Bryce Edwards: National’s law and order populism savaged

Bryce Edwards: National’s law and order populism savaged

A thorn in the side of National, former MP Chester Borrows punctured his party’s “law and order week” before it even started, by framing its new crime and punishment stances as ignorant and dangerous. Appearing in the media early in the week, he painted National’s discussion document as populist, opportunist, and a knee-jerk response where a more sophisticated one is desperately needed.

On Monday Borrows published a must-read opinion piece, lamenting that “Kiwis are addicted to punishment” and suggesting politicians keep feeding this by trying to outbid each other on nonsensical crackdowns on crime – see: ‘Tough on crime’ rhetoric is cheap, easy and terrifyingly effective.

Borrows, who is a former Minister of Corrections, is advocating that political parties take an evidence-based approach to law and order solutions. Of course, he’s the head of the Government’s Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group. He says his invitation to the launch of National’s new discussion document must have been lost in the post: “Funnily enough, even though I am a card-carrying member of that organisation, and my subscription has been banked, I have not received my flyer or invitation for this event.”

He suggests National’s stances on law and order issues, such as opposing the Government giving some prisoners the right to vote, are based on an electoral strategy of sinking NZ First: “National Party leader Simon Bridges has vowed to reverse the law. Not based on evidence, of course, other than the evidence that these policies buy votes and probably votes National already holds. But they will also buy votes from New Zealand First and those votes are gold.”

Bridges has responded to the former Minister of Corrections, saying “We’re not as far away from your prescription as you might think” – see: A response to my old mate, Chester Borrows, on crime and justice.

Here’s Bridges key point: “I hope Chester takes the opportunity to read the law and order policy document I released today because he might just be pleasantly surprised. Chester listed nine things he wanted to see. We have five of them in our document. Five more than Labour has plausibly come up with, despite being in government.”

Borrows also went on TV1 Breakfast to talk about the issues on the morning before the release of National’s discussion document, arguing that instead of getting “tougher on crime”, “we should get smarter on crime” – see: National’s former courts minister defies party’s tough-on-crime rhetoric – ‘It hasn’t worked’.

Borrows said: “We need to take a sensible approach to this. The tough on crime stuff hasn’t worked… We need to ask ourselves the question whether we want to have policy that’s evidence-based or policy that just tickles the ears of those who might vote for us.”

When asked if National was dog-whistling on these problems, Borrows said: “it’s sad to see the go back to the rhetoric because I think in Government there was a bit more understanding about that… We have to be less reactive and far more innovative and concentrate on what we know works instead of being so afraid of our own shadow that we’re going to stop ourselves from doing anything that looks like innovative or looks like it could be successful.”

The National Party document contained 43 proposals the party is considering adopting as policy for the next election – you can read these here: National is the Party of law and order. This explains the various policies including banning gang patches in public, making prison work compulsory, refusing parole for murderers who don’t give the location of a body and, most controversially, creating an elite police unit to crack down hard on gangs.

Reactions from commentators have been quite scathing. Richard Harman claimed the party was making a major shift to the right: “National Leader Simon Bridges yesterday broke with years of liberal traditions in his Party and swung it sharply to the right with a new hardline law and order policy. This follows on an increasing shift to the right under Bridges with policies like his promise to pull New Zealand out of the UN Compact on Migration” see: Simon: That’s not what English, Joyce and even Collins said.

He pointed out that previous senior National figures had been noticeably less gung-ho about policies that would lead to higher incarceration rates, citing examples such as Bill English’s statement that prisons were “a moral and fiscal failure”. And he pointed out that “National has not provided an estimate of how much their crackdown would increase the prison population by, nor the cost of building new facilities.”

Barry Soper also sees the new proposals as fairly cynical, saying “We’ve heard it all before – smash the gangs, dismantle their fortresses, ban the patches – and we’ll no doubt hear it all again in three years’ time as we enter another election year” – see: Simon Bridges takes ‘tough on crime’ to a new level.

He points to some of the potential civil liberties issues with the suggested clampdown on gangs: “This country has a Bill of Rights – and that means no matter how unpopular the organisation you belong to might be, or even if you have broken the law, everyone is entitled to be treated the same under the law. You are innocent until you are proven guilty.”

Soper suggests a different target: “Consider this: more than half a billion dollars a year is generated by organised crime in this country – and many of those who generate it prefer a Pierre Cardin suit to a patch. It might not be as electorally popular, but perhaps it’s time to cast the law-and-order net wider.”

