Prime Minister John Key is reinforcing New Zealand's punitive culture towards criminals by saying Labour MPs are "backing the rapists" in a Christmas Island detention centre, a former MP says.
Mr Key made the accusation in Parliament yesterday, in response to a question about New Zealanders being held at the Australian facility.
Several Labour MPs walked out when the Speaker ruled Mr Key did not have to apologise for the comment.
Mr Key has refused to back down from the comments, despite Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton releasing figures showing only four of the 199 Christmas Island detainees have rape or sexual assault convictions, five have child sex convictions, and two have manslaughter convictions.
Former Labour MP John Tamihere now heads the Waipareira Trust and employs a number of people who have served prison sentences, including former ACT MP Donna Awatere Huata, who was jailed for stealing from a charitable trust.
He believed Mr Key probably regretted the comments he made yesterday as he could make mistakes like anyone else.
However, they reinforced the country's punitive culture towards criminals and made it harder for them to reintegrate into society, Mr Tamihere said.
"... Everybody that has done the crime and pays the time needs to be received back in society," he said.
"Now, how do you do that if you're going to consistently brand them and consistently advise everybody else they're like an untouchable.
"There's only one avenue for them to go back to, and that is they will go back to a high-cost prison bed. There's no other option."
Most people who had committed crimes had the capacity to reform if they worked hard at it - and were backed by people who believed in them, Mr Tamihere said.
"It's easy to back successes and champions. It's easy to applaud to wonderful attributes that the All Black team represents to millions of Kiwis.
"It's a bit of a stretch, though, to forgive and then accept that a person does have some positive capabilities and, if given the right support, can be reintroduced into society and make good of themselves."
New Zealand's punitive culture was unbecoming "and we just have to get over that", he said.
Protesters given the boot
Meanwhile, protesters have been kicked out of the building housing the Australian Consulate-General in Auckland this afternoon, as they campaigned for the closure of the Christmas Island detention centre.
The group, made up of refugee and human rights supporters, as well as workers' unions, signed a letter stating detainees face brutal and unjust treatment.
The letter was to go to Australian High Commissioner Michael Potts, with a copy to be sent to Mr Key.
They were demanding the closure of the centre, and for access to legal representation for people being held there, including New Zealand detainees.
About 15 of the group entered the building and began chanting, before being told to leave.