The National Party trumped its ‘Bootcamp’ policy this week with another ‘tough on crime’ dog whistle playing to conservative voters’ fears about illicit drugs and gangs.
The policy includes new spending of $82 million over four years, with $42million for (more) assertive policing of gang members and drugs, and $40 million for drug rehabilitation services. Treating addiction is important enough in itself. But this policy couples National’s ‘war on drugs’ with a ‘war on gangs’. It doubles down on a failed approach to the trade in methamphetamine and synthetic cannabis, out of context of wider drug and alcohol reform alternatives. It takes a ‘hard line’ approach to gangs, and drugs, that history shows makes problems worse.
The National Party policy builds on their 2016 Gang Action Plan suggesting new tough ‘anti-gang’ powers for police to search “gang members’ and criminals’” and their cars and houses at any time to check for firearms, in addition to existing powers to search for drugs without a warrant, to “march through their houses at will”.
The initiative is misdirected in many areas. It targets specific sub-cultures and punishes people for their social groupings, despite rights to freedom of organisation and association, and erodes protection against arbitrary search, arrest and detention, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And if it’s about drugs, then why focus specifically on gangs? Gangs are far from the only manufacturers and dealers of P and synthetics. The proposal allows vague and ill-defined power to the police – who defines the members of a gang? The police? The gang? Who defines what is a gang? Does this policy extend to gang associates and hangers-on? How far does this rule extend? Are the homes of family and friends hosting gang members open to search as well? And how many times are the police entitled to search?
New Zealand apparently has more gang members per head of population than any other country. There are around 70 major gangs, and about 4000 patched gang members. Bill English mentioned a New Zealand gang register of 5000 people. The biggest gang in New Zealand is the Mongrel Mob. A third of prisoners are patched gang members, and a third of them belong to the Mongrel Mob. Gang expert, Dr Jared Gilbert says this new policy is cynical politicking, ‘sinister, dangerous and outrageous’.
Human rights are universal, indivisible, and equal. They are fundamental, applicable by virtue of being human. But this policy admits fewer human rights are owed to different members of society (usually black, poor, with intergenerational history of gang involvement). Just like the bootcamp policy, this one has strong racial and class bias.
Bill English and Paula Bennett admitted the new powers would stretch human rights laws, but would only apply to serious criminals who had ‘fewer human rights than others’ anyway, clearly misunderstanding human rights. We should be wary when the Prime Minister and his Deputy are prepared to trade off these rights as a pawn in desperate election politics.