Similarly, Heather du Plessis-Allan argues a more sophisticated approach is necessary to combat the real reasons people are joining gangs: “The only way you stop kids from wanting to join up is if you give them an alternative. A chance to be good at sport, a job to earn cash, anything other than this nonsense” – see: National’s gang plan is welcome, but will it work?

Nonetheless, in lieu of such progressive policies, she considers National’s proposals “a welcome idea”. Also, “it’ll play well with voters”.

The idea of creating an elite anti-gang policing unit modelled on an Australia version has received the most criticism. For the most comprehensive critique, see Laura Walters’ Strike Force Raptor unit won’t stop organised crime. According to this, “an Australian gang expert says a lot of resources go into the unit’s work, with little reward”.

An even harsher evaluation came from an Australia academic who previously worked as an undercover detective dealing with the gangs. Mike Kennedy calls the Australian experience a “disaster” and says Bridges “needs to pull his head out of whatever it’s stuck in because … [gangs] exist. They’re always going to exist. They just go underground” – see Craig McCulloch’s Australian ex-cop blasts National’s ‘Strike Force Raptor’ plan.

Perhaps the most even-handed evaluation came from the Herald’s Derek Cheng who points to the mix of liberal and conservative policy in the document, but concludes: “the overwhelming impression is one of an election-year document that seems to make no apology for populism” – see: Populism alive and well in National’s law and order proposals (paywalled).

Cheng points to some of the more liberal or evidence-based policies in the new document: “These include having mental health nurses at police watch houses and attending incidents alongside police and paramedics. Social Investment attempts to use data to find those most at risk from an early age and intervene accordingly. More and earlier treatment for remand prisoners and more education, training and work to help keep prisoners from re-offending seems to be one area where National and Labour can agree. Such proposals show National’s document attempting to appeal to the evidence as well as the voter.”

Similarly, John Weekes also points to the criticisms and limitations of National’s proposals but says overall its not as reactionary as it’s being painted – see: National’s crime gurus must heed lessons from abroad to break cycle of repeat offending.

Here’s his key point: “The discussion document, running across thousands of words and dozens of pages, is not as repulsive as some commentators describe. Despite pandering to ‘tough on crime’ platitudes, references to law and order being in ‘National’s DNA’, and occasional unself-conscious bluster, the party has published some nuanced proposals. These include concessions a ‘social investment’ approach is needed to save at-risk youth and help first-time offenders. The ‘no body no parole’ idea will thankfully not affect many people, but is hard to oppose.”

But there certainly are some strong negative reactions. Collette Devlin pointed to some of these in her article, Experts: National’s law and order proposals sound good but have no substance.

The most notable of these was from University of Auckland Criminologist Ron Kramer, who labelled them “transparently pathetic” and “overblown propaganda”. On the Strike Force Raptor proposal, he said: “It’s just rhetoric. It’s completely empty… it’s a completely erroneous way of thinking about the problem… In fact, it’s probably going to make life more miserable for a lot of people. This kind of criminalisation just stigmatises and creates a permanently excluded group of individuals from society.”

On the gang patch ban, Kramer stated: “It’s not evidence based. It’s not about what actually works. It’s just pure political rhetoric and the public should demand better… I don’t think it’s going to do anything. I think all this law and order discourse is just all about political posturing to win votes… It’s all just stupid policies to appease popular anger and resentment… I’m surprised people aren’t so sick and tired of this political bulls…”.

Simon Bridges responded to the article on Twitter, saying “So who are the ‘experts’ plural who know so much about criminology in this piece? Some sweary bear Ron Kramer, gang apologist Denis O’Rielly, Chester Borrows & Mob Pres Sonny Fatupaito. Really?”

Kramer’s university hit back on Twitter: “for the record, the ‘Sweary Bear’ you refer to is Dr Ronald Kramer, a senior lecturer in criminology at the university. Dr Kramer has a PhD in sociology from Yale, has been published in the British Journal of Criminology and elsewhere and is a respected commentator. #expertbear” – see 1News’ Auckland University retaliates after Simon Bridges calls academic ‘sweary bear’.

Bridges also hit out at a tweet from Newsroom editor Tim Murphy, who wrote: “Is there anything more unimaginative in opposition policy-making than ‘work for the dole’ ‘get the gangs’ or ‘hard labour for prisoners’?” Bridges’ response was: “Is there anything more unimaginative than a middle-class journalist sneering predictably about a centre-right political party arguing for policies in line with its long-held principles?”

Finally, the one part of the document that has caused the biggest stir is the name of Australia’s elite anti-gang squad, with plenty of parody about this online – see Zane Small’s National’s ‘Strike Force Raptor’ idea sparks Twitter meme extravaganza.