17 Apr 2022

Police: The unenviable portfolio

From The House , 7:30 am on 17 April 2022

Being presented with a ministerial portfolio must be a highlight of many MP’s careers. While watching newly fledged ministers swear their oaths at the Governor General’s residence you get an impression of both a reverence and a palpable excitement at receiving the mantle.

I expect the excitement wears off quickly as MPs begin bench-pressing the onus of expectation and the forbidding workload; especially when they realise how slowly change happens and how much heat they will take for things they barely control.

But ministerial roles vary greatly. A few come with genuine influence, some others just get blame.

Jacinda Ardern is appointed Executive Councillor and Prime Minister at Government House

Jacinda Ardern is appointed Executive Councillor and Prime Minister at Government House Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The range of control 

Some ministers have a lot of control within their ambit. They set the agenda, direct a ministry, decide what public servants will do, where money will be spent etc. For example, the Minister for Covid-19 Response has wide control across their domain.

That is not a universal experience. Ministerial responsibility is equal, but influence varies. The Minister of Finance has huge control over Government spending but surprisingly little capacity to actually prod the economy. The largest levers are held elsewhere.

When not merging entities, Broadcasting involves little beyond budget rounds, occasional board appointments and staying well away. 

Being the Minister of Health is tough. They have scant control over many dozens of entities, but all responsibility. There is plenty of blame because the continued existence of sickness and death is somehow equated with failure.

The ministerial hiding to nothing

Possibly the hardest in this respect though is the Minister of Police. That role gets almost no control but has to pretend they’re in charge and take responsibility for a political minefield.

In recent weeks questions to the Minister of Police have been a regular staple of Question Time. Why has violent crime…? Why are gangs…? Why are police…?

This article is the result of some public commentary questioning why the Minister of Police gets a regular grilling in Parliament. Some saw prejudice in it, others thought the minister might be a weaker target. Certainly ministers who are less confident or robust respondents can offer tempting targets to oppositions but that is not a universal reason for choosing a portfolio to focus on.  Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern are both unusually proficient at Question Time but also get the most regular quizzing. But there are also other reasons why ministers of police are often seen as target-rich politically, and that seems worth exploring.

Labour MP Poto Williams in the House

The current Minister of Police is Labour MP Poto Williams who must sometimes wish she had a police riot shield for use against the brickbats. Photo: ©VNP / Phil Smith

While some MPs seem genuinely proud to hold the police portfolio, Police is surely among the less enviable because crime is always fertile ground for opposition messaging (especially for more conservative or populist parties who don’t suffer the underlying characterisation of being ‘soft on crime’).  

There are also other reasons why crime is always a great stomping ground for oppositions and so hard for any minister in charge, that are worth exploring.

The powerless figurehead

Being Minister of Police is not harder work than other roles. All ministers of police regularly remind Parliament that almost everything the police do is “an operational matter” and therefore beyond the scope of the minister’s influence.

It always sounds like a cop-out (excuse the pun), but it is true.

The Minister of Police has very little influence over the police. That may seem weird but it’s the sign of a functioning democracy. It’s much preferable to the police becoming a political tool.

The Cabinet website describes the job like this: 

“Responsibilities include oversight of the general conduct, functions, and duties of the Police, and the effective, efficient, and economical management of the Police.”

That’s not just convention, it’s in law. The Police Act 2008 says:

“No Police employee may, when exercising any power or carrying out any function or duty, act under the direction, command, or control of …a Minister of the Crown”.

So, not much control at all then. The Minister of Police doesn’t even oversee what’s illegal. The Crimes Act is in the Justice portfolio.

No power, all responsibility

Like some sort of anti-spider-man, ministers of police have to live by the ‘no power, great responsibility’ motto. Parliament’s ‘bible’, Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand says:

“By convention, Ministers are individually responsible to the House for their official actions and for the general conduct of their departments and officials. This is a political accountability. It is not limited to matters over which the Minister has legal control. This responsibility is given its most obvious parliamentary form by way of questions to Ministers. These questions can relate to any public affairs with which the Minister is officially connected. This goes far beyond matters for which the Minister has legal authority. It extends to matters over which the Minister may have no legal control but which, by virtue of accepting office, Ministers assume a political responsibility to answer for.”

