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Who is the party of law and order?

Dr Bryce Edwards: The under-investment of a succession of governments in deprived communities has resulted in a propensity toward crime.
Dr Bryce Edwards
Contributing Writer, Democracy Project
May 9th, 2022

OPINION: Crime is becoming a key debate between Labour and National. This week they are both keen to show that they are tough on law and order.

It’s an issue that National has a traditional advantage on, and is one that they’re currently getting good traction from. In response, Labour is keen to counter this by also posing as tough on crime.

Politicians are all responding to public concerns about law and order. The issue of crime is rocketing up the political agenda, especially with so much reporting on ram-raids and gang activity. Recent polling shows that concern over crime is much higher than over other big issues such as climate change, tax and immigration.

Not only is Labour worried by the traction National is getting on crime, but they are clearly spooked by last week’s Newshub poll. Not only did it show that National was ahead of Labour, but also that a huge majority (68 per cent) think Police Minister Poto Williams is too soft on crime. Only a small minority (18 per cent) believe she’s sufficiently tough, suggesting that even Labour supporters are unimpressed with Williams.

Unsurprisingly, the Government has fought back by going conservative on the issue themselves. Yesterday’s announcement shows just how desperate the Government is to fight back by spending huge amounts. They committed over half a billion dollars of extra funding for policing, crime, and prisons to be delivered in the Budget.

This announcement was clearly brought forward from Budget day to stave off the popular attacks from the right. It’s likely to be successful in assuaging some concern that Labour isn’t on top of law and order. But it also looks somewhat panicked, rather than authentic, which means that it will be less effective than the Government want. Furthermore, some more liberal supporters of the Government will be less enthused about Labour’s new priorities.

Can Labour be more hard-line than National?

Labour can now claim to be more hard-line than National in many ways. In terms of police numbers, Labour has become much more pro-police than National. Not only has the Government boosted spending by a huge amount, they have also adopted a new policy that will ensure police employment numbers keep growing fast by tying the ratio of funded police officers to the population. The promised ratio will be one officer to every 480 New Zealanders.

It’s worth noting that under National the figure was about 550, and Labour has got it down to about 500. So, the direction of travel makes Labour the new “party of the police”. And illustrative of this, the Police Association seem to be over the moon about the announcement.

Labour also claims that by the end of the year they will have employed the promised extra 1800 police officers, and that this is six months ahead of schedule. This seems to be about the one area in which Labour is exceeding their promises rather than going backwards.

Sophistication required in combating crime

It’s to be expected that Labour and National are acting tough on law and order – especially given that there is a definite perception of an increasing crime problem.  However, such measures often incur in lieu of actually dealing with crime at its source, which exists in portfolios outside Police and Corrections.

The current “spike in crime” that New Zealand is experiencing – and which the Government denies is a “trend” – is related to more than just policing. In particular, they need to look at the impact of the last two years of Covid, and of worsening inequality and poverty in pushing people into anti-social behaviour.

The under-investment of a succession of governments in deprived communities has resulted in a propensity toward crime. And the massive transfer of wealth to the rich under the current government, along with its failure to protect the poor, means we might expect crime and other social problems to continue to get worse. In particular, the Government needs to deliver solutions for the cost of living crisis, especially for those at the bottom of society.

We need quality debate on law and order

In yesterday’s crime-fighting announcement, prominence was given to Government plans to combat ram raids by youth. This appeared to be another example of politicians posing as tough on crime without having done the research, just so they could assuage concerns.

The vague announcements on ram raids received this comment from Herald political editor Claire Trevett:

The trouble was it transpired the ram raids plan did not yet have any funding attached to it, not was there a plan yet – it was simply an intention. Ministers had had a meeting and would be having another one. They would also consult with businesses about it.

Trevett explained that it was a case of Ministers needing to be seen to be doing something”, but she concluded that “it might have been better to wait until it was more than half-baked.”

This example illustrates how easily politicians can treat crime issues with knee jerk responses. We need much more than this. We certainly need some quality and informed debate on the issues involved – especially as things are probably going to get worse.

Given increasing concerns about gang violence, we are also likely to see further demands for the militarisation of the police. Even today, it’s been reported that iwi leader Paora Stanley (chief executive of Ngāi Te Rangi) favours arming the police. He added:

I know a lot of cops. They are hard-working, bloody good Kiwis. There’s no doubt in my mind.

Labour also needs to be more honest about the extent of the problem. At the moment, attempts to downplay the gangs and violence do a disservice to the necessary debate. Denying reality is not a smart response to the perception that Labour is falling victim to the wedge politics of National and Act. They need to create their own answers that confront the problem, without simply giving in to a “me too” approach. Perhaps it should give Labour pause for thought that their announcement has received a stamp of endorsement from conservative ex-MP Simon Bridges.

In the end, using tough policies and announcements of more police has to be more than just “damage control” by incumbents, and the pressure from opponents needs to be more sophisticated. The problem is too serious to be treated as a competition of toughness.

This article was originally published on Democracy Project on 9 May. It is published here with permission.

Bryce Edwards is a senior associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies and lecturer at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.