We might live in an age where statistics rule, but increasingly we don't seem to need statistics that have any foundation in fact. Any statistic will do these days, and no one ever seems to question them.It was very gracious of Minister of Statistics James Shaw to concede that last year's census "could have been done better".
He might have used other words to describe it, like debacle, shambles, fiasco or catastrophe, but this is progress from the man who defended the process long after it had become clear to everyone except him and his minions that this particular exercise was going to be a waste of time and money.
And more than a waste of money. The five-yearly census plays a crucial role in the development of government policy in terms of spending. Long after it became clear that this count wasn't going to produce anything much of value, the best Mr Shaw could do was to advise the Northland Age not to believe everything it read on Twitter, despite general acceptance that some 700,000 New Zealanders would not be counted.
The Northland DHB had already claimed that the under-counting of Northland's population in the previous census had cost it millions of dollars in funding, constricting hugely its inability to do the job it was charged with doing, and more specifically meeting a raft of targets imposed by the previous government. Other government departments and agencies could not doubt make similar claims.
Never mind. We might live in an age where statistics rule, but increasingly we don't seem to need statistics that have any foundation in fact. Any statistic will do these days, and no one ever seems to question them.
The current issue, whether prisoners should be allowed to vote, is a good example of that. Defenders of prisoners' rights might not have come up with a specific figure, but we are being led to believe that this country's prisons are stuffed to the gunwales with people who are desperate to play their part in the democratic process, not only as a basic human right but as a means of restoring their place within society, thus aiding their return to productive citizenship.
And, just to cover all their bases, we are told that denying jail inmates the right to vote is a breach of the Treaty, in that it disproportionately punishes Māori. What a load of bollocks. This could only conceivably be a Treaty issue if non-Māori prisoners had the vote and Māori prisoners didn't. The Treaty, if one recalls correctly, guarantees all the people of New Zealand the rights of what in 1840 was British citizenship. Equal rights for all. That's exactly what prison inmates are getting, isn't it?
Leaving aside the pathetic tactic of chucking the Treaty into the discussion, it is difficult to believe that our prisons are populated by men and women who lie awake at night wishing they could help decide who their local MP is going to be, and who is going to govern the country. The writer is unaware of any official statistic, and given the ineptitude of Mr Shaw's ministry it probably wouldn't have got around to delivering census papers to prisons last year anyway, but it's a pretty good bet that the majority of inmates wouldn't vote even if the law allowed them to.
It's an equally good bet that most of them have never voted in their lives. These people did not become estranged from society the day they were sentenced. They disconnected when they embarked upon the lifestyles that eventually led them to a where they are now, and granting them the right to vote from a prison cell will make not one iota of difference to their prospects of rehabilitation when they are released.
Most people won't give a tinker's cuss whether prison inmates are allowed to vote or not. You might not want to see them offering themselves as candidates, although some might be entitled to do so once they are released, but whether or not they should be allowed to vote really isn't much of an issue. What grates is the argument that, to a man and a woman, they wish to do so, and that denying them that right somehow places them outside the society of which they long to be a part.
There are more important rights to consider than this one. Like the right to correspond with people outside the prison, a 'right' that was exercised in spectacular fashion by the mosque murder accused, Brenton Tarrant, whose missives reportedly included a letter to a Russian organisation that apparently shares his general world view. He's not the first person to abuse that right, of course, or more accurately, was allowed to abuse it.
There is absolutely no doubt that the ability to communicate, by letter, phone call or visits, can and does play a huge and positive role in the general rehabilitation process. And most would no doubt agree that ceasing all communication between inmates and their loved ones would be inhumane, and counter-productive. But it beggars belief that our prison system could allow that right to be abused to this extent.
A representative of Corrections reportedly gave an extraordinarily candid radio interview last week, in which she said two people had been responsible for vetting Tarrant's letters, and had allowed the offending epistles to be mailed. Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis' view was that the pertinent law was no longer fit for purpose and was in need of review. Most of us might lean more towards the view that the people charged with vetting letters should undergo a refresher course, or simply be replaced with others who take their wits with them when they go to work.
Everyone other than Mr Davis who has some expertise in this particular field seemed to agree that the rules governing prisoners' letters are entirely fit for purpose. They just need to be applied. Blaming the inadequacy of the law is a cop-out, a not unfamiliar process designed to absolve incompetent individuals of blame.
The same applies to the ongoing ability of prisoners to organise 'fights,' and to disseminate videos of those fights, a practice that rightly outraged Mr Davis when he was in opposition, but which he has apparently been unable to curtail. And last week we learned that a convicted murderer, sentenced to a minimum of 21 years for the slaying of the mother of his children and her partner, had been released nine years early on compassionate grounds — he has apparently been diagnosed with cancer — without the knowledge of his victims' families.
That story came to light when Jason Reihana's son encountered his father outside prison walls.
The families of Reihana's victims had asked to be placed on a victims' register, which meant they should have been told when he was to be released, but weren't. Once again, someone simply didn't do their job. Once again, Corrections has been exposed as failing to fulfil a simple obligation, yet here we are talking about whether prisoners should have the right to vote.
That's the way we seem to do things these days. We agonise over meaningless issues while the big ones go unnoticed. The utter failure of last year's census is a big one, which will have lasting ramifications, the consequences of which will not be ameliorated in any way by the long-delayed resignation of Chief Statistician Liz MacPherson. And the political response to that is the underwhelming concession that it could have been done better.
Indeed it could have. And in the meantime, those with a penchant for promoting whacky ideas that deflect attention from the real issues should be ignored.