Police Minister Poto Williams

Police Minister Poto Williams Photo: RNZ

Credit and blame

On the upside, ministers of police get to champion Police successes (despite having little little influence on their occurrence or outcome). A large drug bust, a successful operation. ‘Yay team!’

But that is a scant reward for getting blamed for any ‘failures’. With a typically bonkers understanding of cause and effect, the public (and MPs) often equate the existence of crime with police failure, which is like blaming heart attacks on cardiologists. But we are human and apophenia is what we do. There is always plenty of crime and so always plenty of blame. 

This constant underlying public desire to place blame for crime is one reason that ‘crime’, ‘justice’, ‘law and order’, ‘victim’s rights’, ‘harsher sentencing’ and similar are regular political themes. 

Misattributing the causes of crime is akin to blaming epidemics on governments or physicians trying to avert them. We most look for someone to blame for the things that scare us. The scarier the thing, the more powerful we presume the cause. 

Public perception

Surveys show that people believe crime is more prevalent than it actually is, possibly because we fear being a victim. 

Oddly, research suggests that the groups most scared are also the ones least likely to be victimised - and vice versa. For example the British Crime Survey has found that elderly women are 15x more likely than young males to feel ‘very unsafe’ on the streets at night, but are 40x less likely than those same males to be the victims of violence.

Note: The British Crime Survey (BCS) is a usefully regular government survey of both experienced crime (eg ‘have you been a victim in the past year?’), and also of perception (eg ‘how likely is it that you will be a victim?’). This article refers to the BCS rather than New Zealand data because it, a) references research into crime and politics from a UK journalism fellowship the author undertook in 2002, and b) New Zealand has only had an equivalent survey since 2018 (three so far), showing very similar tendencies but not enough time to show trends.   

We also usually tend to think crime is becoming more (rather than less) prevalent. So, is crime worse? 

It’s actually very hard to say and it depends on what you’re counting. It doesn’t help that what we categorise as crime is always shifting. But no, in many respects crime is much less pervasive than it has been for centuries. In the UK, violent crime has been estimated to have dropped by two thirds between 1900 and 1975, despite the population rising by 46 percent over that period. 

But for whatever reason, public perceptions tend to run the other direction. In 1996 three quarters of respondents to the British Crime Survey believed crime rates had risen, although reported crime had fallen by 9 percent (the biggest drop since 1945).

In short - we are very poor at perceiving danger. Possibly this is why we are always ready to believe people who tell us crime is bad or getting worse. Especially if they come bearing statistics. 

Crime statistics and accuracy

Another reason that crime is a permanent feast for oppositions is the vagaries of crime statistics, which are both inaccurate and tend to fluctuate like a see-saw. First let’s consider accuracy.  

The accuracy problem is because we use reported crime as the measure of crime.

In the UK about half of the public say they have been a victim of crime but 44 percent say they never reported it. In New Zealand one third reported being a victim but only a quarter had reported the crime.

Over time the proportion of crime that is reported has increased, but it fluctuates. Changes in reporting rates have a huge impact on apparent crime rates.

After the Christchurch earthquakes, local crime appeared to have dropped though police reported the belief that reporting had diminished because people thought the police had enough on their plates already.

National MP Mark Mitchell in the House

National MP Mark Mitchell in the House Photo: © VNP / Phil Smith

Crime statistics are frequently used as a cudgel in Parliament. In the House last week National Party Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell said, “we keep hearing from the Government the great news story in terms of investment and numbers and all the rest of it, but the reality is this: a 21 percent increase in violent crime since 2017.”

I’m not sure exactly where Mark Mitchell got his stats because there are different ways of parsing the data, but police statistics show that reports of ‘Acts Intended to Cause Injury’ increased by over 30 percent between 2017 and 2021.

