Hawke's Bay resident Simon Lusk, who describes himself as "one of the few professional campaigners" in this country, took the time to email me after I bemoaned the pathetic performance of his National Party friends over Grant Robertson's Budget last week with an assurance that "Judith [Collins] still has zero chance of being leader".

I appreciated his response if only because it demonstrated that at least one conscious entity apart from Harry (the chihuahua to whom I test-read my doodling) and the folks that correct my grammar actually bother to read what I write.

I'd have to report, however, that the retired National MP I met in a Wellington Airport lounge last week took the opposite view to Lusk on Collins' leadership prospects and a couple of incidents this week also caused me to think that the National Party's not in the best of health.

First, in politics as in sport, there is never anything to be gained by attacking the referee, but that's exactly what National did by whingeing about Speaker Trevor Mallard's new system of disciplining unruly MPs.


The vast majority of voters wouldn't care if Mallard caused errant MPs to put their hands on their heads and chant "hands on top, that means stop" as happens at my local primary school. There's just no political mileage in what National tried this week.

Second, National Party organisers have exhumed Sir John Key to assist with its campaign in the Northcote byelection. I would have thought that this tactic risks unflattering comparisons between an old leader and the new one and hints at panic in what should be a good outcome for National in a safe seat.

It was a better week for the Government grappling with the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won friends in the normally mistrustful agricultural sector and impressed with her grasp of what is a complex problem. While one farmer was moved to label Jacinda "a smart cookie", she faces a difficult decision on whether the expensive elimination option is further pursued.

Certainly this is something the country would much rather be without, but it seems that weak to non-existent enforcement of an animal-tracking system by the former National government has assisted the spread of the disease to the degree that just managing the problem and enduring reduced production just when dairy prices are picking up may be the ultimate outcome.

A decision on the proposed mega prison at Waikeria also emerged this week, though the choice reached the media in an unplanned fashion and this reflects poorly on the Government's spin doctors.

As someone who doesn't like big prisons, especially those in the back of beyond, I'd still very much like to have heard that the so-called top prison at Waikeria will be replaced with something more like a modern jail.

This particular edifice was built in the early 1900s and, though parts of it are still in use because of the pressure on jail accommodation, it is no longer fit for purpose.

A new but smaller development which builds on the advantages this jail offers would be a good idea.


Waikeria jail includes a large farming operation covering over 1000ha and producing a million kilograms of milk solids annually from the herd of more than 3000 cows.

About 100 prisoners are employed in the farming operation and surely have a good chance of excellent jobs on release in the labour-deprived dairy industry.

It bears repeating that if a prisoner gains a skill while serving a sentence and finds employment on release, the likelihood of that prisoner re-offending is at least halved.

A friend recently wrote that ballooning prisoner numbers is not a uniquely New Zealand problem, nor is it new.

She worked as a volunteer lawyer in New York Prisons and she watched as the State of New York reduced its prison population by 26 per cent between 1999 and 2012.

This goes close to the Labour Party's objective of a 30 per cent reduction over time and the Government would be wise to carefully examine how this was achieved.

This New York experience demonstrated that the relationship between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment are weak if not inverse.

While prisoner numbers were falling, so was the crime rate in the state with a 31 per cent reduction in violent crime and a 29 per cent reduction in property crime.

There was no magic wand involved in what is a huge savings for the New York state taxpayers and a massive reduction in lost human potential.

Drug rehabilitation, including specialist drug courts, incentivising prisoners to undertake education programmes and skills training, attention to post-release accommodation and some changes to bail, sentencing and parole laws were all in the New York mix.

It's time we had a good look!

• Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League and a former Labour Party president. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.