotic venture, he is hoping voters will swallow his now oft-repeated refrain that Labour is “soft on gangs”. Labour isn’t soft on anything — and for two reasons.

Stuart Nash, the Cabinet minister who currently holds the Police portfolio, is a smart no-nonsense operator who is imbued with the realism, pragmatism and sheer common sense which are dominant characteristics of those MPs in the right faction of Labour’s caucus. He and other like-minded colleagues do not have as much faith in the supposed goodness of human nature as that exhibited by MPs who find home on the left.

In saving Labour from itself, Nash is assisted considerably by New Zealand First. That was most notably illustrated by Peters’ party blocking Labour’s plan last year to repeal the infamous three strikes law despite the measure arguably being the most stupid piece of legislation ever brought before the New Zealand Parliament.

When it comes to all things stupid, the ACT-initiated example from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” school of justice this week faced strong competition from none other than Bridges.

Bridges has made a tactical gaffe in pursuing gangs into a cul-de-sac from which he will find it difficult to extricate himself.

Tuesday’s release of National’s latest discussion document had Bridges declaring in all seriousness that he would “harass and disrupt” gangs every single day that he held office as Prime Minister.

Not only that, he would eliminate them.

Eliminate them? Really? Gangs have been part of New Zealand society since an outbreak of youth “larrikinism” was recorded in the 1840s.

They range across all age groups, ethnicities, nationalities and classes of society.

You might be able to get a handle on how and where you might find them. You might discover the illegality in which they specialise.
You might even succeed in forcing them to restrain their operations — at least until replacements for those dragged before the judiciary are recruited from the sub-culture in which they hold sway.

You will never control the gangs. As for eliminating them, forget it.

Bridges’ problem is that most, if not all of those who have been leaders of the National Party since Sir Robert Muldoon’s era have talked tough on gangs and have promised to give the police the tools they have said they need to curb the scourge.

The public has heard it all before. And nothing much has changed bar one thing — the number of gang members just keeps escalating.

In order to persuade voters that next time things will be different, Bridges is obliged to ratchet up the rhetoric.

National’s leader appears to have convinced himself that the more he flings the charge that Labour is “soft on gangs”, the more likely New Zealand’s voters are going to believe him.

There has to be reason for mouthing off in such fashion. Presumably that is the advice coming from National’s pollsters.

But to what purpose? It is hard to work out from where exactly such spouting of a political cliché might succeed in drawing votes.

The puzzle lies in trying to work exactly from which quarters he expects to gain additional votes by talking tough on gangs.

Those who fled Labour for reason that the party is soft on crime did so long ago.

The discussion document is also notable for the absence of one word. That is “Māori”. Presumably that is deliberate. The reason for eschewing any mention of the word is hard to discern, however.

Given the awful statistic that more than half of New Zealand’s prison inmate population is Māori renders any discussion of offending, sentencing and recidivism meaningless unless that fact is acknowledged as an essential ingredient in any such discourse.

Once the word “Māori” enters the conversation, awkward questions — awkward for National, that is — quickly surface. Questions regarding Māori disadvantage, questions about the way the system treats Māori and consequently questions as to whether Māori are deserving of special treatment.

It is a slippery slope. Before you know it, your opponents are accusing you of the very thing of which you have accused them — being soft on crime.

That is not territory where National wishes to go.

It is a lot easier to stand up the stereotypical images of gang members, and then knock them down and pretend you have achieved something.