The police were very quick to take up defensive positions this week when it was revealed that officers in the Counties Manukau district had been told not to ticket unlicensed Maori drivers. Too quick. But, clearly, they knew there would be a backlash from the many people wedded to the notion that no New Zealander should be accorded special treatment or miss out on something because of who they are. Such are the ideals of egalitarianism and a fair go for all. Yet enshrined in our law is a recognition also that affirmative action, such as that taken by the Counties Manukau police, may sometimes be warranted.
Both the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act recognise that different treatment may be necessary to enable a particular group of people to achieve equality with other members of society.
A couple of caveats must be attached to this. One is that the need for help or advancement must be genuine, and based on information that shows the present situation is unequal. Another is that the assistance must end once the objective has been achieved. It is on these grounds that the police policy in Counties Manukau should be assessed.
It springs from the Turning the Tide programme, a crime and crash-prevention strategy developed by iwi and the police, and in operation since 2012. Its starting point was the over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system. They comprise 15 per cent of the population, but figure in 40 per cent of all police apprehensions, and make up 50 per cent of the prison population and more than 20 per cent of road deaths. Between 2001 and 2021, the number of Maori 15- to 29-year-olds, the group doing most of the offending, will grow by 28 per cent. If nothing changes, even more Maori will feature in the criminal justice system.
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The circuit-breaker chosen by iwi and the police is an emphasis on prevention, rather than enforcement. In Counties Manukau, this has led to officers having the discretion to refer unlicensed Maori drivers to training, rather than handing out $400 fines. But if after two months the driver has not complied with this request, the fine will be imposed. This is not a case of turning a blind eye to a crime.
Clearly, many New Zealanders have difficulty coming to terms with such policies and, indeed, the very idea of affirmative action even though it is widely practised. The Canadian Charter, for example, specifically endorses the concept. In this country, it is also evident in government quotas for Maori and Pacific Island students to help address their under-representation in universities. The widespread antipathy to this sort of thing clearly persuaded Police Commissioner Mike Bush to try to have it both ways. The Counties Manukau guidelines could have been "worded better", he said, while sticking to the police's commitment to a "constructive, problem-solving" approach.
Most importantly, he said the strategy was working. That suggested a specific target of a 20 per cent fall in Maori crash fatalities by 2018 could be met. If so, this collaboration will have been a success. And in terms of future relations between Maori and the police and reduced costs in the health, justice and prison systems, all New Zealanders will benefit.