21 Sep 2023

Election 2023: Law and order debate sees fiery clash of policy

1:15 pm on 21 September 2023
Labour's Ginny Andersen, National's Mark Mitchell, Greens' Ricardo Menéndez-March, Te Pāti Māori's John Tamihere and New Zealand First's Winston Peters.

Photo: RNZ

Political hopefuls have got fired up in a debate on law and order, clashing over the right approach to gangs and prisons - offering wildly different solutions.

There's nowhere to hide from law and order this election.

With ram raids, gangs and violent offending frequently grabbing headlines, statistics released on Wednesday show a 15 percent increase in charges taken to court in the year to June, compared with the same period the year before. For youth crime, the increase was 13 percent.

Labour's Ginny Andersenational's Mark Mitchell, Greens' Ricardo Menéndez March, Te Pāti Māori's John Tamihere and NZ First's Winston Peters put forward their plans in Morning Report's law and order debate on Thursday, moderated by host Ingrid Hipkiss.

ACT declined to participate.

The pitch

Andersen said crime is a complex problem, with increases in retail and violent crime since Covid-19 across the world: "New Zealand is no different, but what is different is Labour is focused on the solutions compared to the other parties and only Labour puts its money where its mouth is".

She highlighted the party's commitment to increase police officer numbers by 300, operation Cobalt which has led to more than 50,000 charges against gang members, and programmes like Circuit Breaker which had reduced young people's reoffending by 80 percent.

She said National had not committed to increasing the frontline.

Mitchell responded that in the last 48 hours, gangs in Coromandel "took over, assaulted members of the public, theft and disorder".

"We've had drive-by shootings, we've had some of the worst gang and gun violence ever we've experienced in our country with five homicides as a result."

He said under National it would be back to basics policing with a focus on staff retention, and "the easy run that gangs have had under this Labour government is over - life is going to become much tougher for them, and we're going to be focused on protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens instead protecting the rights of those that want to go out and harm the communities that we're in".

Peters said the first responsibility of any government was safety and security of citizens.

"The record has been - from the National Party side and Labour, very similar. Despite Ginny Andersen's claim just then that she had got 1800 new frontline police, no you didn't it was New Zealand First who negotiated that."

He said NZ First was the only party that would outlaw gangs by making them a terrorist entity as had been done in Queensland and Western Australia.

"It'll work there, it'll work here. We're going to offer them a job first for 40 hours a week but no more."

Tamihere said policing or imprisoning your way out of poverty and crime would never work.

"Most of the crime - 80 percent of all crime - is inflicted in vulnerable communities by poor people taking it out on poor people ... the shock and the horror that you hear from the leafy suburbs, it just doesn't occur there, it occurs in my communities in West Auckland, South Auckland, elsewhere."

He said police were needed and a good thing, but "we have to start to concentrate on dropping the traffic into the criminal justice system rather than beating them up once they get there", and politicians "gaming one another up with having a policeman on every corner" was part of the problem.

Menéndez March agreed politicians were not engaging with the evidence.

"The Greens will address the drivers of crime by ending poverty and inequality, because many of these crimes actually are a result of inequality in and of itself."

He said the party wanted to work to eliminate family and sexual violence, which was one of the forms being sustained in the communities, referring to co-leader Marama Davidson's work on Te Aorerekura.

He also highlighted the need to reform drug laws, saying many crimes were the result of outdated drug laws: "The Greens will work on evidence-based and resource community groups that are working really hard to prevent crime from happening in the first place."


NZ First has a policy of setting up gang-only prisons, which he said would "mean that a whole lot of Māori will get the idea that 'if that's going to be my pathway then maybe I should reform myself".

He said there was no need to build a new prison, but pressed on why the gangs needed to all be put in the same prison said "it just makes sense to, they already are now, don't you understand that? ... if you come to these subjects, do the homework, they're all in the prisons now, in the same gangs."

Mitchell said there was already a problem with gang members housed in prisons "in terms of are they together? Are they just continuing to facilitate and be organised in crime outside the fences?" and Corrections have told him there needed to be more work done on that.

National has proposed banning gang patches.

"To wear a gang patch you have to have shown you have the capability to carry out violent crime ... I passed legislation back in 2013 that the Labour government has used banning gang patches in hospitals, in our schools, and our public buildings and it's been a very effective tool," he said.

Andersen rejected the suggestion Labour had been too soft on gangs, saying the party introduced legislation to have warrantless search powers during inter-gang conflict, and give them the ability to search cars and seize weapons.

She said National talked a big game, "but when it comes to resourcing these types of operations there's just nothing there .... the last time Mark Mitchell came on this show he promised that he would front up and say what he's funded for police and he still hasn't done that".

Asked if Labour was late to the party on making laws around gang convoys, Andersen said 501s being sent from Australia had added a level of complexity to organised crime New Zealand has not seen before.

