It sounded simple enough when Winston Peters promised to boost police numbers by 1800 in the 2017 election campaign, but it has proved otherwise. The target, adopted by the coalition government of which Peters was a senior member, has never been reached, and has now been deferred again, the current government instituting a six-month hiatus on recruitment, despite, as its critics have pointed out, an appreciable increase in gun violence and gang activity, not to mention a reported increase in family harm incidents.
The Police Association has also pointed out that more than 200 police staff are fully involved in maintaining the Covid-19 managed isolation and quarantining regime for arrivals from overseas, significantly reducing the numbers available for standard police work.
There seem to be two theories to explain why the rate of recruitment has slowed. The Police Association believes that the budget has been exceeded, while the department has said that the increase was always a five-year plan, and the attrition rate has slowed, so the need for further recruitment has eased.
That might well be the case, although an increase of 1800 on 2017 numbers within three years, as stated in the last government's coalition agreement, does not seem to be an especially complex concept.
The budget issues would seem to be the more likely explanation, the money having been allocated, over three years from 2017, but presumably not currently being available. Remember that the promise, and the coalition agreement, were more than two years old when Covid-19 arrived, and all sorts of government budgets came under pressure.
It would be fair to expect government spending priorities to have changed over the last 10 months as the pandemic wreaks havoc on an economy that is being starved of a good deal of overseas money, but the need to bolster police numbers is arguably greater now than it was in 2017. At least that is the understandable public perception, as gun violence in particular, increases, somewhat ironically, given the last government's claims to have made New Zealand a much safer place courtesy of its prohibition of semi-automatic weapons.
We are only halfway through the reported crime statistics for 2020/21, but it's a reasonable bet that many forms of criminal activity will have increased, which will cast some doubt on assertions that the police have things under control and the need for further recruiting has eased.
Winston Peters' gained a great deal of traction in the 2017 election campaign by arguing that the thin blue line had become far too thin, especially in the provinces, including the Far North, where one or two officers were often all that stood between the criminal element and law-abiding citizens over huge geographical areas at night. Last week the Police Association was expressing concerns over officers working alone at night, so perhaps that hasn't changed much, despite the increase in numbers.
Given that the extra 1800 cops would seem to be one of the easier of the election campaign promises to keep, not least because of the enthusiasm with which potential recruits have been putting their hands up, the problem is likely a financial one. Actually recruiting these people is just the start. Police officers are not cheap to run - years ago, when people used to be charged with wasting police time, the cost of keeping a constable on the beat was routinely put at hundreds of dollars an hour, and it will have increased substantially since then - and the budget is not unlimited. That is not difficult to understand, although critics won't have to look far for examples of government spending that could perhaps be better directed to bolstering the sums available.
One thing that no government, at least in recent times, has been keen to do is to examine its spending habits, with a view to allocating more to areas in which our money can do the most good. We constantly hear about the need to raise taxes, and what could be achieved if we all contributed a little more, but no governing party politician in living memory has shown great enthusiasm for seeking out the money that is being wasted, or at best being spent for very little return.
The sums might be relatively paltry, but the principle is a valid one. The Taxpayers' Union, which has no trouble finding examples of money going into a hole in the ground, pointed to one when it bemoaned the fact that the taxpayer would be footing the $333,000 bill incurred by Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard in settling the cost of his false accusations against a parliamentary employee, money that it said could have funded the drugs that could keep several "vibrant young" cancer patients alive, drugs that 'we' cannot afford.
Then there is the government's First Home Grant, formerly known as HomeStart, established by National and continued by Labour, which gives $5000 to those buying their first home in the lower end of the market. In last year's annual report, Kainga Ora said it had paid $78 million to 14,150 applicants within 12 months. It would be utterly amazing if that money genuninely helped anyone buy their first home.
The Union has also long argued that the $572,000 spent on Mallard's parliamentary playground could have been put to better use.
It's not that government budgets should be porous, allowing money to be taken from one and given to another depending upon need on a daily basis, but a very good case can be made for examining every budget carefully, and deciding which of them deliver no value at all.
The writer had personal experience of how ridiculous government budgeting could be when he was employed by what was then State Hydro as a labourer, for a fixed period, to help replace Kaitaia's wooden substation structure at Pamapuria with the one that, most gratifyingly, is still standing today.
There were four of us, a permanent employee and three short-term labourers, who by late 1974 had completed the job except for one last task, to dismantle a small wooden building with fibrolite cladding and take it to the dump. All the equipment, basically sledgehammers, that we needed was there, and a truck to cart it away. The only cost to the taxpayer was our wages.
Problem was, the cost of removing the building was to come from the landscaping account, and it was empty. So the four of us spent our days, Monday to Friday, playing cards, eating our morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea, for three months until the dawning of the new financial year and the replenishment of the landscaping account, when we were given the green light.
The building came down in a couple of days, and our services were no longer required.
One would hope that government budgeting has changed since those days, but it would be foolish to count on it. And even if money isn't being frittered away in quite such a farcical way now, a good deal does continue to be wasted.
If the problem with the police recruitment campaign is financial, it could be fixed. As could financial problems in all sorts of other areas. We would all be better off if every dollar was spent for the maximum benefit, whether that be in getting a constable on the beat or funding cancer drugs.