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Confusion over who is behind the wheel of policy driving 500 extra police recruits – National or NZ First?

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Police Minister Mark Mitchell’s office has said the responsibility for the Government’s aim to train 500 extra cops in two years sits with his associate Casey Costello. Photo / Mark Mitchell

New Zealand First MP Casey Costello is responsible for the Government’s commitment to train 500 extra police officers in two years, not Police Minister Mark Mitchell.

That’s despite Mitchell continuing to answer questions about policy in the House and through Parliament’s official written question process, while Costello appears to have remained quiet on the subject.

Labour’s police spokeswoman Ginny Andersen says Mitchell should explain why he’s been answering questions on the policy if it isn’t his responsibility.

She also claims Mitchell is “trying to pass the buck” to NZ First, after Mitchell’s comments earlier in the year that indicated the timeframe to train 500 extra officers had been extended to three years to account for recruitment challenges.

In response to questions about the policy, a spokeswoman for Mitchell’s office said Costello – who is Associate Police Minister – was responsible for it.

The language used to describe who was responsible was different than what was said in Mitchell’s letter to Costello on January 30, explaining her duties as associate minister.

Mitchell’s letter said Costello was responsible for “supporting” Mitchell in “policy development, funding and any necessary Cabinet approval” related to the policy as well as monitoring progress.

Her responsibility for the policy was described in the letter as assisting Mitchell – not that she was in charge of it.

The Herald has asked both Mitchell’s and Costello’s office to clarify who was responsible for the policy.

A spokesman for Costello said a quick response couldn’t be provided as the minister was at a private event.

Associate Police Minister Casey Costello has responsibility for the policy. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Associate Police Minister Casey Costello has responsibility for the policy. Photo / Mark Mitchell

However, he stated Costello’s responsibilities began on February 1 following Mitchell’s letter, claiming that was why she hadn’t commented publicly.

The Herald is awaiting a response from Mitchell’s office.

On February 16, Andersen sent a written question to Mitchell about the advice he’d received on the policy. In his response, Mitchell did not refer the question to Costello.

Mitchell has also answered questions in recent weeks in the House during Question Time about the 500 police policy, without referring it to Costello.

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti had used that tactic several times in the House when questioned by the Opposition on the Government’s repeal of Labour’s anti-smoking legislation.

When asked, Reti has answered by explaining Costello was responsible for smoking legislation through her role as Associate Health Minister.

Earlier this year, Mitchell got himself in a tangle trying to explain his comments indicating the timeframe in which to train 500 police officers was three years, rather than the two years agreed to in the National-NZ First coalition agreement.

It prompted an emergency meeting between National and NZ First’s chiefs of staff, alongside a conversation between Mitchell and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, which reaffirmed the original policy.

Under persistent questioning, Mitchell backtracked from any suggestion he thought the 500-officer target couldn’t be achieved in two years, by arguing his previous comments to media were a reflection of issues with recruitment.

“I was probably reflecting back the challenges that as the incoming Government we were briefed on … big challenges around recruitment.”

Mitchell admitted the target was “challenging” but thought it could be met.

Police Minister Mark Mitchell got himself into a tangle over his comments about the timeframe in which the policy would be delivered. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police Minister Mark Mitchell got himself into a tangle over his comments about the timeframe in which the policy would be delivered. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The recruitment challenges Mitchell was referring to included police’s inability to fill graduation wings, the number of officers set to retire and recruitment drives orchestrated by Australian states to attract Kiwi cops.

Andersen, who was Police Minister in the last government, suspected Mitchell was trying to back away from the commitment.

“I think he’s coming to the reality that delivering 500 new officers in the current police environment is impossible and he’s trying to pass the buck to NZ First.”

Andersen said it was “already very tough” to achieve but thought it would be impossible if the Government didn’t stump up the funding for a satisfactory pay offer. The police and Police Association are currently in negotiations but the Government’s latest offer was rejected as “insulting”.

A spokesman for Luxon’s office said the matter would be addressed by Mitchell’s office. The Herald’s question about whether National believed 500 extra officers could be trained within two years went unanswered.

Adam Pearse is a political reporter in the NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based at Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Northern Advocate in Whangārei before moving to the NZ Herald in Auckland, covering Covid-19 and crime.

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