Soon after announcing his policy for bootcamps and electronic bracelets for youth, National received the desired condemnation from liberals and the left.
Labour ministers weren’t as hard-line, but also expressed their deep opposition to the policy of targeting youth repeat offender with what Luxon called “tough love”. His policy would create a new category of repeat youth offenders (aged 10-17), placing them under intensive supervision, with some electronically monitored, and those aged 15-17 sent to military academies for a year.
Other commentators joined the condemnation – including Amnesty International and the Children’s Commissioner. On social media, some on the left labelled the policy as “fascist”.
In contrast, coming after much media publicity for a “youth crimewave”, especially in Auckland, the public are primed to receive a policy that is perceived to take the problem seriously.
Cynical move from National
National’s policy is designed for electoral calculation. Even if it is implemented, only a minuscule number of young offenders would qualify, and the military would have very little capacity to run this type of programme.
It is questionable whether National politicians even believe in their own policy. For example, Luxon himself had previously said he opposed using electronic ankle bracelets on children. Yesterday, he relented, saying “if that has to be the case, so be it”.
Similarly, MP Erica Stanford went on the record last month opposing Act’s ankle bracelet policy: “We’re going to whack an ankle bracelet on them? I mean, it just breaks my heart that we’re even talking about this.”
Criminologists have told National that such policies don’t work and bootcamps are particularly questionable. Today, University of Canterbury sociologist Jarrod Gilbert is reported as saying “The data is unequivocal – they have very little, or no impact” and that “In some instances, they make problems worse.” He is reported as preferring National’s more preventative “Social investment” approach to ward off the development of young criminals.
Labour and National are turning up the volume on law and order
Crime is becoming a key debate between Labour and National, and this is likely to ramp up as the election draws closer. In a sense, National is merely responding to Labour’s own attempts to up the ante on law and order this year.
Earlier in the year, the Government clearly started to panic on law and order issues, in response to polling. For example, an Ipsos survey showed law and order was ranked as the fifth-most important issue facing New Zealand, after many years of lower concern. And according to this, the public currently views National as the party most capable of managing the crime/law issue.
The Prime Minister then sacked Poto Williams as Police Minister after she developed a reputation for being soft on crime. Ardern put in the more conservative Chris Hipkins, who immediately started talking tough, and quickly announced more funding for police. Kris Faafoi was also shifted out of Justice, and new minister Kiri Allan announced a crackdown on gangs.
Labour also started spending big in this area, committing over half a billion dollars of extra funding for policing, crime, and prisons in the Budget. This meant that, for a while, Labour could claim to be more hard-line than National. Certainly, in terms of funding police numbers, Labour has become much more pro-police than National.
The need for a more sophisticated debate on law and order
In launching the new law and order policy during the Hamilton West by-election campaign Christopher Luxon made no attempt to disguise that this latest policy is about winning votes.
But the policy only has the chance of being electorally successful because there is actually growing concern about anti-social behaviour developing in New Zealand society, especially coming out of the last two years of Covid. Worsening inequality and poverty is clearly having a significant impact. Under-investment by successive governments in deprived communities has resulted in a propensity toward crime.
And the massive transfer of wealth to the rich under the current government, along with its failure to protect the poor, means we might expect crime and other social problems to continue to get worse. In particular, the Government needs to deliver solutions for the cost of living crisis, especially for those at the bottom of society.
Marama Davidson is absolutely right when she says that a preventative approach that deals with the root causes of crime is necessary – “young people and families need the basics, need housing, health, support, income and also community healing responses”. But the problem for her party and Labour is that they are not actually delivering this.
What’s more, the Labour Government, supported by the Greens, has its own increasingly tough-on-crime approach. National are quite right to point out that the Government already puts youth as young as 12 years old in ankle bracelets.
In lieu of the Government making any real progress on the causes of crime, they will rightly face an opposition that politicises the issue. The problem is that, in reaction, Labour is likely to counter National with its own cynical attempts to prove it’s not soft on crime. A sad escalation of “Laura Norder” politics is therefore on the cards for 2023.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE