Penal Populism in New Zealand: Meandering further down the fairness spiral

This is one of a series of post election pieces i’m writing over the next fortnight, today I look at one of the more absurd reforms suggested for our criminal justice sector which also appeared on the Sociology New Zealand website.


In our most recent election campaign the National Party co-opted a longstanding New Zealand First policy of suggesting we dispatch troubled young men off to military style boot camps, which would have been a somewhat useful proposition if it had worked in the past.

The policy announcement was pilloried by those with experience in youth criminal justice. Criminologists have pointed out that boot camps are the antithesis of evidence-based policy and simply don’t produce outcomes consistent with reducing anti-social behaviour.

Perhaps the most absurd thing about the proposed resurrection of boot camps was that it was floated barely a fortnight after the Labour Party acknowledged issues at a previous camp that operated under their own watch, a camp that is said to have seen horrific levels of abuse of vulnerable young men.

Boot camps are yet another troubling lurch back to authoritarian forms of justice, particularly when disparities in application of the law in the New Zealand’s courts are now so frequent, and so pronounced, that they make a mockery of the basic foundations of what justice is supposed to represent – fairness for all.

Let us not mince words; boot camps serve a very narrow function in this country, taking mostly young brown men off the street and bullying them into making peace with an establishment they often have grown up at odds with. An establishment that wants to trounce the inappropriate behaviour of some and then conveniently explain it away for others.

But that’s just sentencing, the fairness crisis in our justice system is much broader than that, it cuts across the attitudes and behaviours of police and can also adversely affect persons on the basis of class and gender. Nothing exemplifies this fairness crises more than how justice has become a commodity, in some cases strictly available to those who can afford it. Think back to March, 2015 when parents of two teenage children attended the prestigious St Bede’s College acquired an interim injunction in the country’s High Court. The matter? Their children, on their way to a national tournament, had been thrown off the school’s rowing team for riding on the luggage carousel and into a restricted area of Auckland Airport. The parent’s lawyer, a Queen’s Counsel no less, argued that the decision of the school had been hurried and disproportionate. It was therefore inferred that the school’s decision may unfairly penalise the students in a manner that would alter the trajectory of their lives.

Justice Dunningham was swayed by this argument and agreed that there was at least enough doubt about the proportionality of the school’s decision and an injunction was granted on the basis that by not doing so the boys would miss out on participating, a series of events that would therefore be ‘irreversible’ if it was found the school had overreached their authority.

The parent’s behaviour in seeking an injunction divided the country, with most armchair commentators arguing that the kids ‘needed a good boot up the ass’, of course conveniently ignoring that had it been their own children, ones they had seen arise from bed each morning at 5am and diligently train for 6 months, they too might have plead that their sons be given some leniency.

In any event, the kerfuffle of whether the school was justified in standing down the boys, or the judge’s decision in setting aside that suspension there was an even more important narrative obscured from the public discourse; most families simply cannot afford the services of a QC let alone urgent High Court proceedings. And so it begs the question, what would have happened if it had been two young men from the predominantly Māori roll of Huntly College, riding airside on the luggage carousel in transit to the Rugby League Nationals? Could we be confident they would only be given a simple warning by Police? Maybe, but not with any certainty.

It is just as likely they would have obtained a diversion, which would have required both students to present before the court. Would their parents have had the means to seek an urgent injunction in the High Court? Based on the 1B school decile, probably not. And, how many more opportunities do you think would present for those senior students, outside of that tournament? Ditto. Not alot, one can assume. And what about after the tournament, as the two students muddle their way through their final two years of adolescence?

What if one was found driving an unregistered car with a bag of marijuana in one of those ‘random’ stops conducted by Police who seem to always favour plying their trade on the main thoroughfare of Huntly (instead of the similarly sized but relatively more affluent towns of Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Morrinsville)?

Well, he’s already had a warning – isn’t it time he was shipped off to boot camp?


TL;DR:  Boot camps don’t work, their function is to signal certain virtues that have nothing to do with fixing the underlying issues.

Green & Grazed: 18 Consecutive years outside of Government

This is one of a series of post election pieces i’m writing over the next fortnight, today I look at the Green Party and its near Chernobyl like post-Turei meltdown.*

Enough has already been written about the Metiria Turei debacle that I see no merit canvassing that matter further. It is however worthwhile noting that Turei’s own admission gave the party an initial surge in popularity, and with it a momentary vision of securing a record 18 MPs.

It could also be said that such a spike in popularity inadvertently precipitated Jacinda Ardern’s takeover of Labour and its subsequent cannibalisation of the Green Party vote.

