Thursday, July 15, 2004

Prison Style

There has been a lot of bruhaha recently over Dr Don’s speech to the Sensible Sentencing Trust. After the reversal of the National Party’s fortunes brought about by the now infamous Orewa race-relations speech there was a more than a wee bit of expectation riding on this, the second effort in the Brash big five.

So how did it go down? What did he say? Why do we care?
Firstly – not as well as they’d hoped
Secondly – lock them up then lock them up some more
Third answer – because if we’re not careful he is very likely to be the next PM.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am in fact a fan of Dr Brash. I love the idea of a libertarian in charge of the only big conservative party. It is great news.

Dr Don is all for letting people be. He has a good track record too - he voted for the Civil Unions Bill, he voted for Prostitution Reform, he was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; he is genuinely tolerant of other creeds, races and sexualities, and, lest we forget, he has a wife from Singapore.

With the exception of his wife’s origin, which doesn’t really prove anything, this is all the best news you could hope to hear. It could easily be worse – you only have to look so far as Australia, a country pretty similar to our own to see how.
In party political terms Brash is in the same position here as John Howard is there, and look at Howard – nuke-mad, ambivalent at best to homosexuality, the man is conservative in the worst sense of the word.
Howard is a guy who doesn’t know how to say sorry on behalf of Australia’s past to their first people, the Aborigines. He can’t or won’t say sorry for little things like removing their land and killing a huge number in massacres and, believe it or not, hunting trips. Then there is the little matter of not having Aborigines as citizens right up until the late sixties.
Oh yes, and John Howard wants to be America’s Sheriff. Quite apart from the camp overtones, I don’t know if anyone thinks that such a good idea.

Right. So even if this might say more about Australia in general than Howard in particular it is luckier than we often credit to have someone so socially liberal as Dr Don Brash in charge of the Conservative forces.

Until, that is, he starts coming out with the kind of Old Testament solutions to social problems that would make John Howard blush. Which is pretty much what this speech on Law and Order, or rather Crime and Punishment, was all about. Actually that could be revised again – Order and Punishment were at the heart of it.

Dr Don signalled in this speech that he wants to lock people up for longer. He wants to offer criminals fewer second chances – none if they’re violent offenders. Also he’d like to lower the qualifying age to be a criminal, maybe introduce some hard labour and build more prisons to house all of these criminals serving longer sentences.

If these seem like overly simplistic reductions then that is because they are overly simplistic policies being advocated; Dr Brash likes things to be as simple as black or white. Which is odd when you consider that in these policies he is particularly quiet about colour. When you are outlining plans to double the prison population it might just pay to have a look at who it is going to affect. If you did you could find yourself wondering aloud why 80% of the people in jail are Maori and Pacific Islanders. Wondering about or trying to work out ways to reduce these numbers would, you’d think, be priority number one. But, just as in the Orewa speech, professing colour-blindness is a much simpler solution.

Deciding 12 year olds are adult criminals is plain scary. It’s a special kind of politician who tries to lower the age that a child can be tried as an adult. Tough gig really to be 12, not able to vote, smoke, drink, have sex, get married, have a credit card or see The Day After Tomorrow at the movies, but under Dr Brash 12 year olds can feel free to be tried and punished as adults.

Hard labour is a goodie. In order to introduce hard labour New Zealand would have to repeal a United Nations convention. This would have the effect of putting us is in the company of such natural partners as North Korea, Soviet splinter republics and despotic regimes aplenty. Although the United Nations is, in general, a toothless talk shop and about as effective as United Future, these conventions are about the human rights of prisoners. Enforced vocational training is one thing, breaking rocks on a chain gang is quite another. Apparently the National party strategy room has decided that international opprobrium is a small price to pay for a couple of percentage points in the polls.

When delivering a speech on public security, which is what this speech was billed as, maybe you’d want to concentrate on how best to stop these thing happening. I’d hate to seem a bit naive, but it seems silly to discuss solutions to crime without looking at causes and methods of prevention: who is doing it and how to stop it. These questions are especially important when you consider that it costs 50,000 dollars a year to house an inmate. And that approach doesn’t seem to be ridding us of violent crime all that successfully at the moment. But what people want to hear, it appears, is how many more are going to be locked up and for how much longer. Brilliant.

Around about here it might be fair to wonder if there isn’t something ugly in Wellington’s water. All the parties in Parliament, with the exception of the Greens, who believe in cuddling to cut crime or something like that, are competing to show us who takes the toughest line on crime, whose punishments are meaner and who wields the biggest stick. Generally people who spend too much time touting their stick size are desperately trying to compensate for something.

Quite beside all this you have to wonder how National’s poll rise is being sustained. I might be a bit slow on the uptake here, but as far as I can work out it runs like this: National under Brash is literally plundering the policies of ACT and NZ First. And on the back of stealing the unattractive ideas of the two most unattractive parties in parliament they have pretty much doubled their support in 6 months. Go figure.

So that was big speech number two. Report card - poor to middling, must do more homework and stop stealing the sweets off the other parties.
But then again that was the report card to speech number one and we all know that did National very little harm at all, thank you very much.

The further three speeches we have to look forward to, if that is the right expression, are going to be on welfare, education and economics. Now I’ve no crystal ball and freely admit that I am the last person to be able to tell you what is happening in Dr Don’s head but I think it is safe to pick the likely tenor of these next speeches:

Welfare – get the buggers on the dole to do some bloody work
Education – In my day we learnt our three Rs and so should you
Economics – If you work harder, save more and if you don’t have to pay so much bloody tax you’ll have more money.

So there you go. You heard it here first.
Actually that’s not quite right – you’ve heard it all before – it is exactly, spot-on, entirely the kind of thing your redneck uncle has been saying all your life – and, bang there we go, that mindset, on current polling, might just be our next government. Food for thought indeed.


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