OKAY, first-things-first. Gangs exist for one purpose – and only one. They are a sure-fired, time-tested institution for making crime pay – and pay big. National is right to go after them, not only because most voters will cheer them on for doing so, but also because gangs injure individuals and damage society. Pushing any other kind of argument simply makes National’s job easier. “Look at the Left”, Simon Bridges will crow. “Soft on crime. The gangster’s best friend!”
In their essence, gangs are based on the notion that there is safety in numbers. This doesn’t just apply to violent conflict where, obviously, the more “soldiers” you bring to the fight the better chance you have of winning it. Safety in numbers also applies to practical criminal behaviour.
Hierarchy is the key. At the top, a handful of leaders, thoroughly insulated from actual offending, give orders to “patched” crime managers who, in their turn, send out wannabe gangsters to do the actual selling, thieving, hustling, whatever. All proceeds flow upwards. Those at the bottom get the least, those at the top the most. Patched membership of gangs is strictly rationed to preserve the organisation’s essential pyramidal structure.
A gang can only remain effective if its hierarchy is respected. Absolute loyalty is demanded and ruthlessly enforced. Among gang members and associates no person is more despised than the “nark”. This animosity is entirely rational. Nothing brings down those at the top of a gang hierarchy more effectively than an informer.
Keeping the hierarchy safe explains the aura of danger and violence that surrounds every effective criminal gang. It is a feature, not a bug, because without the ever-present threat of serious and/or fatal violence – against outsiders who would do it harm, and insiders who dare to flout its discipline, the gang would swiftly fall victim to its criminal competitors, or the Police.
Gangs are not welfare institutions. Nor are they a substitute for the family their members never had. They are ruthless, violent and criminal money-making machines. That is all.
National knows this. Its members and supporters see the effects of gang activity all the time. Small businesses and farmers fall victim to their depredations almost every day. Local professionals in the provinces see their effects everywhere. In their surgeries, if they’re doctors. In their classrooms, if they’re school principals. On the town streets, if they’re the local Police Sergeant. They talk about it grimly, over whiskies, at the local Rotary Club – and complain about it loudly to their local National Party MP.
In the major cities it’s even worse. These provide the most lucrative markets for criminal enterprise: for drugs; for stolen goods; for all those other things that “a guy’s gotta have” – but which the state forbids. The cost to metropolitan New Zealand of these gang activities is huge. The methamphetamine trade, in particular, destroys lives, careers, families, entire neighbourhoods. Its victims are responsible for an alarming percentage of serious theft and fraud. Inevitably, their moral, mental and physical deterioration imposes heavy burdens on our health and corrections systems. Those who see methamphetamine’s effects up-close: the resident doctors, nurses, police officers, probation officers and social workers who clean up its mess; despise the gangs who are the drug’s principal distributors. The gangsters also see the enormous harm caused by their offending – but they just don’t care.
So, if National knows this – and frames its policy accordingly – why don’t Labour and the Greens? What happens inside their caucuses when someone like Greg O’Connor, or Willie Jackson, or Stuart Nash stands up and tells them what the gangs are really like? Obviously, their caucus colleagues do not nod their heads and say: “Thanks guys, it’s always good to get the perspective of people with personal experience of the harm gangs do to individuals and communities. What we all need to do now is come up with an effective response.” It can only be supposed that a majority of Labour and Green MPs respond to the anti-gang attitudes of their “right-wing” colleagues with the stock answers of Sociology 101.
When “Big Norm” Kirk promised to “Take the Bikes off the Bikies” in 1972, it wasn’t because he had heard the same sort of slogans repeated endlessly throughout his political career and thought it advisable to do the same. Forty-seven years ago, Kirk’s promise had the punch of the new. That’s because bikie gangs were new – as were the Maori gangs emerging from the rapidly growing provincial industrial towns and urban ghettoes. He couldn’t do it, of course. Putting an end to gangs wasn’t any easier then than it is now.
If overseas experience is any guide, there are two ways of dealing with gangs. The easiest way, adopted by Labour nemesis, Rob Muldoon, is for the government to buy them off. Let them do what they do, but always on the proviso that no “civilians” get hurt. Selling cannabis to their neighbours and their kids – that’s fine. But stay out of the city centres and the leafy suburbs – and stop providing the news media with lurid headlines. The Buy-Off has its merits as a solution, but in the end it is no match for criminal greed. Inevitably, the gangs re-emerge: bigger, better resourced and much more dangerous.
The hard way to beat the gangs is through solid, old-fashioned police work – aided whenever possible by augmented legal powers and the new technology required to make dedicated policing effective. That’s how the FBI brought down the New York Mafia. That, and by using the information obtained through advances in electronic surveillance to apprehend and then “flip” lower level gangsters: promising them immunity and a new identity in return for spilling the beans on the “wise guys” at the top of the hierarchy.
National appears to have chosen the hard way. Yes, forcing suspected gangsters to prove that they are not living off the proceeds of crime before accessing welfare payments is a tough policy. But these are tough guys. Tough – and smart. It always pays to remember that the individuals in question are criminals – well-versed in the art of ripping-off any system incautious enough to offer them something for nothing. Shorn of all its political bells and dog-whistles, National’s policy, by forcing gangsters to rely solely on the income derived from their offending, should make them easier to put away.
It’s not subtle, and it’s not pretty. But, you know what? It just might work.