Tough strategy: National sets out hard-line law and order policies

6:26 pm on 29 November 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Week in Politics- National promises law and order will be "done differently" if it wins the election, Justice Minister Andrew Little decides to restore prisoners' voting rights and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologises to the families of those who died in the Mt Erebus disaster.

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Simon Bridges says the Australian anti-gang unit has been "devastatingly effective". Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

"The government I lead will harass and disrupt gangs every single day I am prime minister with the single-minded goal of eliminating them." Strong words from Simon Bridges when he released National's law and order discussion paper this week.

He's setting the stage for an election campaign focused on hard-line policies and claims the government is soft on crime. It's been done before, but this time National is shifting into a higher gear.

A key proposal is the establishment of a special police unit based on Strike Force Raptor, which has been operating in New South Wales since 2009.

National's police spokesman, Brett Hudson, explained how it would target gang members at all levels. "If someone is punched outside a nightclub by a gang member, the unit would take over the case. If gang members didn't pay traffic fines it would follow up to ensure their driver licences were taken away."

If that's really going to happen under a National-led government, New Zealand's version of the raptors could be a very busy unit.

And there's more - the unit's officers could check benefit payments and tax records for taxpayer-funded assistance gang members might not be entitled to. To do that, they would have to be allowed access to information, which is ring-fenced with privacy laws.

Mr Bridges said the Australian unit had been "devastatingly effective" but that has been challenged.

Coombes, a New South Wales lawyer who represents gang members, told Morning Report the charges the unit had come up with so far weren't related to gang activity. "They have raided houses and haven't found anything in the houses, and have breached them for dogs not being tied up properly in back yards and things like that," he said.

Mr Bridges said he would provide evidence of the Australian unit's success.

There's a raft of other proposals in the discussion document, all of them designed to get tough on crime and gangs in particular.

Among them are banning gang patches, changes to parole laws and prison reforms, which include requiring prisoners to have NCEA Level 2 in numeracy and literacy to be eligible for early release. Given that many are illiterate, that's a big ask. It could, however, be a worthwhile incentive.

It's clearly going to be a comprehensive election manifesto issue, and justice spokesman Mark Mitchell told Checkpoint that under National law and order would be "done differently". In addition to stronger laws, it wants to see more cumulative sentencing.

"We want more flexibility around that because sometimes concurrent sentencing isn't fair. It doesn't actually reflect the seriousness of the offence," he said. Judges decide sentencing, but National wants to send them "much stronger signals".

None of this is set in concrete and by using a discussion paper National is giving itself an opportunity to gauge voter attitudes, but it's going to have to live up to the strident anti-gang rhetoric or open itself to charges that it isn't prepared to put its money where its mouth is.

Reinstate ban promise

The law and order gulf that's opening up between the main parties was in sharp focus over another issue this week. Justice Minister Andrew Little announced he was going to restore prisoner voting rights before next year's election, reversing the change made by National in 2010. It will mean that prisoners serving sentences of three years or less will be allowed to vote, which was the law before National changed it.

Mr Bridges immediate response was to vow a National-led government would reinstate the ban. Mr Little's announcement showed the government was soft on crime and cared more about criminals than victims, he said.

The Dominion Post didn't think much of that, describing his response as "a jingoistic instinct searching for a soundbite".

And the website Politik reported an interchange of Trump-like tweets between a journalist and a politician.

Newroom's editor Tim Murphy tweeted: "Is there anything more unimaginative in opposition policy-making than 'work for the dole' 'get the gangs' or 'hard labour for prisoners'?" to which Mr Bridges tweeted: "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?"

Middle-class journalist? That's a new one.

With Parliament in recess until Tuesday, National's law and order proposals gained top billing until the end of the week when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern apologised to the families of the 257 people who died in the Erebus disaster.

Speaking of the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, she said failure to acknowledge past wrongs had made their grief more difficult to bear.

"After 40 years, on behalf of today's government, the time has come to apologise for the actions of an airline, then in full state ownership, which ultimately caused the loss of the aircraft and those you loved," she told the families.

Blame for the aircraft flying directly into Antarctica's Mt Erebus was initially laid on the pilots. Two years later a Royal Commission of Inquiry absolved the crew, with Commissioner Justice Peter Mahon accusing the airline of "an orchestrated litany of lies".

* Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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