25 Aug 2023

National Party vows to scrap contracts with gangs for community support

5:37 am on 25 August 2023
Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon says it wouldn't give gangs millions to do drug rehabilitation programmes. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says his party would put an end to gangs getting government contracts, if elected in October.

Successive governments of red and blue stripes have funded community programmes to support gang members and their families.

This may change after the election after National promised to scrap such contracts, potentially spelling an end to its long-standing tradition of working with gangs.

It was former National Party prime minister Robert Muldoon whose cabinet set up the 'Committee on Gangs' in 1981.

This group of high-powered public servants wrote a report which affirmed political thinking at the time that gangs were a social problem needing a social solution.

Muldoon's administration helped gangs into work through an employment scheme and his relationship with Black Power developed so much that members performed a haka at his funeral.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon shakes hands with a gang member employed on a work scheme, Bairds Road, Otara, November 2 1979.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon shakes hands with a gang member employed on a work scheme, Bairds Road, Otara, November 2 1979. Photo: Stuff

More than 40 years later, and roughly 50 days out from a general election, gangs remain a hot topic for politicians, including Luxon.

"We're going to have a strong, stable National-led government that's going to focus on fixing the economy so we can reduce the economic pain and suffering for New Zealanders.

"On the other side you've got Labour, Te Paati Māori, the Greens and Harry Tam and the gangs," he told reporters on Tuesday.

National have attacked lifetime Mongrel Mob member Harry Tam's Hard2Reach company over its government contracts, claiming the money is going to the mob.

But Tam has argued these contracts began under the previous National-led government, led by Sir John Key.

RNZ asked Luxon if a National-led government would work with gangs if elected in October, as his predecessors had.

"Well, we're not going to give $2.7 million to gangs to do drug rehabilitation programmes. We wouldn't give $9000 to gangs to fill in census forms."

National deputy leader Nicola Willis later clarified things would change under a National-led government.

"We're talking about the Chris Luxon-led National government going forward and we don't want to be contracting gangs who perpetrate violence, who deal drugs and cause a huge amount of harm in our communities."

Law and order looms large in this election; escalating gang violence has kept the police busy and left communities fearful they might be caught in the crossfire.

National is promising to crack down on this by banning gang patches in public places and giving police more powers when dealing with gang members.

Lifetime Black Power member Denis O'Reilly said these policies - and National's latest promise to cut gang contracts - were short-sighted.

"I'd say two words to the National Party: Chester Borrows. There was one of their men who followed that very line until he got out into the community and he actually started to experience what those communities were about."

The late Chester Borrows came to believe the tough-on-crime mentality does not work; advocating a shift in focus - and money - from punitive measures to community programmes.

O'Reilly said meth, or "chemical warfare" as he put it, was no doubt aggravating gang problems and he shared people's frustration about the current climate.

"I feel like Sisyphus, you know. You start, think you're getting somewhere that you're changing some behaviours and then the next minute, the place is flooded.

"I know it's annoying. I know my younger brothers and sisters are annoying ... and scary sometimes. How do you reduce the harm? That's what people are trying to do. These are the social potholes of money that hasn't been put into [social] infrastructure."

O'Reilly said all leaders - whether they were pro-social or not - had to deal with the same problems and a tough-on-crime approach would not make gangs go away.

"I can remember Muldoon saying to me once, 'we're going to be talking about gangs, it's an election and we're going to be talking about gangs, don't worry about that for a while'.

"The day after the coalition agreement is signed of the next government, whoever it is, they are going to be faced by the same intractable problems as the current administration. Anyone who says 'we're never gonna do this, we're never gonna do that', it's not smart."

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