Week in Politics: National goes hard on law and order

4:58 pm on 25 June 2023
The National Party leaders wave to the faithful at the party's annual conference.

The National Party leaders wave to the faithful at the party's annual conference. Photo: RNZ / Giles Dexter

Analysis - National uses its annual conference to kick off its election campaign with a strong focus on law and order and a warning of what's at stake.

Questions are raised about whether its latest anti-gang policy proposal is actually new, the impact of the recession on the election - it could 'carry a punch well above its weight', opinion polls confirm the tight race trend and Michael Wood's resignation hands National another gift-wrapped opportunity to trash the government and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

National effectively kicked off its election campaign at its annual conference with a warning to delegates that they were in for "nothing less than a fight for the future".

That came from campaign chair and senior MP Chris Bishop, who set out a gloomy future under Labour.

"Our future is being ram raided," he said, accusing Labour of overseeing "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in education.

Party president Sylvia Wood was equally as dire with her take on present-day New Zealand: "After six years of Labour I barely recognise New Zealand. It certainly isn't the country any of us want to hand over to our children," she said.

Christopher Luxon speaks to media at Feildays

National leader Christopher Luxon has announced several new initatives focused on law and order. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Party leader Christopher Luxon's keynote speech was heavy on law and order, which is clearly going to be one of National's campaign cornerstones.

He said a National-led government would toughen up sentences by stopping judges discount sentences by more than 40 per cent.

Luxon said there was a lack of clear guidance for the judiciary which led to "substantially reduced sentences that fail to adequately denounce the severity of the crime, recognise the harm caused to the victim, and deter others from committing similar offences".

He said National would also get rid of taxpayer funding for cultural reports and expand eligibility for rehabilitation programmes - all the details are in RNZ's report.

Last week National launched a new anti-gang policy which also signalled the party plans a hard law and order election campaign.

Luxon announced gang membership would become an aggravating factor in sentencing under his government, an initiative he said would "help restore law and order" in New Zealand.

He claimed there had been a sharp increase in gang membership under Labour, retail crime had doubled and violent crime was on the rise, RNZ reported.

"National's message is clear: If you choose to align yourself with a criminal gang and engage in criminal activities, you will face tougher sentences for crime," he said.

The government didn't see it as a clear message at all. Police Minister Ginny Andersen said the policy was "a tweak in the margins" that would have minimal impact.

"Christopher Luxon has embarrassed himself by making a gang announcement that is already law," she said.

Her point was that participating in an organised criminal group was already an aggravating factor if there was a connection between membership and the particular offence.

ACT leader David Seymour agreed with her, saying on Newshub's AM Show he didn't see anything new about it.

"It's there in black and white, I think it's section 9 of the Sentencing Act, that one of the aggravating factors is that you are a member of a criminal organisation," Seymour said.

Luxon told the AM Show he disagreed with Labour and Seymour.

Proving a connection between an organised crime unit and the actual crime was difficult, he said.

His policy would make membership itself an aggravating factor - "a much better and much cleaner way to go".

The Herald did think it would make a difference, and wondered whether National had carefully considered the consequences. It published an editorial about that.

National's policy would make gang membership an aggravating factor "in any instance" where a gang member committed an offence, not just as part of gang activity, it said.

"Making gang membership the tipping point for severity could potentially have a lot of consequences if applied to any offending. Has this change been thought through? Could this markedly boost the prison population and increase the load on the justice system? What would the possible extra cost be?" it asked.

The point of the editorial, headed 'Tough talk is light on solutions' was that crime was complex and dealing with the reasons people joined gangs was necessary to reduce offending.

"There are plenty of existing measures against gangs the police can and do use," it said.

"There have been policies announced in this campaign with detail attached. But there have also been attempts to chase news cycles, throw stuff out, talk in generalities, and see what touches a nerve.

"The country faces many serious problems but still lacks serious solutions for them."

Grant Robertson

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the fall into recession was expected. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The political impact of the economy going into recession started to sink in this week.

The latest statistics, released at the end of last week, showed GDP contracted 0.1 per cent in the March quarter after shrinking 0.7 per cent in the previous quarter.

Two consecutive quarters of contraction defines a recession, although this is a case of only just going into a recession.

National was quick on the draw. Finance spokesperson Nicola Willis said it was "a red light warning" for an "incredibly fragile economy", RNZ reported.

The country was in a "toxic economic predicament" of excessive inflation, high interest rates, a severe balance of payments deficit and now a recession.

"This is a dangerous combination which threatens New Zealanders' livelihoods," she said.

