Bill English, maybe thinking about lying? (image: Adrian Malloch)

Mask off: National decides gang members have ‘fewer human rights’

National’s new policy giving police powers to search gang members’ houses at any time to check for weapons shows them returning to their base with a vengeance, writes Duncan Greive.

For weeks now we have watched National struggle to know how to respond to the “Jacinda Effect”. It has floated dismissing a lack of substance while mostly insisting on a respectful posture implicitly emphasising their similarities – so why put it all at risk? Today it seems to have arrived at a strategy which almost by definition has to be its final resting place for the remainder of the campaign: reversion to its natural position.

Final because once you start insisting that certain members of your population have “fewer human rights” than others, as Paula Bennett has done today, there’s really no going back. When you admit that something as fundamental to our understanding of us as a species, let alone a nation, can be “stretched”, your mask’s off. You have to live and die by that identity. When you start saying, as Bill English did, that it’s “good” we lack a written constitution enshrining such rights “because it enables us to deal with such issues in a practical way” – well, then you’re a long way from social investment, that’s for damn sure.

If you can – and this is clearly impossible – detach yourself from its horror, the policy is fascinating as a perfect view into the debates which roil inside the National Party. It perfectly encapsulates the two impulses it has contained, in announcing 1500 new drug treatment places (seems good, seems like the modern, friendly, Bill English wing) while also promising to just wander into the homes of gang members, without a warrant, just because.

Its launch at a West Auckland drug treatment facility captures the squirming dichotomy perfectly. It is meant to scream “we care” to the mainstream on the 6pm news, while the “fewer human rights” grab will play on ZB tomorrow, a bone for the tough-on-crime crowd to gnaw on.

What we’re really seeing is the party under sustained pressure for the first time in nine years. During that time, through disasters like Pike River and three major earthquakes, John Key was able to project calm and confidence, assure us that things were going to be fine and were getting better all the time. Certain economic numbers backed him up, though the most powerful bolstering of the narrative came not from what was happening here than what we saw abroad: sovereign debt defaults, mass unemployment, racist populists rising and elected, decades-old unions dissolved.

Across the aisle Labour mostly just complained. A succession of leaders pointed to things going wrong, not without reason, but without much in the way of compelling alternative. It allowed Key’s National to spread across the political spectrum, doing lite versions of almost everyone’s policy and presenting as the natural and inevitable party of government.

Then came Metiria Turei’s bomb which begat Andrew Little’s resignation and Jacinda Ardern’s elevation and suddenly here we are. Her “relentlessly positive” dwells not for long on the considerable amount going wrong, but on what can be done better – what we can aspire to next. National, quite unaccustomed to this buoyant and beaming opposition, suddenly edging ahead in polls, has been feverishly asking what it might do to stop this momentum.

And it has done what it (mostly) avoided doing for much of the last three terms, and turned back into its old self. It has always been there, of course – Judith Collins and her predilection for crushing spring to mind. But it was just quiet, quelled by the power of success. No longer. Between this and boot camps we now know the direction of travel. Privately Bill English must be aching that his party of social investment, of taking a long term view to fix society’s problems, is now standing naked holding this devastatingly awful piece of policy.

When I interviewed him in March English remained adamant that he was a social conservative, yet much of what he said betrayed him. The more instructive phrase seemed to be that of an “incremental radical”, committed to inching his party toward things it would never have countenanced in previous iterations. While there are many who have always doubted his motives and wondered what really drove the push for ‘social investment’, I still believe that he was deeply and passionately committed to it – and that it came from wanting to see some of our most deep-rooted societal ills ended.

I also believe there were many in his party who thought it an indulgence, far from the core purpose of the National party when in government. Yet he was leader and they were not, and while the party was winning and their list and electorate seats remained safe as houses, their ideological dissent was stifled.

Mike Hosking’s first question to English at Thursday’s debate was “why are you losing?” Clearly it’s one which has been vexing the National party too. Some of them, probably those now in danger of leaving parliament, have decided that it’s because they’re perceived as soft. That this friendly face they’ve worn for years now needs to twist into a scowl.

Hence this policy, one which seems ripped from the 70s headlines, asserting that certain types of New Zealanders are fundamentally less human than others. It’s the National party of old’s coffin lid creaking open, a zombie back out to fight an election in 2017. We’ll find out what Bill English really thinks about it when he records his episode of the 9th Floor. Unless this somewhat grotesque new strategy gains traction, that moment won’t be far off.


Read Duncan Greive’s interview with Bill English here

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