National’s Going Gang-Busters


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.

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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.


  1. Chris,
    Your conclusion “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,” is remarkably similar to: “To stop abortion, criminalise it! To stop drugs, criminalise it!”

    Not dissimilar to American policy during Prohibition (of grog).
    Except that policy gave birth to Al Capone and co.
    And prohibition of dope gave rise to Noriega and Escobar and the de facto Mexican president currently free accommodation on USA.

    I fought gangs – the hard way – as a commander on Red Squad.
    It didn’t work.

    I suggest that the solution to gangs is not as simple as ban them and deny them – because as the above examples suggest, banishment as a principle of policy – well – as they say: Be careful for what you wish.

    Maybe its time to think outside the square?


    • As the comment below points out, Ross, I’m not calling for a “ban” on gangs – that would be foolish.

      What I am calling for is a concentration on breaking them up and disrupting their activities by old-fashioned police work. The best way to do this, if the evidence from abroad is anything to go by, is to take out their leaders.

      Your reference to Mexico is interesting. For upwards of 70 years Mexico was ruled by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party). It’s policy in relation to organised crime anticipated Rob Muldoon’s – it bought the gangs off. Compared to the more recent policies of the Mexican government, the PRI’s solution was remarkably effective. Certainly, there was nothing remotely like the bloodshed that ensued following the Federal Government’s all-out assault on the drug cartels.

      New Zealand is not, however, plagued by the sky-high levels of corruption that have for centuries afflicted Mexico. Our Police are relatively well paid, for example, and do not need to supplement their meagre salaries by accepting bribes. That means going after the gangs is a realistic option for the NZ authorities.

      In his comment below, Sam talks about lifting wages, improving living conditions and instituting social reforms to the point where the risks of gang membership outweigh the rewards. While all these things would obviously help, it is important to remember that an irreducible number of citizens in any country will be sociopaths. A great many of these will gravitate to the nation’s boardrooms, but an equal number will find their way into the gangs.

      Crime, like the poor, will always be with us.

      • Are you taking the piss? “The best way to do this, if the evidence from abroad is anything to go by, is to take out their leaders.” Where is the evidence because it sure isn’t obvious. Taking out the leader if there isn’t a succession plan is likely to result in chaos and an immediate increase in violent crime. Either way, the gang problem isn’t solved but can be exacerbated.

        • Would you like a meddle for repeating the bloody obvious? You just repeated what Chris said but in your own words ergo you agree with Chris’s conclusion that “Crime, like the poor, will always be with us.” Ie you lose the debate.

          Me: next victim please…

        • Creating chaos within the gang hierarchy by taking out the leadership may indeed bring a measure of mayhem. The reason it works as a policing strategy is that the resulting struggle for power (which generally involves only other gang members) fundamentally weakens the organisation and, thereby, makes it even easier to destroy.

          • You were asked to provide evidence that supported your assertions but instead, you have repeated you original opinion. If disruption is effective how would one explain gangs being with us over 60 years since their inception despite leaders having been convicted and imprisoned since then. It is also something like 40 years since the Police adopted deliberate strategies to take out the leaders. Subsequently, there has been an increase in the number of gangs, chapters and members so obviously it hasn’t been a particularly effective strategy. In fact, much of your lead article and follow-up comments seem to fall short of your usual standards.

  2. It’s a variable crime syndicate with different revenue streams that can be taken away like welfare, legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, (human) trafficking, racketeering Y’know moving stuff around…, and ensure that the crown does not try to get much revenue from it through taxes: that just opens up the window for the black market.

    Fight poverty. High wages, big social safety net. Swedishness.

    There’s still other organized crime that relies on things we will need to keep illegal – fencing stolen goods, freezing assets for example – and organized crime that isn’t directly driven by the profit motive: a lot of gang violence doesn’t have a significant, obvious financial motive underlying it. The latter is probably going to be less profound with less poverty, but probably not eliminated. If you really, really want to more or less wipe out what’s left, you’re probably going to have to start doing things we consider violations of fundamental rights. Takeaway privacy and free movement and shot to kill for minor infractions.

    Then have a set of reforms ready to go that greatly expand workers rights and social safety nets, lower taxes on the poor and middle class. Structure the system in such a way that crime really doesn’t pay, and it’s much more easier and lucrative to go straight.

  3. The numbers don’t stack up. There are probably more members present at an annual National Party conference than all of the active gang members in NZ. If half of gang members get convicted of a crime per year (an unlikely proportion, say 2500 convictions) then that is only one percent of total convictions for crime annually. Which means the general public is responsible for the majority of misery perpetuated on citizens. So maybe ban citizens? I reckon start with the thieves, wife beaters, dirty public servants, cartels, ruling class, white supremacists and unhinged psychopaths hiding in plain site. These people often have no excuse for committing crime other than a propensity for money, power, deceit or a whiter shade of violence.

