Andrew Little’s justice reform report is just that – another report. It’s time for action

The second and final report of Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, the Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, contains nothing we didn’t know 30 years ago. Yet generations of politicians have ignored the same advice, writes Laura O’Connell Rapira.

Between the 1950s and 1990s, New Zealand experienced seismic social, economic and political shifts. Māori were displaced from their tūrangawaewae by government neglect, forced to migrate from rural areas to cities in search of freedom and work. 

The second wave of feminism meant more women and mothers were entering the workforce and our political institutions. Women’s liberation movements were forming around everything from art to religion to equal pay and income support for solo mums.

The Māori renaissance was blooming as the chorus of calls for the return of Māori land, language and culture from government to iwi, hapū and whānau grew. Dame Whina Cooper was marching, Dalvanius Prime and Ngoi Pēwhairangi were smashing musical ceilings with the banger Poi E, and Matiu Rata set up the Waitangi Tribunal. 

Queer folks were rising up for their (our) right to love who they love, and an increase in migration meant there was more religious diversity being practised in Aotearoa than ever before.

Wherever you looked, New Zealand was evolving from being a place dominated by white male heterosexual Christianity to include more women, Māori, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and queer folk in the public domain. 

During this time, people in government also made decisions that had huge ramifications for people’s ability to provide for their whānau. In 1984, Labour introduced Rogernomics, which began a long period of flattened wages, eroded benefits, high housing costs and rising food prices. National cemented this punitive economic approach introducing the Mother of All Budgets in 1991 which foolishly believed that if you cut support for people doing it the toughest they’d miraculously be well. 

Crime rates started to rise as more and more people were pushed into poverty by government failure. Distrust among our communities grew as many of our elected leaders failed to support initiatives for social cohesion, opting instead to stoke fear and division as they had a few years earlier with the racist dawn raids.

Over that same 40 year period, the state took 100,000 children into state ‘care’ (I prefer state custody because it was anything but care), the majority of whom were Māori and many of whom were abused emotionally, physically, sexually and spiritually. Professor Tracey MacIntosh traces the formation of gangs in New Zealand back to this time. 80% of the young boys in state institutions were Māori, and their removal from their whakapapa, whenua and whānau pushed many into what is described by academics as the ‘state-care to prison pipeline’. Only it’s less like a pipeline and more like a gauntlet where the folks forced to run through it by people in government are almost always Māori. 

Wherever you looked, people in government were responding to the changes in our society with exactly the wrong answer: punishment and paternalism.

In the late 1980s, experts informed by lived experience tried to sound the alarm and point our country in a different direction. Sir Clinton Roper, Moana Jackson and John Rangihau released reports calling for an end to mass incarceration, institutional racism and the use of prisons. They called for decisions to be made by Māori, for Māori. 

But these experts were ignored in favour of bad ideas from the United States. People in government adopted failed punitive approaches to reducing drug use in our society (commonly referred to as the War on Drugs which we know is actually a war on brown people) and the number of Māori locked up by the state in the cages we call prisons increased.

At the same time, working New Zealanders struggled as people in government made decisions to push jobs overseas and diminish collective worker power by eviscerating unions. Disenfranchisement among the populace grew, and a lack of bold solutions or an alternative vision put forward by politicians led to a citizens initiated referendum on justice in 1999 in which a whopping 82 percent of New Zealanders voted for punitive approaches. 

Fast forward 20 years down the track of failed justice and economic policy and there has been a lot of talk about needing to reduce our reliance on prisons and stop putting people into a justice system that creates more problems than it solves. 


Read more: Restoration, not punishment, is key to criminal justice reform for Māori


For the past 16 months, Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora Safe and Effective Justice Advisory Group, chaired by former police officer and National MP Chester Borrows, have been travelling the country to speak with thousands of New Zealanders about what changes they think need to be made in our justice system. On Thursday, a report called Turuki! Turuki! which is the result of this huge undertaking of community engagement was released. 

Like the reports of 30 years ago, it calls for an end to mass incarceration, institutional racism and a shift away from prisons. Like the reports of 30 years ago, it calls for decisions to be made by Māori, for Māori. The question is: are politicians finally ready to listen?

In 2040, it will be 200 years since Te Tiriti o Waitangi was first signed. Between then and now, New Zealand will undergo a huge shift in demographics changes where Asian, Māori and Pasifika people will make up the majority of the population, and Pākehā will become a minority for the first time since 1860. The working population will be younger people of colour supporting an older generation of Pākehā retirees’ superannuation with their taxes. The year 2040 is also when the seminal report Matike Mai calls for us to finally live the promise of Te Tiriti o Waitangi with constitutional transformation. That is the Crown finally sharing power and resources equitably with Māori as was always meant to be the case in Aotearoa. 

In te ao Māori, there is a well-known whakataukī, ‘Ka mua, ka muri’ which means walking backwards into the future – the idea that we should look to where we’ve been to inform where we are going. As was the case a generation ago, New Zealand is about to undergo huge changes over the next 20 years and we have the power to decide how we respond to those changes. Will we heed the calls of experts including those with lived experience and move away from justice and economic systems based on punishment to ones based on wellbeing and compassion? Will we choose manaakitanga over the fear and division that some people in politics will stir up in order to gain and maintain power? 

As was the case three decades ago, we know that children and young people from communities with a lack of resources or who have been in state custody are more likely to be swept into our prisons as adults. We know that successive governments have prioritised policies that help the already well-off (think: property speculators) over struggling whānau and as a result, too many people are under-resourced, overstressed and unable to thrive. We also know that there are genuine alternatives to these outdated models of justice and economics that belong in the past. 

As a community, we need to support all communities who are doing it tough and stop using prisons to punish people who have been denied the opportunities and resources they need to thrive. We need to support policies and parties that are committed to ensuring everyone in Aotearoa has a warm dry home, a liveable income, access to education at all stages of life and great services to help people to be mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually well. 

Report after report have been telling us what needs to happen for the past 30 years, now is the time for action. 


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