Thanks for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s been a year since Sir Bill English gave me a call and asked me to be the National Party’s Police spokesperson. It was a role that I wasn’t really expecting but one that I am absolutely loving.
As the shadow Minister for Police I really value the relationship I have with Chris and your executive team, and I’d like to thank them for their helpful advice in the year I’ve been in the role. Clearly I will not always agree with every position the Association takes and equally you won’t agree with everything I say. But we share important common commitments to New Zealanders – we want our communities to be kept safe, we want to prevent crime and we want to hold those who commit crime to account.
There’ll always be debate about how to do that; but at least we can agree that ultimately we want New Zealand to be the safest place in the world. We’ve just ticked over a year into the life of the new Government so what I’d like to talk about today is the National Party’s approach to Opposition, particularly in the field of justice and law and order. I will be critical of the government. That’s my job. But I’ll also set out some policies that National wants to put forward over the life of this Parliament, as well as some wider policy work we’re doing around Police and related portfolios.
Law and Order
The first duty of government is to protect law abiding citizens from harm – from external forces outside New Zealand and from criminals inside New Zealand who do harm to our fellow countrymen and women.
National is the party of law and order and of keeping New Zealanders safe. Our Leader Simon Bridges and our Justice Spokesperson Mark Mitchell have dedicated most of their adult lives to community safety and trying to look after those who can't always look after themselves.
Mark had a policing career, most of it as a police dog handler and member of the Armed Offenders Squad. As you probably know, Simon was a Crown Prosecutor, who helped lock up some of our worst criminals. Mark caught offenders and Simon made sure they were held to account. They and I are proud of our record in Government.
Under National we were the fourth safest country in the world. The crime rate fell 14 per cent between 2011 and 2017. Youth crime in particular fell 32 per cent. There was a 38 per cent decrease in Māori youth offending from 2010 to 2016 and a 23 per cent drop in Māori adults offending.
Many of you in this room were at the forefront of those changes. Thank you for your hard work and for your dedication.
People like to caricature National as just being “tough on crime” and all about locking people up for longer. We are totally unapologetic about saying that policies should always prioritise public safety and victim welfare. But the story that is that rarely told is the huge moves National made in Government towards preventing further crime and reducing recidivism.
Our focus was ensuring we weren’t always the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It was about the men and women on the front line stopping the offending happening in the first place.
Of course, we can always do more, but I’m proud of what we achieved together.
We increased investment in rehabilitation programmes by 60 per cent. More than 3500 prisoners were put into education and over 4600 achieved qualifications. Almost another 9000 prisoners were put into employment, equipping offenders with practical skills for life after prison. At Rimutaka prison the inmates are building houses; learning practical skills as well as, in a small way, reducing our housing shortage.
We delivered alcohol and drug treatment to almost 22,000 offenders in the community and more than 6400 prisoners. We were and are in favour of innovative programmes that break the cycle of offending. It was National that rolled out iwi justice panels on marae around the country, including in my own patch at Waiwhetu.
It was National that championed Rangatahi Courts, where young people can take ownership of their offending in a supportive environment. Early results showed that reoffending rates of young people who attend Rangatahi courts committed 14 per cent fewer offences and 11 per cent less likely to commit a new serious offence in the following year than comparable youth.
It was National that trialled alcohol and drug treatment courts, that I was privileged to witness at Waitakere a couple of years ago. It was National that started rolling out the Family Violence Integrated Safety Response pilots. They have helped over 24,000 people keep safe through personalised family safety plans in the last year.
So I’m very proud of our record in government and I’m proud of you, our Police force.
With that in mind I’d like to talk about where the current government is going. To put it frankly, Simon, Mark and I and the rest of the Justice team are very worried about the direction of travel.
For reasons best known only to themselves, the Government has got rid of every Better Public Services target that we had for the Justice sector and replaced it with one: reducing the prison population by 30 per cent within 15 years.
I want fewer people in prison too but I don’t want public policy driven by a target of reducing the number of people in prison. I want policy driven by a target of reducing crime. That’s what we had under National and that’s what we should have now. The danger with a numerical prison target is that it drives very poor policy decisions that put the public at risk.
Things like changing our parole, bail and sentencing laws.
The reality is that 98 per cent of people are in prisons for category 3 and 4 offences. Those are those offences punishable by a sentence of two years or more, and include murder, sexual violence, and serious violent assaults.
People are not in prison for theft of a chocolate bar.
Or, despite what the PM sometimes like to claim, very few people are in prison for smoking a joint by itself. What’s more, people in our prisons have an average of 46 convictions on their criminal record. This reflects a significant number of victims.
You could reduce the prison population easily by making it easier to get parole.
But it would come at the expense of public safety. You could reduce the prison population by loosening the bail laws that we tightened. But it would come at the expense of public safety.
You could reduce the prison population easily by lowering sentences. But it would come at the expense of public safety.
