In the lead up to the election the Minister of Corrections Anne Tolley launched a gang policy. In order to justify the government’s approach she used gang figures that overstated the gang problem. Not by a little bit, but a lot. And I mean a lot. I couldn’t prove it at the time (I can now) but because they were so obviously nonsense I called her out and said I would eat a suitcase full of carrots if she was correct.
Carrots proved to be the least of my problems. My problem proved to be the dishonest Right Wing blogger David Farrar. I initially took Farrar’s challenge in good humour thinking it would be a healthy tussle to seek the truth. It wasn’t. As we know now, he and Cameron Slater are birds of a feather, but where Slater is dim-witted Farrar is marginally smarter and this makes him more insidious.
Farrar quickly leapt to the Minister’s Defence. He was able to gain the figures – presumably from the Minister’s office – and with them he attempted to ‘prove’ that I was wrong and discredit me. Sound familiar? It was my own little experience of Dirty Politics.
Farrar was resolute in saying that he expected the New Zealand Herald to cover the story of me eating carrots – the Heraldhaving republished my initial blog on their website.
When I retorted and pointed out that I wasn’t wrong he went on the attack again with a second blog, audaciously saying that I had ‘conceded’ the argument. It was an Orwellian fiction attacking my integrity, but the real nastiness came from Farrar’s followers on Kiwiblog where I was rounded on and vilified. Because my blog is read by a small number of people and his by a very large number, most people read his side. To the vast majority of people, then, I had conceded, was wrong and therefore ripe to be attacked. Farrar had done his job. The Minister was forgotten, I was now the one trying to mislead the people. I was being discredited by mischief and fiction, not by facts and reasoned argument.
I was reading this, hardly believing what was happening.
By this stage, of course, Farrar almost certainly knew he was wrong, but right and wrong is not his concern. His only concern is a political agenda – protect and promote the National party, no matter what the truth is. Deceive and mislead the public, shut up opponents, bury the truth, twist the facts. These are things my training deplores. In fact my last piece on the Minister was praising her work with the Department of Corrections, and I contract to do research for them – and I can’t imagine this helps me getting more – but my only concern is the truth.
I was correct and I have the evidence to prove it. The Minister’s figures were utterly misleading and designed to create a massive problem for political advantage.
It took a while to get the evidence because I had to use the Official Information Act (OIA). I don’t have the privileged position of Farrar to get data on demand. I was going to try, but I thought better of it. In fact, I didn’t even submit the OIA, I got a colleague to, because if Farrar knew this post was coming I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t have continued to attack me. Call me paranoid, but this is exactly how certain Ministers, Slater and Farrar operate. There is undisputed evidence supporting this outlined in Dirty Politics. People can write off Hager if they want to, but they can’t write off the evidence. I recommend everybody read his book.
For the record: the Minister said there were 4,000 gang members in New Zealand. She also said that gang members make up 28 percent of New Zealand’s prison population (meaning only 1,650 are left on the street). Yet in the first quarter of 2014 they were nevertheless said to have been charged with:
- 34 per cent of class A/B drug offences
- 36 per cent of kidnapping and abduction offences
- 25 per cent of aggravated robbery/robbery offences
- 26 per cent of grievous assault offences
While I could be nit picky and point out that the number of gang members is just less than 4,000 and that that number includes all prospects (not mentioned by the Minister), but that’s neither here nor there in the scheme of things. The real deception is that the crime data included not just gang members and prospects, but a much wider cohort. According to police the ‘gang’ data also included those who:
- Were charged together with a New Zealand adult (meaning ‘patched’) gang member for the same offence
- Had an identified familial tie with a New Zealand adult gang member
- Had an identified connection to a New Zealand adult gang member
In short, then, the 4,000 figure (leaving aside the incarcerated nonsense which only inflates the ridiculousness) is suddenly bolstered by all those people charged with a gang member, any family member of a gang member, and any other person who has an association with a gang member.
So how big has this group become? This the police didn’t know, or at least didn’t tell me, so let’s ask how many family members and friends each gang member has? In the past the police association has estimated a ratio of one gang member for every 10 associates, but that seems low based on the above criteria. Nevertheless, let’s stick with that for argument’s sake. That means we need to divide the percentage of crimes undertaken by gangs by a factor of 10. That means instead of the 4,000 gang members committing, for example, the 34 percent of class A/B drug offences cited by the Minister becomes just 3.4 percent: maybe slightly more but potentially considerably less than that.*
Farrar might well argue that it doesn’t matter, that gang members and associates, and family members, are all just as guilty as one another, but that’s not what the Minister said, she said the very small number were responsible for a very large number of crimes. Clearly that is not true.
This isn’t a referendum on whether or not you like gangs; it’s an argument for the truth. If a river is 34 percent polluted it’s going to take a much different solution than if it’s 3.4 percent polluted. If your finance manager told you your bad debts were 34 percent, that’s a very different problem than if the actual figure is 3.4 percent. When you inflate a problem multiple times it will entirely change the way you think about it, the means by which you tackle it, and the urgency with which you must move.
This isn’t to say gangs aren’t a problem, but they aren’t the problem the Minister was portraying. And this was my intention, to highlight the truth.
Now, I’m a durable enough bloke and can take a bit of grief, but it was frustrating and I was concerned about my reputation. Yet there are much bigger implications than the impacts on me. Many academics are reserved types, who will not want to speak out in an environment where they will be attacked. The questions then are these: do we want to silence academics trying to fulfil their role as the critics and conscience of society? When ministers are misleading the public, should we say nothing? Of course not, but these are the things Farrar is purposely trying to crush by foul means.
I need to make it clear that I am not saying academics should not be questioned on their views because any decent academic will relish a good argument. My point is that those connected to the corridors of power should not set out on a premeditated plan to stifle such debate with dishonest nonsense.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Farrar needs to be called out. He needs to be seen as a quisling to truth and an enemy of facts. His influence is undeniably negative.
Despite Farrar peddling fiction, he will still have been read by more people than me. In the minds of many I will always be wrong. Furthermore, the fact that the Minister misled the public is long forgotten. Like a puff of smoke the original concern disappears. This is David Farrar and Cameron Slater’s agenda. It is not in the country’s interest that we make it ours.
*we still don’t know the exact number without gaining the Police’s raw data, but at least we are now in the right ball park. The Police Association, in the last estimation I have seen, said gang associates measured 60,000. Using that number would further reduce the figures.
Dr Jarrod Gilbert blogs on sociology here. This was first published yesterday.