OPINION: When you cover politics, certain topics come up with a depressing familiarity, like dishwater swirling around a sewer.
Fear is a political weapon. Richard Nixon was one of the first mainstream politicians to deliver the simple and compelling message of restoring law and order.
It helped him win the White House in 1968. He relied on the policies of his predecessor, Lyndon B Johnson, who invested in policing, surveillance and incarceration to deal with the problems caused by poverty and inequality. Johnson declared “a war on crime”.
In the half-century since, politicians from Donald Trump to Tony Blair have invoked the same theme.
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It is often a call for radical action: a criminal justice system centered on punishment, retribution and sentencing. Often it is shorthand for the oppression of minorities and the poor.
A recent spate of gang shootings and a spike in juvenile crime in Auckland have prompted predictable and violent calls. On Saturday, National Chief Christopher Luxon announced (another) crackdown.
Largely plundered in Australia, Luxon’s plan would prevent known criminals from meeting in public, ban badges in public places and introduce gun ban orders – an idea that has been floated from the national government previous. “The police need support, and under a national government they will get it,” he said, conveniently unaware that during the decade he was in power police budgets were frozen at unattainable levels.
The ACT wants to seize the assets of people caught with illegal firearms, although it has strongly opposed reforms to gun laws, including a registry, which experts will gradually make it harder for gangs from getting guns in the future. He also drafted a bill similar to the association restrictions proposed by Luxon.
This helps the opposition narrative that Police Minister Poto Williams has taken a somewhat passive approach to his portfolio. And the public hasn’t embraced Commissioner Andrew Coster’s soft-spoken approach to policing.
There are glaring differences of opinion between those who favor rolling back tough sentencing laws and reducing prison populations to those who believe that liberal policies and progressive policing – or “woke” have contributed to a 30% increase in violent crime in our largest city. They support increased enforcement.
The hype of the crime and the urgent calls for action are rewarded by voters, who react disproportionately to the sound bites and images of the crime in the media.
But as attractive as they look on hustings, traditional lockdown policies don’t work. From Labor Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s vow to “take the bikes off the bikes” to Sir Robert Muldoon’s firewood cutting plans, New Zealand has yet to emerge from gang culture.
Recent analysis by renowned expert Jarrod Gilbertat the University of Canterbury, showed that laws rushed through in the 1990s to curb “unprecedented” gang activity had almost no impact.
Tougher sentences and increased incarceration bring their own injustices and problems. And New Zealand has a long history of making impulsive policies. The previous national government reversed the burden of proof for defendants in bail cases, in response to an emotional and media campaign by victims’ families called the “Christie Law”.
The number of people locked up has tripled in 30 years, reaching more than 10,000 in 2018. At any one time, a third were awaiting trial, many of them innocent and unable to participate in pre-trial rehabilitation programs.
It was totally counterproductive. Although New Zealand had one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world, this was not a deterrent. Recidivism rates have not decreased.
Similarly, ACT’s flagship three-strike policy had no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In one case, the Supreme Court had to intervene in a disproportionately harsh sentence. It is currently repealed.
Beware of politicians offering simplistic and hasty solutions. Because the crime – and the reasons for the offense – are often complicated.
Luxon’s solutions, presented in a speech to his party’s Northern Regional Conference, are no solutions at all because they fail to address the correlations between domestic violence, child poverty and limited educational choices. He makes a passing reference to restoring social investment – but his responses to gang violence are superficial and cosmetic.
Much of Auckland’s current problems have little to do with what the Beehive does right or wrong – but stem from a wave of deportations from Australia that began in 2015.
The influx of “501s” (named after the clause that allows their visas to be revoked) has dramatically changed the criminal landscape. Imported Australian gangs have more sophisticated importation, laundering and distribution operations – and their feuds are far more violent.
Successive governments have failed to convince Canberra to reverse the policy – during his visit last week Prime Minister Ardern made another unsuccessful appeal.
The cuts are too popular with Australian voters, and there is no incentive for new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to reverse them. He would put his rival Peter Dutton – the architect of politics – a stick with which to beat him.
Not all 501s are organized criminals. Many have minor, low-level beliefs, but cut off from family ties and without hope of work, they often drift into the culture.
The growing number of gangs interconnects with post-pandemic factors: high levels of poverty and desperation, and deserted urban streets.
There are no simple solutions. To pretend otherwise contributes to an endless cycle of crime.