This week I attended the funeral of Gary Reid, who most in the social sector will know as the public face of the Whanganui Peoples Centre for about 20 years.

Gary's funeral was such a fitting tribute as we all gathered to acknowledge his work.

The congregation were representatives from the coalface of social work and included non-government organisations and government agencies. Those of us who knew him as a representative, or merely a fellow citizen, had a great relationship with Gary.

And he had a good relationship with most ministers from the portfolios he worked in - health, community services, social welfare and the like.

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Gary was the guy who knew his way around the policies, procedures and legislation - and knew who or what stood in the way of helping the person who was in need.

The comment was made that Gary could get done in a day what politicians may take a month or longer to achieve, and I had to admit it was right. But then I have been wrestling with finding the answer as to why that should be.

And the answer is that Gary never had to worry about getting votes. It wasn't necessarily "politics", because he could be as political as you like, but the current debate over building a mega-prison at Waikeria is an obvious illustration.

The quandary the government finds itself in is the burgeoning prison population and where to house the prisoners who will overflow the system very quickly if nothing is done.

The National Government provided the legislation - and the miscalculation that meant 50 more prisoners were expected but many hundreds have turned up remanded in custody, not even sentenced.

The crime rate is plummeting and while we want to take credit for that, prison numbers are climbing astronomically.

The rhetoric says communities will be unsafe without bigger prisons, and yet this can't possibly be the case given lessening crime.

Politics has taken over from evidence-based policy-making in the law and order portfolios because there are no votes in a reasoned, logical and outcomes-based approach.

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Older voters believe the world is less safe and less honest, and they are more in danger than ever before despite all the evidence.

Voters over 65 cast their votes in bigger numbers than any other grouping, so politicians seeking to regain power or stay in government are tempted to pander to the erroneous whims of a sector that is most likely to turn up at the polling booth.

The reason mega-prisons are not being built anywhere in the western world is because they don't work.

People stay out of trouble if they are well incentivised and well monitored and cared-for, have a place to live, work and their needs for rehabilitation met.

This is seen as being "smart" rather than "tough" on crime.

Tough on crime is popular with the insular and ignorant when it comes to justice policy, while restorative approaches with enduring outcomes that help people stay away from jail because they offend less are not popular, not sexy and seen as "soft on crime".

People being released from prison need a place to live, as do accused and unconvicted people on bail awaiting a hearing, but Housing New Zealand won't let them board in state houses.

Many will be remanded in custody and, even if convicted, will go through to release without any remediation because they were never bailed. In fact, they will come out of jail worse than when they went in because of the very policy promoted by those saying it is unsafe to leave them in the community. It is nuts, bonkers, bloody-minded and doomed to fail.

The reason why Gary Reid helped so many people was because he didn't care which way they voted nor did he require their mandate or support. He was catering to a need, not pandering to an electorate.

Those of us who knew him loved him for it.

Those who disagreed with him at least respected him for doing an unpopular job that paid poorly, with the only reward being the warm glow of knowing it had been done well.

When I look back on my parliamentary career I kick myself more about what I didn't do and didn't say, rather than feel pride for what I did say and did achieve ... and now that chance is gone.

What we need are people in authority brave enough to do what is right rather than what is popular.

■Chester Borrows served as Whanganui MP for 12 years and as a minister in the National Government.