Much of that saga is now history.

But since the beginning of August there were 3 other noticeable areas (outside of policy prescriptions) where the party simply lacked the nimble strategic positioning to capture what should have been closer to 10% of the vote.

1. They needed another co-leader.

James Shaw was just a bit too square to do it all on his own.

Shaw is the polite and easily consumable modern Green leader, marketing his party toward a well heeled and better educated strand of the electorate. His one chance to express a broader vision for the Green party was in the minor leaders’ debate, a stage where he was entirely outgunned by a more battle-ready Marama Fox & David Seymour.

That’s not to say either the party’s former co-leader or, potential new co-leader are any different or, that Shaw himself presents as an upper class snob. But when you lack an ‘attack dog’ of say a Steven Joyce or Trevor Mallard variety, the sorts of pit bulls that soak up media attention, you need a few different looking faces fronting the camera, appealing to as many of your potential supporters as possible.

The Greens lost some of their Maori voters and some of their female voters – having a white dude solely running a party championing diversity probably didn’t help the optics all that much.

It’s a situation that could have been avoided on both counts had the party quickly slotted a competent and respected operator such as Marama Davidson into the position of co-leader, at least until after the election had taken place and a more democratic process could have been pursued.

I know what the party hacks will say ‘but our constitution doesn’t allow for that’. Well if that’s the case then your constitution needs an amendment.

2. Golriz Ghahraman should have been 6 on the party list.

Ghahraman will probably get home on special votes but she should have been handed a guaranteed position in the next parliament anyway.

That is, at least ahead of Chloe Swarbrick and Gareth Hughes. Swarbrick will no doubt bring an exciting brand of energy-infused politics to parliament but she has nothing on the experience of a not-much-older Ghahraman, who has both ‘Oxford’ and ‘United Nations’ on the resume.

The fairest assessment of Hughes I can conjure up is ‘Most improved player’, and at least, after 3 terms he can now capably address the media without the assistance from a PR minder.

But if you’ve been in parliament representing your party for 3 terms exclusively from the party list, then it’s probably fair to the party and its members that you opt to stand again outside the 5% threshold and prove you’ve actually added something in your time in parliament, something that makes voters want to ensure your return.

Not only would the marketing of Ghahraman bolstered the intellectual wing of the party, making it even more appealing to urban liberals, it could have also attracted some nervous 1st and 2nd generation kiwi voters who feel the major parties are too often pandering to the likes of Winston Peters and his dog whistling bullshit.

As an extension to this, Ghahraman encapsulates everything the party idealizes when they talk about increasing New Zealand’s refugee intake.

Having already been tested in her previous roles, it makes her a more likely candidate to lead the party in years to come.

3. How a TOP top-up could have played out, but didn’t.

It is of course something the party machine will brush off in light of aforementioned constitutional constraints, but it is again these participatory entanglements that ensured the Greens’ lost an important opportunity when both Clendon and Kennedy resigned.

It was August 7th and barely a week since Ardern had taken over the Labour party, the Greens were in strife as two of their sitting MPs had walked and probably taken with them some of that blue-green vote that is often talked of but equally difficult to quantify.

Running parallel to the Green meltdown was an apprehensive Gareth Morgan who could already see his fledgling party’s’ writing on the wall. TOP were simply not going to make the 5% threshold in the shadows of a newly refurbished Labour party and so in desperation Morgan made Ardern a rather brash offer: To ‘fold the tent’ and disband TOP provided her party adopted their policies.

Well, that was never going to happen.

Jacinda didn’t want to go to the ball with Gareth anyway, she was waiting for James to sort his shit out. But despite already having a date with Jacinda, James couldn’t help but notice how much he had in common with Gareth. So it was up to James to balance romance with bromance.

Upon the departure of Clendon and Kennedy, a more bold Green Party could have made an alliance with TOP offering them the respective places of each departing MP; Kennedy’s 8th place (to TOP’s Geoff Simmons) & Clendon’s 16th place (to TOP’s Teresa Moore).

In the end though, Shaw turned up at the school ball all on his own, Jacinda got there a little late and deflated while Morgan stayed home playing video games.

The cold reality for Green party faithful is that they have never actually been in Government even when they were called something else.

TL:DR Political campaigns require political parties with broad appeal and the ability to be nimble, the Greens were neither and were almost wiped out because of it. 

* Yes, I am aware it’s not ‘technically over’ but after listening to Peters last night it’ll be the Greens mostly on the outer (again) even if any deal is struck between NZ First & Labour.