"We have legislation that has worked in those instances, in Tauranga I've watched police footage of how that's been utilised, we've gone a step further by proposing to introduce legislation that would be able to disrupt those convoys."

Peters said there were cases where police had been escorting the convoys, and Hipkiss challenged Andersen on the delays to bringing in these new rules.

"What this will enable police to do is the next step," Andersen said, "but I think the best way to resolve such issues is resourcing the frontline and we have 700 officers specifically dedicated to tackling organised crime."

Tamihere said there was no doubt gangs were no force for good, but the focus needed to be on what drove people to join gangs in the first place.

"Today in Tāmaki Makaurau there's 4000 Māori children ... not in education, training or employment. In South Auckland it's 18,000. Where are those kids going? ... the state knows this, political leaders here in this debate have known this for a long time but do nothing but shepherd them into gangs."

He called for more resources for the ministries of Social Development and Education for interventions to stop children going into gangs and the justice system in the first place.

Violent crime

Andersen targeted Peters' claim NZ First was behind the increase in police, saying he was not in government at the time: "you were off riding a horse".

Challenged that people still do not feel safe, she said the tactical response model gave police the ability to respond better to high-risk situations, and Labour also wanted to expand the co-responder model in all districts, putting mental health workers alongside police.

Mitchell said National had more announcements to come, but Labour had been "asleep at the wheel for the past six years".

"When we said to them five years ago 'we've got a growing threat to the gangs', they laughed and mocked and pretended to be dinosaurs in the House."

He said there were only 1500 new frontline police, had been a 33 percent rise in violent crime, 500 percent in ram raids and aggravated robbery, and 41 percent in victimisation.

Peters interjected that "you can't get on top of crime by having a fishing policy, catch and release" which he said was Labour's policy.

Andersen said National had not committed to keeping current ratios: "We'll continue to fund the police but we have not seen that same commitment from National".

Menéndez March said he had worked at the front lines with low-income people and homeless people and had "seen how experience in state care, homelessness and poverty are one of the drivers that lead to people becoming affiliated with gangs".

"If that's not tackled and the focus remains on putting more police on roads, it won't address the problem."

Tamihere said there was clear bias in the justice system, but called for a change in focus.

"We want one law for all, okay," he said. "We do have a problem and the police acknowledge this, and are endeavouring to put in a new culture, but there's no doubt there's a level of mistrust.

"The most efficient organised crime in this country is white-collar crime, $7b a year taken in tax fraud, but no one wants to talk about that because it's white-collar and it's lawyers and bankers and accountants.

Hipkiss referred to statistics showing ram raids peaked in August 2022, with latest figures from July showing it was down from 114 to 39. Mitchell said the stats were being cherry-picked by Labour; Andersen said they were not, and were provided by police.


Questioned about Labour only recently abandoning its target to reduce the prison population by 30 percent, Andersen said the main prisoner reductions had been for offences like personal drug use, traffic offences and burglaries.

"That has enabled the prison population to be more safely managed, it was at a dangerous level when National was in government."

She argued the number on electronically monitored bail had been relatively static over the past decade, and was "brought in by National to deal with the fact they couldn't house prisoners ... we no longer have that problem".

Mitchell said it was "complete and utter nonsense" to say Labour dropped the target because they had reached it.

"They had no plan to actually make the public safer. In terms of people out on electronic bail, 158 percent increase in the last six years. In terms of people absconding while on electronic bail, an over 90 percent increase."

He said some of the worse gun violence in the last six months has been perpetrated by people on electronic bail.

National was not sure how many more prisoners there would be under its policies because it would be backed by a social investment approach, and wanted to offer gang members - particularly those with families - the opportunity to leave the gangs, he said.

"So you do want to work with the gangs," Menéndez March said.

Tamihere called for a move to the scandinavian model on prisons: "The reality is all research shows they do not work, they just do not work.

"They go in, they've got to join a gang because if they don't they get bashed, right, then when they get out they owe the gang. And so you've got this whole system that works at actually increasing criminality.

"You've just made them a far more hardened criminal ... what's the rehabilitation game here? None.

"And our women, we've got the most incarcerated indigenous population in the world ... they're there because of crimes of poverty, not because of bad women. They've got to feed themselves and their kids."

Andersen said family violence was the main driver of violent crime, accounting for 70 percent.

"It is frustrating that the crimes we see in the news, we don't see all of the crimes every single day that are violence against our women and our children that are really causing the problems."

She pointed to new offences for strangulation and assault against a family member, and Te Aorerekura, as solutions, but Peters pointed to a recent double murder case from someone who strangled his partner but only got nine months detention.

"What we're going to do about it is to take out of the judiciary their right to put the criminal first," he said, and the part would also have mandatory minimum sentences.

Mitchell said the government had failed on family violence.

"I'm sorry Ricardo, Marama Davidson has had that portfolio for the last three years, has come in front of the justice select committee several times, they have completely totally failed."

Andersen put in that Mitchell was offering "zero solutions".

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