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An endless source of political rhetoric (Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)
An endless source of political rhetoric (Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)

The BulletinJune 13, 2022

History repeats on crime rhetoric

An endless source of political rhetoric (Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)
An endless source of political rhetoric (Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King)

The National party has released its plan to deal with gangs. It’s been criticised as impossible to police and echoes a long history of tough on crime rhetoric from politicians, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell for The Bulletin


It’s 1990 and John Banks is in a trenchcoat

In 1972, both National and Labour ran newspaper ads in the run-up to the election that promised to get tough on crime. Labour’s manifesto categorised criminals as “hooligans” and motorcycle owners. National’s promised more police. In 1987, then justice minister Geoffrey Palmer told voters that they had put more police on the street. In 1990, National put John Banks in a trenchcoat to say that they would put more police on the streets. In 2014, John Key said that targeting gangs is about reducing crime, not scoring political points, weeks out from the general election. In 2017, an election year, Labour’s then police spokesman Stuart Nash called on the National government to take the “real action required to smash gangs once and for all”.

National wants gang insignia banned from cyberspace 

If you want an early preview of a strand of next year’s election campaign, you could start with the chapter on crime in Claire Robinson’s book about the history of political campaigning in New Zealand. Campaigning has arguably kicked off early with National announcing its gang policy on Saturday at the Northern regional conference. It proposes a range of measures including banning gang insignia in public and on social media, with fines for both. Former National MP Chester Borrows said it would be mostly ineffectual in practice. Internet NZ’s Andrew Cushen said the approach to social media is nearly impossible to police.

A battle between our rational and limbic brains 

I live in an area where a gang shooting recently occurred. You can see the temptation of the political play laid bare in our local community Facebook groups where people are blaming the police minister. No matter your opinion on Poto Williams’ performance, I thought John MacDonald had a pretty measured response to that. But you can also see the challenge for a government inclined to see gangs as the product of complex social issues that will be solved in some distant future. They can’t keep offering that up as an answer to people who are scared and intimidated in the present day. Armed police blocked off our street the other night. For all my rational thinking and reading, I found myself thinking “Why won’t they do something about the gangs?” The power of the tough on crime rhetoric exists in the battleground between our rational and limbic brains.

Depressing familiarity and no real solutions 

I spent a delightful 24 hours in Featherston at Booktown over the weekend. At the poet’s session, Glenn Colquhoun read a poem where he’d picked up the “National Mum and Labour Dad” line from Jame K Baxter’s Ballad of Calvary Street to express a frustration at political posturing and its antithetical relationship to what people actually need. This exasperation is mirrored in a column from Stuff’s Andrea Vance yesterday headlined “Beware the politicians who promise to solve crime”. Vance writes: “When you cover politics, some subjects come around with depressing familiarity, like dishwater circling a drain.”

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