  4. Rarely a week goes by where some tattooed faced loser appears in court convicted of extreme violence and a criminal history as long as their arm or worse. And where that person’s lawyer and reports from experts tells the Judge that this young man was raised in a gang family, starting using drugs young, dropped out of school young almost illiterate, started a life of mindless violent crime as young, was on the receiving end of mindless violence, probably physical, psychological and sexual before they could walk and never stood a single solitary chance of not being a criminal, much less ever reaching their full positive potential. A life so abused and so handicapped from the outset that what stands before that Judge was as predictable as night following day. And as always the chance of them being anything else is virtually nil and a total loss to society.

    A man in all likelihood who lives and breathes violence, intimidation and destruction, not only of his fellow criminals but of his women, his children and his animals. A man whose death when it comes sooner than later is secretly celebrated by those unfortunate to be near him, for being exorcised from raining misery down on to everyone else he comes across.

    We want to save that abused lost little boy but we can’t, all that is left is the repulsive hateful adult.

    Maybe instead of reading about what this policy of Nationals will do to such sub-humans children as a consequence, we should be reading that no other child will have to grow up in the gang family environment and that any gang member will lose their offspring too.

  5. More poorly thought out policies not thinking about the implications and the same old shit from a someone who cant think outside the square. It seems national haven’t learnt what happened under their last social
    services policies regime that is why we are in a mess now all because of nationals poor management of our country and the neglect of far too many NZers.

  6. What a reactionary outpouring of fear and loathing!

    National’s latest cynical vote herding effort should be resisted, why?, it is easy enough to figure out. Gangs are easy to dislike, but the Nats have hitched them to all beneficiaries–well not Superannuitants or WFF recipients of course–which none the less this aids their “othering” and scapegoating approach to vulnerable New Zealanders.

    An attack on one beneficiary or potential beneficiary, is an attack on all beneficiaries, and the very concept of social security. WINZ/MSD is hostile enough already to the underclass created by 30 years of Roger’n’Ruth’s legacy without National being allowed to further slander the weakened NZ tradition of “looking after our own”.

    • All well and good, Tiger, but your response does not in any way deal with the problems caused by gangs/organised crime in working-class communities. There is a reason why, from Kirk to Bridges, there is a strong working-class constituency for cracking down hard on gangs. They are the people preyed upon by these criminals – they see them up-close. They see a lot of other things, too. Like the tragic nexus in which those most mistreated by Capitalism are enmeshed. Their kids are the first in line for the gangs’ recruiters. When cash is scarce, those who flash it about become powerful role models. Their message? Living by the rules is for chumps.

      • You’re not willing to put the poorest first, but this? You know where gangs breed. You put the poor behind ‘the art of the possible’ and recommend clamping down on the symptoms. You know the nature of the present Labour Party — how can their artfulness for present politics be turned around for REALITY?

  7. We all know how to stop people from joining gangs. Well paid jobs, adequate social welfare and including people in the community. National’s policies do the exact opposite. Not that the co-olition has achieved much in reducing poverty, either.

  8. Again,listening to the nats,19 30 GERMANY,listening to bennet,,out bad choises,people make,her food gut width she,could not,so surgerycorrection,mdid that for her,1930 germany done this sort of selection,we are 2019,go on a diet,you self bad choice.

  9. And this is where,their dillusion is,we are going to win,who you you fool,not one of them,im listed,their choice s im listed,opened my seat,debate win again,got a seat back bench,you and i sit together our future,thank you,for my stupid care.Yoe Paula,you where never on e of them.

  10. While i find myself increasingly at odds with the articles here, this one is absolutely right. Simon Bridges may be an idiot but going after gangs is possibly the only smart thing he’s ever uttered. I would go one further, if you join a predominately criminal gang you should be stripped of all social entitlement until such time as you prove you have left it. We have a culture that has a twisted reverence for gangs, the rhetoric is often apologetic and sympathetic.

    The question of general beneficiaries is a little more hazy and ought not be conflated. With automation continuing to decrease the pool of employment we should be considering alternatives like universal basic income, not punitive measures, and seeking to dismantle some of the poor incentive structures in our social system that encourage women to be perpetually pregnant because they can’t be fucked doing anything else.

    I’d like to see bolder policies from either side of the political spectrum but every time the government flips all we get is a repealing of the prior governments policies masquerading as fresh ideas. Little wonder little changes.

  11. Too many people don’t seem to understand MMP its about how many seats a party has when it comes to passing policy, its about making trade offs and its about compromise. Now the Maori party had 2 seats and so they had to compromise too much. The stats are all there they show who suffered the most under national. The poor, Maori and PI so why would any of this sector of society vote for national.

  12. You’re 100% correct Chris. I applaud you for standing up and voicing what is likely to be an unpopular opinion on the left.

    I think the potential weakness in National’s policy is that NZ doesn’t have the tools to back up the policy. The FBI broke up the mafia by peeling off the minor mob players by offered them either long, hard jail sentences for racketeering or to become informants; and many chose the latter. For this to work in NZ we would need similar punishments with which to threaten our gangs and judges prepared to apply them. But we have neither.

  13. I have a downer on gangs and a big upper on raising the poor. Even according to our present Labour govt the lower 20 % will have to remain deeply desperate. Always better to concentrate on the positive. But that’s politically difficult, aint it Mr Trotter. Would you like to enlighten us about how to do what’s necessary through the forest of the politically difficult to impossible?

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