Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

16th March 2001 - Labour Locks 'em Up Longer

Copyright © 2001 Russell Brown

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it was only a matter of time. Phil Goff had been quiet - too quiet. Somewhere in the naked city of his mind, a neon sign was flashing. That sign read "Tough on crime" and Goff wanted everyone to see it. He wanted the people to know that Labour locks 'em up for longer.

Goff told John Campbell on 3 News that his Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill, unveiled this week, was the government delivering on what 92% of New Zealanders had voted "yes" for in the referendum question put at the last election.

But didn't that question also demand hard labour for violent offenders? Campbell inquired. Not at all, insisted Goff. He had spoken to Norm Withers, the founder of the petition that started it all, and what Norm meant by "hard labour" was simply useful work in prison.

Oh, right then. But shouldn't the question then have demanded "hard labour - but not, like, really hard, chain-gang stuff, y'know"? The basic flaw of the question - or its genius, I'm not sure which - was that it had no clear meaning at all, certainly not so as you could deliver policy on it.

Yet there is a public mood towards keeping the worst offenders off the streets, and that is certainly what the bill delivers. The worst murderers - those who have killed children or shown extreme brutality or depravity - will serve at least 17 years before eligibility for parole, rather than 10 years, and the period between parole applications will be longer. Other prisoners will no longer automatically serve only two thirds of their sentences.

On the other hand, judges will be given more discretion - not less, as is usually the case with these gimmick minimum-sentence affairs - to distinguish between degrees of murder. Mercy killings, for instance, will be considered in a different light. Some prisoners who show a real intent to change will be eligible for parole after serving only one third of their sentences. And there will be a strong direction towards restorative justice, in the form of reparations to victims.

Thus, the bill is reasonably balanced - and, unlike Act's pompously-titled Truth in Sentencing Bill, honestly costed, at $90 million over four years to increase the prison population by 300. But we already have the second highest incarceration rate in the world, behind only the US. And keeping people in jail longer doesn't actually solve the problem; it just keeps people in jail longer. But most of all, these things have a tendency to escalate.

Hours after Goff had unveiled his bill, National's Wayne Mapp was demanding to know why the same harsh justice was not to be extended to " drug traffickers, career burglars and drivers who kill". According to Mapp, that was the real intent of Norm Withers' endlessly accommodating referendum. It's not that far from that sort of talk to locking up children for life without parole, the way they are in Florida. Do we really want justice to be as brutal, arbitrary and populist as it is in America?

Act's thoroughly unlikeable Stephen Franks came out shrieking that it was a scandal this the bill wouldn't become law until March next year. Why not just make it law right now? Because democracy still means something, if not to the Act Party. The idea that such a significant change shouldn't be subject to full select committee scrutiny, which takes six months, is thoroughly repugnant. Remember Tony Ryall's hysterical call for the home invasions bill to be taken under urgency in 1999? Let's not make law that way, huh?

Yet however unnerving Goff's bill might be as law, it is artful politics. It shuts down yet another front on which the Opposition parties can attack the government. And, with the economy looking in relatively rude health compared to those of Australia, the US and Japan, and with accident-prone ministers hauled off the stage, those fronts are becoming few and far between.

Quite how few and how far between was indicated by the quality of the would-be scandals hurled by the Opposition this week. United Future's disappearing Peter Dunne marshalled his fellow Opposition parties into a volley of questions over the alleged role of the Prime Minister's husband, Peter Davis, in influencing the appointment of his Canadian friend Joel Lexchin to conduct an inquiry into the operation of the government drug-buying agency, Pharmac.

I have read what I can on this. I have plodded through Dunne's laborious timeline of emails and phone calls. And I can only conclude that this is a very bloody thin "scandal" indeed. There is, so far as I can see, nothing in it. Although I did have a giggle at seeing Murray McCully, whose naked patronage as Minister of Tourism was one of the low points of the bottom-feeding Shipley government, trying to get a piece of it.

Nearly as desperate was Bill English's attempt to blame the closure of the Deka chain by its Australian owners on the government. If ever there was an exhausted, tapped-out brand, it's Deka. The only wonder is that it didn't go sooner.

Nick Smith fared a bit better in exposing the fact that the $40 million refurbishment of Parliament - which Cabinet had earnestly decreed would not use native timbers - was set to instead use clear-felled African timber under the euphemistic name "English Tawa". He is quite right that a public project shouldn't merely transfer ecological damage offshore and the fact that it would have is an embarrassment.

Speaking of embarrassments and exit-stage-left ministers, wasn't the handing of the biosecurity mantle to Jim Sutton sweetly timed? Marion Hobbs, lovely woman that she is, would have been roasted over foot and mouth; would have no doubt declared it "a bit of a worry" and herself "very cross" at the German farmers who told their public our sheep had scrapie.

Sutton, on the other hand, is in his element - bluntly accusing the Germans of sabotage, hurling resources at the borders and even issuing a call for the nation's pet beagles to be drafted into service. The Prime Minister has been impressed.

Anyway, back home in Auckland, it had to happen: Son of Britomart was just too good to be true. An attractive, sensitive transport centre development to replace the mad jack-up proposed by the unlamented idiot Citizens and Ratepayers council? Well, yes - if you don't mind a $75 million budget over-run. The council's decision to press on is the right one - if we don't think so now, we will in 10 years time - but the plan to plunder Infrastructure Auckland to pay for it is optimistic beyond belief.

Righto, that's it. I'm off for a quiet weekend - which will actually make a nice change. And anyway, I did my partying last night. You should have seen it - big beats, strobes, light sticks and crazy kids all over the place. It was like 2am at the St James, minus the drugs and the muscle shirts. It was Havoc at School. We went, along with all the other liberal sophisticate, work-at-home sorts who have kids at Westmere school. Bayfield had Dave Dobbyn, we had Havoc. And you know, there's nothing like having a boogie with your 10 year-old son


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
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     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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