The former Reserve Bank governor, once National Party leader and grand antagonist of Māori, Don Brash, recently joined a Mongrel Mob trust. In doing so, he became the most high-profile and unlikely example of a person working with the gangs since Prime Minister Robert Muldoon in the 1980s.
Muldoon, who was hardly known for his sympathies around Māori issues – he once proposed to sending errant "Māori louts" back to the countryside – became a champion for the predominantly Māori gangs. He set up an agency to work with gangs in an effort to encourage their members into "make work" schemes popular at the time. His thinking was that getting the gangs into work would decrease their anti-social activities. This was a time before gangs were linked to organised crime; inter-gang violence was the big concern.
Remarkably, Muldoon once left the 9th floor of the Beehive to have a drink with Black Power at a local pub, where the gang members and the Prime Minister were abruptly kicked out by management. That story in itself deserves a column. But just like the drinking session, working alongside gangs came to an abrupt halt in the late 80s, and with that a return to the gangs being seen simply as a police issue.
The current efforts to work alongside the gangs extend beyond the independent efforts of Don Brash, and are being seen by many in the Wellington bureaucracy as the way forward.
Perhaps the most explicit is the Department of Corrections, whose signature strategy, Hōkai Rangi, states that it will "work with gang leaders who are disengaged from offending behaviour to support their members in our care who are motivated to uplift the oranga of themselves and their whānau".
Most people will question why we would work alongside gang members at all, believing they should be given no quarter and hounded out of existence.
I won't satisfy all of the questions now, but here's a couple of reasons why I think, if it's done correctly, it's worth a crack.
For starters, any initiatives to work with gangs don't change the law-and-order focus. The police and other agencies will continue to target them in exactly the same ways they do now. So the policing of gang activities like drug dealing, for example, remains entirely unchanged.
Given that, anything else that is done is only a bonus that doesn't remove a suppression focus – those advocating an approach to crush the gangs will lose nothing. Given that, if working alongside gang members at the same time can create positive benefits, then nothing at all is lost but potentially much is gained.
Take family violence and meth addiction, for example. Both of these issues are really significant within gang whānau. The flow-on effects of both are hugely damaging, particularly to the children in these environments who have no choice about being there. If we are to tackle Māori overrepresentation in so many negative social and economic statistics, then these two areas are an important place to start.
In many gangs, there is a strong desire to make changes in these two areas and if we work alongside those leaders willing to engage, then we can assist in creating healthier communities in which families – in this instance gang families – are giving their children a better chance to succeed.
And this is Don Brash's thinking. He is helping with a gang education trust, which might just prove to be a building block in changing the futures of those kids with an extremely high risk of creating negative statistics in the future.
Let's look 10 years ahead. If the hard-line policing measures fail to crush the gangs, as many have hoped since the 1960s, and the gangs are still with us but their children are free of fear, well-fed, and engaged in education, then not only are those kids and families better off, so are their communities and, in turn, so is all of New Zealand.
Is it as easy as that? Sure as hell not. As Muldoon learned, you don't just get kicked out of pubs when you hang out with gang members, you can also get your hand bitten. Muldoon publicly supported the Mongrel Mob at a convention in 1986 "in spite of the cynicism of the public". Two days later, a horrific pack rape was revealed at the convention, which very much confirmed public cynicism. More recently, a Dunedin Trust with links to Black Power received Whānau Ora funding only to see some of it siphoned off to build a cannabis grow room.
The successes don't make headlines, but the failures certainly do.
But working alongside gang members – as challenging as it will be – at least allows for a realistic chance of making significant differences in those communities where changes are most certainly needed.