Next year former National MP Chester Borrows will be voting “yes” on the referendum to legalise personal cannabis. He spoke to Teuila Fuatai about his ideological journey.
Chester Borrows tells a good yarn. Tales from his cop days and salt-of-the-earth banter are part of his appeal. He even uses phrases like “just nuts”, “bonkers” and “stupid stuff” to describe the most dysfunctional parts of our criminal justice system.
When I sit down with him, he has just finished a discussion panel at this year’s Drug Foundation parliamentary symposium in Wellington. The former National MP was invited to speak after chairing the government’s year-long criminal justice advisory committee.
During that discussion, asha bandele – US criminal justice reform activist and renowned author – talked about white supremacy. She explained how it played out in daily life, and in systems like the criminal justice one.
“I would suggest that there is one gateway drug and it’s white supremacy,” bandele said. “What white supremacy does is, first of all, it invents race. And then it decides who in that race has a right to go forward and live at a certain level.”
“So, if there is a gateway drug to problematic, to chaotic drug use, or drug use that undoes a family, or undoes a life, I would call it white supremacy and the kinds of ways that embeds itself.”
She deemed Borrows – a tad confrontationally – her on-stage “conservative” opposite. Borrows, who lives in Taranaki, was a National MP for 12 years. While he has a kinder view of government than bandele, he was also unequivocal that the disproportionate levels of harm Māori and poor people experience under the criminal justice system is racist and discriminatory. I asked him about his conservativism. What did he think about the role of race in New Zealand’s war on drugs? Was it something his advisory group considered?
“I think she believes that a lot of changes around drugs laws and things like the war on crime and the war on drugs, were actually used as a white supremacist tool to deal to black people,” he said.
“I do not think it is the same conversation in New Zealand. I don’t think you could say that a lot of our government policy now is constructed to deal to Māori – but nevertheless, that’s the effect. There is definitely racism there and it pervades across society. And, the institutional racism of government departments works against them…and should always be called out for what it is.”
The final report from his advisory committee included recommendations for addressing these systemic problems. Currently under consideration by Justice Minister Andrew Little, the report builds on previous research into the criminal justice system and calls for an investment in specific populations that we know will encounter the justice system unless there’s an intervention.
It is now possible to identify children who are more likely to run into problems during their formative years and eventually end up in prison. Identifying characteristics include being born to a single mother with no high school qualification and having no positive adult role models. Borrows wants the system to start intervening before it’s too late.
“We actually know the names and addresses and dates of birth of those children. So why wouldn’t you throw $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 around those people now, have someone walk alongside that family, to prevent spending $108,000 a year later [the annual cost of imprisonment]?”
He shook his head when he described what happened when the justice advisory committee attempted to address the problem at the central-government level. Logically, coordination between relevant government agencies should occur, he said. The departments in charge of health, education and welfare interact with people long before they hit the criminal justice system. But that’s not how it worked.
“We had real difficulty in getting the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health around the table to talk to us. Eventually, we went to the minister [Little] who tapped the minister of health on the shoulder. Eventually, we got an audience with the deputy secretary of health…but the person whose speciality was mental health didn’t come – they wouldn’t talk to us.
“We’ve got about 90 per cent of people in prison with a diagnosable mental health illness and/or dependency on drugs and alcohol, which is also rated as a mental health illness, and you can’t get those people around the table. That is an example of how badly siloed our government agencies are,” he said.
Borrows knows that a more humane criminal justice system represents a risk for politicians, where a ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric is what voters support no matter how flawed it has proved. There is plenty of evidence over the years showing the system does not work, yet, successive governments of all colours had failed to respond, and that could happen again, Borrows warned.
Borrows – and wider drug reformists – aren’t invested in changing the minds of those who are inherently opposed to drug law reform. Rather, Borrows believes there’s a bunch of voters who are open to, not opposed to it, but will not vote to change the status quo unless it is made very clear they need to. He refers to them as the “middle of politics” voters. Those who aren’t against change, but also aren’t invested enough to be campaigning actively for change. He used the evolution of his own beliefs as an example.
“When I was young, I thought all old people saw things in black and white. As I’ve grown older, I see things in shades of grey,” Borrows said.
“If you’re prepared to have your ideas challenged, then you’re prepared to change your mind. And I find I’ve done that. You see in that [symposium] room, the biggest surprise people had was that I was a National MP. Because National MPs are conservative, punitive, anti-drug reform and those sorts of things.
“But I think to myself, now if I’ve become pro-legalisation of cannabis, then it shows people can change.”
I asked Borrows about his old mates in the National party, and whether he really was a conservative. He smiled and tilted his head from side to side.
“I’m conservative on some things: I’m conservative on euthanasia, I’m conservative around abortion. I’m liberal on other things and the rest of it is a state of flux. And I’m probably financially liberal as well.”
And on the topic of the National caucus, Borrows said it had been a disappointing few years, particularly for “law and order”. He did not single out anyone.
“We did a lot of good things in government. But as soon as we got into opposition, our guys have gone straight back to rhetoric. The level of understanding a number of those people have got around law and order – they’re not showing that understanding and I find that quite disappointing.”