Vernon Small, a former press gallery and business journalist, said in his Stuff column National had been given "a ready-made data stick to beat Labour with" through to the one-on-one leaders' debates ahead of the 14 October election.

"What better ammunition for National's attacks on the government's economic policy?" Small asked.

"Arguments that it was caused by a mix of tight monetary policy, international headwinds, floods and cyclones are not going to defuse a volley of the r-word."

Small said it was a very small contraction that had triggered the recession, but it was something no government wanted to hear in an election year.

"As such, it was a political event rather than a significant economic event, carrying an electoral punch well above its weight."

The often quoted economist Cameron Bagrie told Newshub he preferred to call it a reset rather than a recession.

"I don't like the term recession because a recession denotes bad things. I am using the term reset," he said.

After a tumultuous few years the country was returning to a sense of normality.

"We are going from abnormality to normality - that is a reset. That actually offers some opportunities on the other side.

"Whereas if we use the term recession we are going to get our back up against the wall and we are going to wrap ourselves in cotton wool."

Bloomberg, the international business media outlet, said authorities around the world would be keeping tabs on New Zealand's recession because it might be a harbinger for what lay ahead for other countries.

It said the RBNZ was among the first to hike interest rates to tackle pandemic-induced inflation and the impact was starting to be felt as households already grappling with soaring prices saw their mortgage repayments jump.

PM Chris Hipkins

Polls still show a competitive race for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Set against the perfect storm of bad news the government has recently faced it was surprising to see an opinion poll this week which showed Labour's support had increased and that it had again overtaken National.

The Talbot Mills poll, taken during the first week of June for its corporate clients and reported by the Herald, had Labour up three points to 36 per cent and National down one to 35 per cent.

Hipkins's personal popularity gained six points, pushing him up to 38 per cent as preferred prime minister, while Luxon dropped to 22 per cent, his worst result in the Talbot Mills series.

Talbot Mills also does Labour's internal polling.

A second poll told a slightly different story.

The Curia Taxpayers' Union poll, reported by RNZ, showed National holding 35.7 per cent support against Labour's 32.9 per cent.

In that poll, National and ACT would hold enough seats to form a government.

Curia does National's private polling.

Put together those polls shout out the same message that's been heard for months - right now this election is way too close to call.

Hipkins must be wondering when he'll be able to call a press conference to announce good news.

Unusually grim faced and upset, he walked into the Beehive theatrette on Wednesday - the media got half-an-hour's notice - to say Michael Wood had resigned.

The transport minister had actually been sacked, although Hipkins allowed him the dignity of handing in his resignation after telling him that continuing as a minister was "untenable", in his words.

Labour MP Michael Wood talks to journalists.

Transport Minister Michael Wood was the latest problematic minister for Labour. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Wood had previously been stood down for not properly declaring Air New Zealand shares he held, now other shareholdings had been revealed including Chorus, Spark and the National Australia Bank, parent company of the BNZ.

Conflicts of interest had not been managed, Wood had to go, and Hipkins had lost a third minister. The others were Meka Whaitiri and Stuart Nash.

All the details surrounding Wood's departure are in RNZ's report, which also has a video of Hipkins press conference.

The political implications were obvious - another massive distraction for Labour and a gift-wrapped opportunity for the opposition to trash the government and Hipkins.

National did exactly that.

Regardless of Hipkins having held the job for five months, and the transgressions having taken place before his tenure began, Luxon comprehensively blamed the prime minister.

"The bottom line is Chris Hipkins is weak, he's not setting clear expectations, and certainly his ministers aren't listening to him," he said.

"He's not building a strong culture, he's not setting clear expectations.

"This is a government falling apart, the wheels are coming off, there's integrity issues and personnel issues every single week and New Zealanders are over it."

ACT's David Seymour said he was "genuinely flummoxed" as to how Wood got himself into such a mess.

"I've known Michael for almost 10 years, I think he's a decent and diligent person, I just can't understand how he could be so reckless," he said.

"I wish him well, I guess he could have a pretty good future as a stockbroker."

At his press conference, Hipkins said he still didn't understand how Wood had got himself into the mess that has cost him his career.

It has been revealed that the Cabinet Office contacted him about his shares no less than 16 times, RNZ reported. All of those instances, except for the first in 2017, occurred during a two-and-a-half year period.

Hipkins has announced four measures he intends taking to tighten up the rules around conflict of interest.

Mike Williams, the former Labour Party president, said on Newshub's AM Show the Australian Labor Party made its MPs sell their shares and rental properties as soon as they were elected.

* 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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