4 Apr 2024

Public submissions on proposed anti-gang laws are about to close: What you need to know

5:25 pm on 4 April 2024
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Photo: supplied

We've been hearing a lot about anti-gang measures, with new legislation going through Parliament. Some have argued it's unnecessary, while others have questioned its legality and enforceability. Meanwhile, the government says it has a mandate to press on.

New Zealanders have until 11.59pm on Friday 5 April to make a submission on new anti-gang laws.

The coalition government has made clear its intention to crack down on gangs, with the introduction of the Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill part of its 100-day plan.

Some have argued the legislation is unnecessary. Others have questioned its legality and enforceability. Meanwhile, the government says it has a mandate to press on.


On the campaign trail, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon criticised the government at the time for a rapid growth in gang membership under its watch.

He quoted figures from the National Gang List - in April 2017, there were 4915 individuals on the list, and in April 2023, 8875.

It is important to note that the list, maintained by the Gang Harm Insights Centre, is regarded by relevant agencies as one tool to help them understand gang-related harm, not as a reliable count of membership numbers.

Luxon's language was familiar. The Labour government also talked about reducing gang-related harm and making communities safer.

In 2023, Parliament passed legislation giving police further powers to disrupt criminal - and gang-related - activity by amending four acts: Crime, Land Transport, Search and Surveillance, and Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism.

But before asking what the new bill adds, it's worth looking further back in time to see who else has attempted to solve the same problems.

It's generally accepted that New Zealand gangs as we know them today emerged in the 1950s. The Mongrel Mob and a local chapter of the Hells Angels were putting down roots by the early 1960s.

Gang membership increased from the 1980s to late-1990s, before a decline until about 2010, according to a 2022 Parliament Library research paper.

Politicians have swung left and right, "wielding stick and then carrots to deal with the issue", Waikato University professors of law and authors of People, Power, and Law: A New Zealand History, Alexander Gillespie and Claire Breen wrote in The Conversation.

"There has also been a plethora of legislation. As well as the continually evolving criminal law, there have been laws on everything from fortified houses and the recovery of criminal proceeds, through to the prohibition of gang patches in public spaces."

But, they point out, "none has stemmed the tide".

The Bill

At its first reading on 7 March, Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith said the Gangs Legislation Amendment Bill was a response to increasing violent crime and gang membership. "And it's time that we had some extra tools to help the police do their job and keep our communities safe."

The bill aimed to do four things. First, prohibit the display of "gang insignia in public places", building on the existing patch ban in government buildings such as courts, schools, and hospitals.

Second, create a new dispersal power, allowing police to stop gang members from gathering in public, requiring specified people to leave an area and not associate in public for seven days.

Third, create a new non-consorting order to stop specified gang offenders from associating or communicating with each other for three years.

Finally, amend the Sentencing Act 2002 to give greater weight to gang membership as an aggravating factor in sentencing.

Labour's police spokesperson Ginny Andersen said Labour would support the bill going to select committee, only "so we can continue this discussion".

The Green Party and Te Pāti Māori opposed the bill.

Green MP Tamatha Paul said "we can't and won't arrest ourselves out of the gang problem... But this bill further marginalises, further excludes, and further radicalises a group in society for whom nobody claims responsibility."

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said the bill would disproportionately affect Māori, describing it as "a waste of resources".

"The only time Māori received any special treatment in the justice system is when we've been profiled."

Various members referenced a 2023 report from the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, saying there was no quick way to reduce gang harm. Instead, it required tackling underlying societal issues such as intergenerational trauma, family violence, housing, and inequity.

Broader reaction

A report by Attorney-General Judith Collins noted the proposed patch ban "appears to be inconsistent with the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990" and the proposed power to issue dispersal notices also appeared to be inconsistent with the right to peaceful assembly.

But Goldsmith told Morning Report if the bill was found to breach the Bill of Rights, it would not stop the government from making it law.

The government had to balance the rights of law-abiding citizens to go about their business without being intimidated against the rights of gang members to self-expression, he said. Parliament had the ability to make the judgement, and the government would be held to account at the next election.

Police Association president Chris Cahill told reporters he anticipated gangs would fight the changes in court.

Criminal lawyer Arama Ngapo, asked by the Mongrel Mob to investigate the legality of the bill, told 1News the government was trying to breach "freedom of movement, peaceful association, freedom of expression, freedom from discrimination".

Legal changes over time

In 1972, Labour leader Norman Kirk, who became prime minister later that year, campaigned on taking the bikes off bikies.

There were concerns in the 1970s about street gangs adopting organisational structures similar to outlaw motorcycle clubs.

In 1987, a year after Mongrel Mob members gang raped a young woman at Ambury Park in Māngere, amendments to the Crimes Act allowed for greater powers of surveillance, such as electronic bugging.

This marked the beginning of National and Labour battling to position themselves "as the party taking the toughest line on gangs", wrote Canterbury University senior lecturer Jarrod Gilbert, in Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand.

The report from the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor said laws targeting gangs implemented during the 1980s and 1990s "proved to be largely ineffective".

However, the Proceeds of Crimes Act in 1991 proved "highly effective for curbing gangs despite not being developed with gangs in mind". (The Act was repealed and replaced by the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009, allowing the seizure of criminal gains even if there had not been a conviction.)

Fast-forward to 2009, when the Whanganui District Council passed a bylaw prohibiting gang insignia in public places. A year later, the Hells Angels gang sought a judicial review of the ban, which the High Court upheld, ruling the bylaw invalid. Justice Denis Clifford found the bylaw had not properly specified in which public places the legislation applied.

In 2013, Parliament passed the Act banning gang insignia on government premises.

As mentioned above, the Criminal Activity Intervention Legislation Act came into force in April 2023.

Kris Gledhill, a professor of law at Auckland University of Technology, said the legislation involved the government of the time looking at the evidence and also asking police what "doesn't quite work and needs a little tweak". Essentially, it was "tinkering".

The current proposed legislation, however, "is all rhetoric", he said. "It talks about gaps that don't actually exist."

In a piece published in The Conversation, Gledhill listed the "many relevant offences" that already existed. He pointed out the current growth in gang membership had occurred despite existing powers and offences.

Overseas examples

National has pointed to Western Australia and Queensland's tough anti-gang laws as effective examples of cracking down on gangs.

Queensland introduced tough anti-bikie laws in 2013. And under anti-consorting laws introduced in 2021 in Western Australia, gang members can be jailed and fined for consorting contrary to a dispersal notice or displaying patches in a public place. As part of the legal changes, facial tattoos can be considered gang insignia.

The laws have led to high-profile arrests, as well as protests.

Mark Lauchs, associate professor at the school of justice studies at Queensland University of Technology, previously told RNZ what's worked in Australia may not succeed in New Zealand.

New Zealand's gangs were different to the bikie gangs across the Tasman, he said.

Again, the report from the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor noted, while efforts to ban patches in Australia resulted in a decrease in public violence and visibility, "there is a high likelihood that a public ban simply pushed illegal activity underground".

While international literature described gang involvement as a "transient life stage for young people", in New Zealand, it was common to find membership persisting "well into adult years", according to the report.

New Zealand's gang population was unique, "with some gangs adopting sophisticated business structures while some of our oldest gang communities are made up of actual whānau with shared whakapapa connections".

Colonisation, marginalisation and assimilation were viewed as drivers of Māori gang membership, specific to the New Zealand context, as were many state and faith-based care facilities.

"It is important to recognise that longevity of gang membership and being born into a gang whānau are separate, if related, issues. For many, gang membership is simply whānau."

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