What do the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission, and the Official Information Act all have in common? Two things in essence – first, each of them is a progressive measure designed to protect the rights of individual citizens from intrusion of one sort or another by the institutions of the state, and second, each was the product of a National Government.
All of those institutions, while not perfect, have been hailed in international fora as positive and forward-thinking developments, and variations of them have been adopted by a number of countries, based on the New Zealand model and its experiences. Add to that the progress made during the term of the last National-led administration on Treaty of Waitangi settlements, and the National Party can boast a pretty satisfactory record as a humane and compassionate, if somewhat cautious, judicial reformer.
So, against that backdrop the National Party’s recently released discussion paper on law and order is not only a disappointment, but a complete reversion from its historic legacy. It is certainly a long way from the thinking of Hanan, McLay and even Finlayson in previous National administrations. Indeed, even if it were to be ever implanted, it would be a pretty safe bet now that the flagship “Strike Force Raptor” (has there ever been a more ghastly title?) to deal with gangs will never come to be regarded at all highly in the pantheon of New Zealand social reforms.
Already, the critics are saying that this proposed policy is a case of the National Party reverting to type, eschewing good policy in favour of populism. Even its own former Courts Minister, now heading the present government’s Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, which is tasked with helping reform New Zealand's criminal justice system, has spoken out against the idea. However, National’s leader has defended the proposal, making the correct observation that just because a policy is populist, it is not automatically bad. Indeed, a more accurate assessment of its efficacy is whether it actually works.
Strike Force Raptor is an Australian model initiated in New South Wales in 2009. Its own publicity describes it as “a proactive, high-impact operation targeting OMCGs (Outlaw Motor Cycle Gang) and any associated criminal enterprises.” Over the last ten years questions have arisen about how effective it has been. While it appears to have been effective at harassing the gangs and generally making life difficult for them, overall gang numbers have not fallen across Australia, and questions have arisen about the tactics Strike Force Raptor has used, and whether the outcomes to date have been worthwhile.
Whether the policy has worked in Australia is not an immediate concern for National – they are, after all in Opposition, and will have no chance to implement their plans until they next become the government. In the meantime, they can keep pointing to this idea just being one of many included in their law and order discussion document, which they are seeking public feedback on. Firm policy decisions will come later. At face value, this is all true, although it would be a mighty surprise if the Strike Force Raptor policy, albeit with perhaps some modifications, does not emerge as a key part of the law and order policy when it is finalised. Moreover, the Leader of the Opposition has been happy to be so personally identified with the idea that it would be a major backdown if it were not to proceed.
Coming on top of the benefit sanction policy that was floated recently – that the Leader of the Opposition was also happy to be closely linked to – a clear picture of the flavour National will take into the next election is beginning to emerge. Under the current leadership, National will be presenting itself as harsher and more socially repressive than the compassionate conservatism of Bill English or the flexible pragmatism of John Key. While that may play well for it in the provinces, it is questionable whether it will be as beneficial in places like central Auckland and Wellington, where National needs to hold and win marginal seats, to have a shot at being the lead party of government next year.
Of late, National has been promoting, with some justification, the notion that it is the party of talent – based on some of its impressive new candidate selections. With the series of policy discussion papers it has been releasing over recent months it would also like to be cast as the party of vision and hope. Instead, however, some of the ideas presented have too much of an air of grimness about them to be inspiring. Exciting new talent is all very well, but to be effective, it also needs to be matched by bold new thinking.
National would do well to remember that a huge amount of the current Prime Minister’s appeal in the extraordinary, whirlwind lead-up to the last election was what she herself described as her “relentless positivity”. No problem was considered to be insurmountable, or beyond her capability. So long as there was the right attitude and confidence to tackle them, there was no limit to what could be achieved. The fact that the Prime Minister has been subsequently so woefully inept in implementing any of those dreams is not the point here. Rather, the fact National should be focusing on is that people responded enthusiastically to policies they saw then as positive and achievable.
Strike Force Raptor and benefit sanctions do not have the same inspirational ring around them. They will never generate the excitement the Prime Minister did in those few weeks in 2017. There is no doubt the unattainable dreamworld policies of the current government are leaving a huge vacuum for credible and workable policies. People are looking for realistic alternatives, but a reversion to the grim and punitive world National now seems to be focusing on does not fit with the tone of contemporary New Zealand.
There was the opportunity for National to draw on its past, listen to the voices of those around them now, and promote a law and order and justice policy that was humane and compassionate, evidence based and workable. Instead, the shades of Hanan, McLay and maybe Finlayson will be in despair today.