Matt Nippert - certified hack, Auckland

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Get me outta Christie's (and Christo's) mad headspace

A few people have asked for my comment the latest National policy - regarding parole (scrapping it), and prisons (lots more of them). There has been some very on-to-it blogging on this issue, most notably from norightturn and Hard News. I wrote a bit on the issue a couple of months ago, before it became fashionable. I concluded then, as I do now, that National and Labour have been engaged in a rhetorical battle to appear "hard" (therefore painting the opposition "soft") on crime.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Act and New Zealand First will toy around with even more extreme rhetoric. While Brash quite sensibly distanced himself from the death penalty issue, smaller parties won't feel quite the need to appeal to "liberal" voters (I use the term "liberal" very loosely here). My prediction is Peters will pull this card out within the next six months - if only to gets some headlines and paint himself as hardman to the "liberal" Don. (Depressingly, we'll probably hear more about "three strikes and you're out". Why anyone would choose to base any policy on something as inane as the game of baseball is beyond me.)

It will be quite remarkable (and hideously expensive) if, considering zero prisons were opened during the 1990s, that ten may open between 2000-2010. Labour's already got five on the go, and if, as Brash predicts, his policies increase the population by a further half the country will need a whole lot more. New Zealand will take a clear 2nd place on the OECD imprisonment league tables (up from a present 7th) if parole were abolished. Labour's only going to get us a bronze.

There's a common maxim amongst legal academics that hard cases make bad law. A lot of the froth around the Law and Order debate has been whipped up by media coverage of henious crimes. Frank Hayden's column in the Sunday Star-Times today is a case in point. In it he argues the entire parole system is failing because of a few high profile cases: Taffy Hotene, William Bell and Harry Houkamu. He characterises these a "long-term indictment of the parole system". Making policy in this manner, translating headlines to legislation, would means we should ban dogs because of a few isolated attacks on children. Hang on a minute...

There's a term (coined by scholarly dude Charles Lindblom) describing public policy as the "science of muddling through". Lindblom argues that state action is necessarily modified by a range of political and bureaucratic actors (courts, wonks, political parties) to the effect that policy changes are incremental rather than revolutionary. If you can't please all the people all the time, you try your best to satisfy as many as possible and not alienate opponents too much. (A similar argument was used to support the introduction of MMP - dramatic policy changes ala 1984-1991 should be impossible with minority or coalition governments.)

This, at its best, ensures that policy changes have results that are predictable and can be reversed if found to be faulty. (At it's worst, it slows down or dilutes policy so it is relatively ineffective - dang Supreme Courts interfering in the War on Terror.) Applied to this debate, it might be worth waiting to see if Labours tougher sentencing regime works before harshening it exponentially as Brash suggests. It's going to be a very, very expensive experiment indeed - and if it doesn't work will have costs all down the line, ranging from economic to social and (perhaps) increased crime rates.

Talk of a return to hard labour (Brash), and military service (Garth George) are flawed in thinking that prison is a happy, cushy place. (As one eager criminal-lasher said at Ellerslie last Sunday, prison is "a five star hotel.") This isn't the case. While indeed inmates are provided with bed and a breakfast, you shouldn't think getting a short sentence will allow you to cosy up in some beachfront villa and avoid being charged $150 for the privilege. Prison ain't fun, mainly because as a prisoner you're confined to a cell for most of the day (18+ hours a day in some of the higher-security facilities).

Abolishing parole, I learned talking to prison wardens, would make the atmosphere in prisons potentially explosive from already repressive. Where does good behavior get you if your release date is set in stone? Wardens across the country fear a return to the bad-old days of riots and assaults. Removing parole, I predict, might just make prisons the hostile places law and order campaigners want them to be - by itself, and without floggings and chain-gangs. Unfortunately, they'll also be unpleasant for those having to work in them.

(As for the military service argument, would it really be wise to put our most violent, least socially adjusted members of society onto foreign battlegrounds with guns and carte blanche orders to kill insurgents? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me...)

But to the rugby; something infinitely more cheerful. I think the Pacific Islanders should have as many Super 12 teams as they can field. Last nights game rivaled, in my mind, the fabled 1997 Hurricans-Blues clash. Lots of tries, lots of running - true spectacle that makes the result irrelevant.

It almost seemed as if the All Blacks were trying to match the Islanders step-for-step. If Justin Marshall hasn't been subbed off with 20 minutes to go, the game might have made a record for fewest stoppages of play - I've never seen so many penalties, scrums and lineouts taken quickly. Cracking stuff. Hats off to Russell for providing a sterling plate of chops and mash, and a seat in front of the fire to view the try-fest. Most appreciated.

To make the concept work, the Islanders don't even need to win. Just play with flair, and the crowds will come. They've got the talent to become the Harlem Globetrotters of world rugby. (Just as long as their playing pool isn't fatally drained by vampiric Tri-Nations teams.)

The Black Caps have effectively reversed their test and one-day rankings in the past year. Falling to 6th from 3rd in the world for tests, they suddenly find themselves ranked behind only Australia in the one-day arena. Perhaps fielding a team of bits-and-pieces players has its silver lining...

Media Gossip: Has anyone yet asked Mike Hosking for his Jonathan Marshall impersonation yet? I'm sure he'd be game. Sound like perfect ingredients for Eating Media Lunch....

The Listener turned 65 on Monday last week, amid an explosion of marketing dollars, tunes by Dave Dobbyn and Chris Knox, and quotes from Worthworth. A great night for a New Zealand media institution. Even if, as Knox put it so well "it's only a fuckin' TV guide!", and I ended up feeding cigarettes to dodgy TV producers at 1am.

Grinding my axe, I'm pleased to say it's been the second 65th magazine party I've been to in less than a year. My old stomping ground, Salient, earned it's pension last year. Critic, down in Dunedin, is positively gereatric. I think we marked Salient's 65th it with a couple of jugs from downstairs - and may have played William Shatner's rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Different strokes for different budgets.

In other news: Thanks to the people that responded to last poll. It's good to see we have an audience, and although it ain't huge (Patrick calls it "small but perfectly formed") it is read by people I respect. This blog will continue, perhaps sporadically, with the next being a look at the student media. Since Salient's upgraded their website, you can find my previous columns below:
Welcome to the Jungle - an exploration of what differentiates student media from their professional counterparts.
Art for Who's Sake? - art criticsm for amateurs.
Big Brothers - how news stories break (or in some cases are ignored) by student media.