However ‘Acts Intended to Cause Injury’ also increased between 2014 and 2017 (under the ministerial oversight of National Party MPs and ministers of police Michael Woodhouse, Judith Collins and Paula Bennett). Reports in that category more than doubled in those three years!

Is that rise a major issue? Maybe, maybe not. It might mean very little. Statistics are always treacherous but crime statistics are a minefield.

There are so many categories and ways to parse the figures it’s not hard to find numbers to support an argument. Part of the reason is the category see-saw.

Crime Statistics: playing whack-a-mole on a see-saw

There are many categories of crime statistics. Usually at least one of them is getting worse, even if others may be improving. 

For an opposition MP this means there is always at least one category of crime that they can focus on. 

Why does it fluctuate like this? Criminologists tend to believe that various types of crime result from varying economic and social factors as well as things like consumer sentiment and pessimism. But different factors affect different categories of crime. 

Some categories (especially property crime) tend to rise when money is short. 

Some categories increase in times of economic ebullience, possibly via things like higher alcohol consumption. For example opportunistic sexual assaults are more likely when more people are out partying and drinking to excess.

Basically, if you comb the stats there is always some category of crime that is rising. At the moment that is apparently some violent crimes and especially gang-related crime. Meanwhile property crime in New Zealand has gone down.

All crime versus niche crime

Property crime (eg theft), is by far the largest category of crime, so when it is rising overall crime numbers also rise. This is probably what is happening when MPs say ‘crime is on the rise’. 

I presume that when people hear that ‘crime is up’, we especially think of violence (because we fear it more). But violent crime often drops as property crime rises.  

When property crime is static or falling, the message is more likely to focus on violent crime, gang crime, or a niche category that is rising fast. 

In the UK for a few years the political and media focus was on ‘knife crime’, which seems very niche but was effective politically. 

The violent crime categories are much smaller (in terms of incidents) but they carry more emotional weight for us. 

ACT MP Chris Baille

ACT MP Chris Baille Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Cause and effect

Not only does a powerless Minister of Police have to deal with the vicissitudes of perception and statistics, but taking action tends to be punished. In fact, trying to do better may make things look worse.

In the House on Wednesday ACT MP Chris Baillie nailed the problem when he asked the Minister of Police:  

“Does the Minister think policing success should be measured by how much the Government spends, or by whether the crime rate goes down?”

That is an invidious choice because it appears you can’t have both. When a moral panic (say on knife crime) causes a focus on a particular kind of crime, that category often (paradoxically) appears to rise.

Possibly this is because if you look harder you find more. More stop-and-search procedures or gang-pad busts are definitely likely to find more chargeable offences. Also, people are more likely to report what they are being told police are focusing on. 

For a minister this means the harder they try the more it might look as if they’re failing. 

That may sound mad, so here is an example.

Between 1981 and 1996 in the UK the self-reported experience of having been a victim of crime doubled, but the level of reported crime increased five-fold (British Crime Survey).

Why such a massive difference? That may relate to the fact that those were the Thatcherite ‘get tough on crime’ years, with an 87 percent increase in police budgets and 16,000 extra police officers. 

Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image Puppet

Photo: mattbuck (category) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Around 30 percent of those who fail to report crime say they don’t bother because the Police won’t act, 16 percent think the offender won’t be caught. An overwhelming number think the crime that happened to them is too trivial to bother with. Those are UK numbers, the New Zealand figures are very similar.

So possibly more police, and more political messaging about cracking down and media attention increases people’s inclination to report crimes to the police. An increase in the level of reporting lifts the overall amount of crime reported. That reported crime is what we think of as the actual amount of crime that happened. It really isn’t.

By that mechanism, more police would appear to increase crime. You just can’t win. Any way you look at it, the Police Portfolio is a political hiding to nothing. 

For some reason that doesn’t seem to deter the MPs who are given the responsibility. They always appear genuinely proud to be the sacrificial figurehead.