The only morally and politically legitimate way to reduce the prison population is by preventing crime, and reducing recidivism. National will support all practical and useful measures that do those things. Our record speaks for itself. We will strongly oppose changes to parole, bail and sentencing laws that will reduce public safety.
Police under this government
I’d now like to talk about police policy under the current government.
My role as Opposition spokesperson for Police is to hold the government to account. My approach to the role is pretty simple. Where I think the Government is doing something wrong, I’ll say so. Where I think it’s a good idea, I’ll say that too.
I am not in politics to oppose for the sake of it. But nor am I in politics to just mindlessly go along with whatever the government wants to do. The stakes are too high and the New Zealand people deserve a contest of ideas. People often forget that good Opposition makes government better and that’s in all our interests.
So, here’s a few areas where I will be rigorous in holding the Government to account.
Number one; the 1800 new police. We obviously welcome the injection of 1800 new police, particularly because 880 of them were funded by National in Budget 2017; a point that the current Minister likes to forget.
We encourage you to read the fine-print. The 1800 are over five years, not three, as was promised after the election, and the Minister openly admits he’ll have to go and get more money from Grant Robertson in future years to pay for them. A large number are in back-office roles; not on the frontline.
Second; I am worried about police training and recruitment standards. I know many of you are as well, because you raise this issue with me personally, and I read Police News from cover to cover monthly. New Zealanders have the right to expect that every police officer on the beat is able to protect them from harm. That means we must have the highest standards of training for those wanting to become police officers.
Stuart Nash guaranteed to me in Parliament that standards would not be lowered as a result of the drive for 1800 new police. The risk of ambitious targets like 1800 new cops in just three years is that training and recruitment standards get progressively lowered so more people are let into the college and graduate; and poor behaviour is not punished, but is instead tolerated. This has already started. Most Kiwis I suspect would be surprised to hear it is no longer a requirement for police applicants to have a swimming certificate, so people who are completely unable to swim can now be accepted into Police College. In a coastal country like NZ where police are often first responders; that seems surprising.
The third area; abolition of targets.
You can’t improve what you don’t measure, and you can’t be properly held to account when you don’t collect the right information. It’s starting to look like this Government is doing that on purpose.
I’ve just talked about the justice BPS targets but we had specific measurements for the police too.
Two critical ones were 98 per cent of burglaries being attended within 48 hours and 95 per cent of New Zealanders to live within 25km of a 24/7 police station by June 2022.
Those targets were unilaterally abolished by the government.
The government has yet to give a reason for this.
Fourth; I want to mention the volunteer rural constabulary that’s been proposed by the Government. This is in the coalition agreement, so one would assume it’s an important policy, but we’ve literally heard almost nothing about it in a year.
Let me be clear: I’m opposed to giving the power of arrest to non-sworn citizens. The last thing our rural areas need is cowboy cops running around the place high with power that should be rightly be reserved for people like with you training under their belts.
I’m all in favour of volunteers helping the police. I go out on community patrol in my own patch in Wainuiomata; I’ve been out walking with the Hutt Safe City Ambassadors and seen the great work our volunteer CCTV operators do. Nobody has any problem with that; and frankly I think we could do more to support volunteer participation in keeping our communities safe.
But cowboy cops are in nobody’s interests. The Minister should rule the idea out now.
Finally in terms of areas I’m critical of the government on, I do need to mention mental health.
I know dealing with mental health is a big issue for probably all of you on the frontline.
That’s why it’s totally inexplicable the government scrapped the $8 million mental health/police co-response pilot that was planned by the previous Government.
That pilot had universal support from the health sector and from police. It would have seen mental health nurses attending mental health incidents alongside police and paramedics to ensure that people in distress receive timely responses that are tailored to their needs.
As you know, police spend around 280 hours a day responding to mental health calls and demand is increasing.
The pilot would have eased pressure on police and improved the quality of the response for those experiencing mental distress.
David Clark says the Government is waiting for the results of the Mental Health Inquiry before deciding on next steps. That inquiry has just been delayed by a month, but dollars to donuts it will recommend something like a police/mental health co-response pilot. A year will have been wasted when we could be getting on with it now.
Positive policy under National
But enough on the Government. Simon has made it clear that we’re going to take this time in Opposition to refresh ourselves and our ideas - running the ruler over our existing policies, and proposing new ones for 2020.
Should we earn the right to govern in 2020, we’ll be ready to go on day one. This Government’s 180-odd reviews and working groups so far plus the stagnation and lack of certainty shows what happens when you’re not.
We took positive policy to the election and that’s reflected in a series of Members’ Bills in the Parliamentary Ballot right now.
My colleague Matt King, the MP for Northland and a former police officer, has a Bill that has already been drawn to better punish “cowards punches”, or “king hits.” The Bill creates a new offence that means those convicted of the so-called "one punch" assaults will receive a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.
We have another Bill around the killing of police dogs. The Bill would amend the Policing Act 2008 to increase the penalty for killing a police dog from a maximum of 2 years to a maximum of 5 years imprisonment. We know they not only help you keep New Zealanders safe, but they’re your best mates. Mark Mitchell constantly tells us fond stories about the many dogs he worked with - including when he forgot to take his dog to a job in Gisborne. Caught short, he knocked on the offenders door and told them he the dog with him, they gave themselves up and were quite unimpressed when the dog was nowhere to be seen.
