The Labour Government is answering the demands for action on law and order, says Bryce Edwards. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
The Labour Government has managed to get one major issue right this week, at least in an electoral sense. The Government has been under pressure to deal with escalating public concerns about crime and gang activity.
On Wednesday the newly appointed law and order duo of Chris Hipkins and Kiri Allan announced new measures to crack down on gangs. The package was perfectly pitched as a “sensible” middle-of-the-road approach between the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right.
The measures included additional search and seizure powers for police, increased penalties for gun crime (especially drive-by shootings), and the banning of “significant” cash payments for luxury items such as boats, watches and cars.
Electorally, this announcement will probably work well for Labour, neutralising a challenging issue for the Government. And it’s important to grasp how much difficulty the Labour Government has found itself in with the current law and order concerns. They have needed to respond in a way that doesn’t alienate either side of the liberal-conservative spectrum too much, but also finds some buy-in from both camps.
Answering the demands for action on law and order
For most of this year, the Government has been strangely inactive on law and order issues. But doing nothing was no longer an option. Opposition politicians and media figures had pushed the issue of gang criminality to the top of the public agenda, and Labour looked very weak. So feeble, in fact, that Ardern was forced to sack the Police Minister and bring in a more effective Justice Minister.
This weakness wasn’t just a result of tub-thumping from National and Act politicians, but also due to a very real increase in gang activity and some increases in crime, especially in parts of Auckland. Gang membership numbers have apparently increased by 2000 since 2017, to 7722 members according to officials – especially because of deportations of gang members from Australia.
But there are also other factors. Crime has generally been on the increase in many countries around the world, especially after countries have come out of Covid lockdowns and are facing all sorts of social dislocation. One expert, police negotiator Lance Burdett, is reported as saying there’s been “a 30 to 35 per cent escalation in violence globally”.
It was therefore untenable for Labour not to respond to the heightened concerns about crime. And not just to do so to satisfy law and order populists on the right, but also to satisfy those living in working-class communities suffering the impacts of crime. Labour could not neglect the concerns of a voter base so crucial to their re-election next year.
After all, a recent opinion survey by Ipsos showed the public now views National as the party most capable of managing the crime/law issue. This poll also showed law and order was ranked as the fifth-most important issue facing New Zealand, after many years of lower concern.
Satisfying liberal views on law and order
Liberals, especially on the political left, are much less enamoured by politicians taking a tough approach on law and order, and especially towards gangs. There’s a view that hard-line policing and judicial orientations to crime is just populist opportunism. The argument is also made that tough policies often don’t actually work in reducing crime.
In contrast, liberal voices want governments to acknowledge that tackling gangs requires a sophisticated approach. In particular, it means taking a preventative approach to crime, with the argument that the sources of crime are usually based in social dysfunction which therefore needs addressing. Governments need to reduce economic inequality and poverty, and make sure the various needs of citizens such as housing, healthcare and education are sufficiently met.
Many from within and around gangs also make some similar arguments. This week, Denis O’Reilly of Black Power argued that gangs “are symptoms of much deeper problems, many of which stem from our history as a country” and that they “arise from colonialism, neoliberalism, and socioeconomic inequality”. He therefore argues in favour of “depoliticising” the issue and having more “kōrero” on the issues.
Similarly, the Mongrel Mob’s Harry Tam came out this week to say that the answer to the gang problem was for the Government to give more support to gang mediation efforts.
Tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime
The Labour Government therefore has faced a quandary over the need to show that they are taking gangs seriously without entirely abandoning their liberal credentials. If the Government had merely adopted National’s policy prescriptions on gangs, it would have led to severe criticisms from liberals and party activists.
Facing a similar problem in the 1990s, British Labour Party leader Tony Blair simply adopted the campaigning slogan that his party would be “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Once elected, it turned out that the focus was more on the former part of the equation. But the gimmick largely worked – it sent a message that law and order liberals and conservatives could both embrace.
This week, the law and order ministerial duo effectively did the same thing. Their announcement on Wednesday started with an emphasis on the crackdown, and then followed up with details aimed at a liberal constituency to indicate the Government hadn’t turned populist and reactionary.
Police Minister Chris Hipkins stated firmly that “We want to hit gangs where it hurts”. And Justice Minister Kiri Allan followed this line, pledging they would be “Hitting them where it hurts. We’re going after guns, vehicles and cash.”
Then with the soundbites out of the way, Hipkins argued that the growth of gangs was “complex” and the Government was determined to get “underneath it”. He said: “We need to engage young people in constructive activities. If we give young people something useful to do, it can keep them out of trouble.”
Allan also added that although they were empowering the police to take on the gangs, “we also are acutely aware that the best tool we have is prevention” and promised a focus on early intervention, rehabilitation and reintegration as “the most effective route to sustained and long-term prevention”.
According to one news report, “Allan said people did not become gang members overnight and it was due to a range of socio-economic factors, family ties and a desire for a place of belonging.” She promised she would make future announcements in the youth justice sector.
Sociologist and gangs researcher Jarrod Gilbert gave credit to this focus by the Government: “Both the ministers of justice and police who launched these proposed new laws talked about the need to see the gangs in a broader context and seek preventative approaches.”
Gilbert has praised the ministers for not going too hard-line, saying on Breakfast TV that Hipkins and Allan “have actually managed to stay fairly true to themselves in the sense that they haven’t responded with deeply political measures … rather than effective policy or legislation.” He also credited them with showing a “willingness to look at the drivers of gang membership”.
Criticism from National and the Greens
Labour have mostly been receiving good press from their announcement. But there’s also been condemnation from political rivals.
From a liberal perspective, the Greens’ justice spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman has condemned the new measures: “It’s a knee-jerk reaction not based on evidence. They will not address the underlying causes of offending”.
She says the empowering of police will lead to racist outcomes: “Māori and Pasifika, who are already inappropriately targeted by police, will be harassed and will have police coming into their homes.”
From a conservative perspective, the National Party has welcomed the tougher elements of the package, but overall said the Government hasn’t gone far enough. Leader Christopher Luxon has claimed “Nothing in this proposal will be scaring gangs at all.”
None of these criticisms will bother Labour much. Quite the opposite, perhaps – if anything, the criticisms from the left and right will help to bolster Labour’s preferred narrative that they have taken a sensible middle path, avoiding the extremes. Therefore, this might finally be a case where Labour’s centrist strategy is actually working this year. They might not be able to entirely win the debate over law and order, but they have effectively neutralised what was becoming their biggest electoral vulnerability.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.