Max Johns - former diversion beneficiary, Christchurch

Monday, July 05, 2004

What shall we do with the drugged up sadists?

It's an interesting time to be observing political manouverings now that Don Brash has made his second of five promised speeches presenting a bold new National Party. And bold he is being - opposition parties are afforded the optional luxury of being able to heckle and insult the Government's attempts to solve problems without having to suggest any sort of alternative approach. If you buy into the theory that opposition parties don't win elections so much as governing ones lose them, then this is a fine way to pass the time in the minority - time which can only be waited out until everyone gets sick of seeing the same old Prime Minister on the news every night. There's no point taking any solid positions on issues that you haven't got the power to change, I guess, if it's the actions of those with the power that decide when you'll get your turn.

When the opposition abandons the usual directionless jeering in favour of presenting an alternative solution, they run the risk of losing the support of those with a general "bloody gummint should be doing something about this" mindset by presenting the wrong "something". Of course, they also give themselves the chance of strongly attracting people who have a similar mindset to themselves. The skill of politics is knowing, or guessing, what a lot of people think and then acting like you came up with it. The last time Brash presented a solid stance on something (and put Orewa back on the political map) it paid off in spades. The question is whether he’ll be able to do that four more times this year.

Sunday's Speech Number Two was presented to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which proves that if nothing else, Brash is expert at finding converted to preach to. The basic gist of it - less parole, more prison, more cops, criminals' DNA kept along the same lines as fingerprints, more supervision, a lower age for criminal responsibility, less tolerance of repeat offending - suggests a costly, wide-reaching alteration to the approach we take towards crime in this country. It marks a reasonable departure from the last National Government’s treatment of law-breakers, as well, so selling this policy to voters contains an element of admitting screw-ups in the past. (By the way: prepare to get sick of hearing from Labour that 2002 RSA murderer William Bell, who was on parole at the time, was actually released under National’s parole laws.)

On a tactical level, governing parties have a reasonable range of options when opposition policy is released. Until Brash Speech #1, Labour were fortunate enough to be able to simply ignore it and let it die. No point drawing attraction to something that no-one's planning to care about. After Brash Speech #1, it become clear that Labour didn't really expect to have to do anything else. This time they'll be much more ready – they know it's coming and they know it will make the news. It wouldn't take too many brain cells to work out what sort of policy a party heading further to the right with each passing month might announce to the Sensible Sentencing Trust, so they’ll have had the fax loaded with press releases responding to Brash before he'd even greeted his audience. The question is what sort of responses they'll make.

What can Labour do? Maybe they could deny that the problem is as bad as Brash claims, accuse him of scaremongering, present stats that show crime is under control, then claim that nothing needs to change. Tempting, but difficult in this case. Few people want their government to essentially set the current level of crime as somehow "acceptable". Instead, perhaps they could take the "unnecessary extravagance" line and accuse him of wanting to throw money at a solution that won't fix the problem, arguing like this editorial that Brash's proposed harsh treatment of criminals won't change anything. There are two tasty points to attack him on there - wasting public money and ignoring the true source of the problem (which, of course, you are free to declare as being poverty, or bad parenting, low self-esteem, or anything else you wish, so long as it's not 'the freely and knowingly chosen actions of criminals'). Or they could just point to successes of the current system, getting mileage out of things that have gone right as much as Brash is getting it out of things that have gone wrong. Ignoring the nuts and bolts of the new National Party policy and blowing one's own horn as loud as possible might still work.

These are not the only options, and there are quite possibly better ones out there. But surely the one thing you shouldn't do with opposition policy is agree with it. That’s what Minister of Corrections Paul Swain accidentally (I hope) did when he released this statement. Rather than attack the new National policy, he focuses on the previous National Government's record on crime and champions the improvements under Labour since then:

“National always talks tough but does nothing…National talked tough on crime but did nothing for nine years in office.

"It took a Labour-led government to introduce longer sentences, tougher bail and parole laws, victims' rights legislation, record police numbers, record police budget, and tough new DNA laws. As a result, the prison population is rising and the crime rate is falling.

"Existing laws are far better at protecting the public than National's old sentencing and parole laws. It's ironic that the offenders that Dr Brash highlighted in his speech today - William Bell and Taffy Hotene - re-offended after being released under National's inadequate laws.”

Mr Swain said National was promising to spend billions of dollars building a whole lot of new prisons.

"National needs to front up and tell people where they plan to build them

"[T]his Government has already added more than 450 police…”

Swain's right when he says that current laws are an improvement on the old laws under National. But he’s wasting time discussing this. All the Labour-led changes he champions – longer sentences, tougher bail and parole, more police, use of DNA – formed part of Brash’s newly announced approach. And use of each of them would be enhanced under Brash's policy. It's as if Swain wants to confuse his audience: with one breath he’s boasting that Labour has more people in prison than National ever did, and with the next he's against National increasing prison space. As soon as Brash announced that he wanted to get tough on crime, Swain's sent out a press release letting everybody know that getting tough on crime works. Furthermore, the exact methods that National wants to increase use of are the ones that Swain is so in favour of.

Sadly for Labour, this isn’t one MP messing up the party line. It shows how seriously Labour are taking things when Helen Clark herself fronts up to NewstalkZB (as reported in the second half of this Herald article). And she all but read Swain's press release on air, right down to the William Bell snipe:
[Since Labour took over from National] crime rates were down, the resolution of crimes was up, the Government had introduced tougher sentences and reduced parole, there was more preventive detention, less bail, more compulsory DNA testing and 450 more police…she said.

Labour had got rid of automatic parole at two-thirds of a prisoner's sentence.

"Now those were the old rules under National which let William Bell out… Under Labour's rules William Bell will serve the whole 30 years of his (sentence)."

The prison population was expected to rise from last year's 6100 to about 7400 by 2010 "so there is a tougher regime in place".
Labour has not been adept at fighting its corner since National woke up and went about re-inventing itself. Orewa caught them entirely off guard, and they don't yet seem to be used to having to argue their own case. They seem to be using the same arguments that got them voted in back in 1999, but these are flimsy now that they are faced with a different beast. This latest approach of responding to opposition policy with evidence its in favour is strange to say the least. There are still three more major speeches due from Don Brash this year. With an opposition not simply waiting for them to lose the next election, this governing party needs to work out what to do about it, or get ready to swap jobs.

Update: The day after I posted this, Labour's tune changed a bit. They are now attacking Brash on cost, but neither party seems to have a particularly convincing grip on the likely financial costs National's propositions would create. Brash claims we should expect a 50% rise in inmates, while Clark doubles this. Whether or not Brash will be particularly vocal on his wish to save money with the use of privately run prisons will be interesting - it's a part of his plan that could yet become a political hot potato. (The notes to Brash's speech, available on National's website, quite rightly state that New Zealand's "only privately managed prison, the Auckland Central Remand Prison, beats the state operated prisons on almost every measure, including cost, education and health programmes". A strange thing, then, that Labour has placed ACRP back in state hands.) Of particular note also is that neither of the major parties is showing an interest in rehabilitation, once the buzzword for anyone wanting to get traction on the issues of crime and justice. With both of them aching to prove how staunch they are, how many prisoners they can put behind bars and how little parole they approve of, it seems that Brash has created another seachange.