You may remember that at the election we proposed a policy of creating a new category of offender called Serious Young Offenders. Our youth justice system works well for the vast majority of young offenders, but there remains a small group of around 150 young people who continue to commit large numbers of serious offences. These are young people who have been in and out of Youth Court but have shown no willingness or ability to change their behaviour. National is not prepared to just sit back and allow their victims to keep racking up until they reach adulthood.
My colleague David Bennett’s Member’s Bill will create a Young Serious Offender (YSO) classification to allow this very small group of the most hardened young offenders dealt with in ways that better reflect the seriousness of their crimes and help ensure fewer people are victimised. Judges will be able to order Young Series Offenders who commit serious offences to attend defence-led training academies to address problems like addiction or a lack of literacy and numeracy skills, helping them lead better lives while keeping the public safe.
This was a controversial policy at the election. We stand by it because we know you all need more tools to deal with some of the most difficult offenders we have.
Detailed policy work
Finally, let me tell you about three areas I’m keen to do more sophisticated and detailed policy work on in the next couple of years, working alongside my colleagues in the National Party Law and Order team.
The first is meth. Methamphetamine is an appalling scourge on our society. My attitude towards this issue is pretty simple. We need to go hard on those who peddle this addictive drug – the manufacturers, importers, suppliers and dealers.
At the same time; we need to take a rehabilitative approach to people who actually consume meth. It’s an insanely addictive and harmful substance. While people should be held to account, just locking people up for being addicted and not doing anything about the addiction is pointless. What meth users need is help to get off the drug; and support so they don’t go back to it.
I’ve been very impressed with the Te Ara Oranga programme in Northland which is taking this exact approach.
In time we should look at rolling-out this approach around the country.
Ridding New Zealand of meth is a complex public policy problem; but one I’m keen to work on. Over the next couple of years I’ll be getting around the country talking to people at the front-line of New Zealand’s meth problem, and you can expect policy from National in due course. While I’m talking drugs let me make a couple of comments on a possible referendum on recreational marijuana.
National is in favour of a comprehensive, regulated scheme to facilitate greater access to medicinal cannabis. That work was led by my colleague Dr Shane Reti, who did more work in a few months than an entire army of Health officials plus the Minister. We are proud of our proposed regime and it shows what can be done in Opposition.
We want to get our regime into law so that New Zealanders get access to quality medicinal cannabis products sooner rather than later. The issue of recreational cannabis is a conscience issue for National MPs. I’m personally opposed to addressing the issue through a referendum. We’re sent to Parliament by the people to solve public policy problems; not sub-contract them back to the people through a plebiscite.
I worry about having the referendum at the same time as the 2020 election, as has been suggested. The election campaign may become all about marijuana; or on the converse it may be completely ignored and the discussion we need to have as a community will simply be side-lined. So I’m watching how this debate unfolds with interest, as are all my colleagues.
The second area we’re going to do detailed work on is organised crime and gangs.
The number one issue raised at the recent National Party conference policy session on law and order was gangs. There were some horror stories about gangs terrorising communities; and people living in fear. I’m very concerned at the news that the Comancheros have set up in New Zealand.
I do welcome the increased commitment by the Government to this important area. As a party we’re going to be looking to see if there is more we can do to equip you as Police to crack down on the misery that gangs create in our society.
One measure we did take to the election was firearms prohibition orders. Sadly the Government just voted down my Bill to introduce these. The Bill would have allowed the Commissioner of Police to apply prohibition orders to the toughest gang members with serious offending histories. Police would have been able to search their cars and houses to look for illegal firearms.
One suggestion I’ve heard is to make it illegal to wear a gang patch in any public place illegal. Gang patches are a sign of violence – to get one you have to commit a pretty serious violent offence. The patch symbolises respect by the gang; but it’s a respect for violence and lawlessness. So we’ll have a good discussion about that over the next couple of years
Thirdly and finally is firearms.
I’ve just held my first National Party Firearms Forum in Ashburton and I’m planning on holding around 30 of these around the country in the next six months. The Arms Act is now 35 years old and is being reviewed by the Minister of Police. At some point changes will be proposed and I want to make sure I’m across the views of the 250,000 licenced firearm owners in New Zealand. The aim of the forums is to get a sense of what is working well in the current regime, and what could work better. As part of this I’ll of course be talking to the Association and Police as well.
As I said in the beginning, we have an important shared vision. That New Zealand can be, and should be, the safest place in the world to live. And Police sit at the heart of that. I am cognisant that every change we make to law and order policy has a direct frontline impact on the way you do your jobs.
That is why I am committed to working with as many of you around the country as I get out and about, and make sure that come 2020 National has done the mahi and is ready to govern and support the good work Police do in our communities every single day. Keep up the great work.