• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is the author of PATCHED: THE HISTORY OF GANGS IN NEW ZEALAND and is producing a series on gangs for RNZ.
In this election National are suggesting their supporters use the line 'Backing Bill'. Not for a second did I imagine that meant choosing between Bill English and the Bill of Rights. Not until today.
It took longer than usual but gangs finally got a look in the run up to this election, and when it came the timing couldn't have been worse. It was a bit cold in Christchurch so I'd gone back to bed but I had to get up again to furiously beat this out on my keyboard because of a genuine need to call attention to the nonsense in National's drug and gang policy. Not only is it cynical, it's dangerous.
Usually frowned upon by members of parliament, every three years gangs become the best friend of politicians because they deliver them their drug of choice; votes.
Both sides of the political spectrum are addicts, but nowhere has the desperate nature of politics and gangs been clearer than National's recent announcement.
The history of gangs and politics stretches back to Norm Kirk, who before the 1972 election promised to 'take the bike off the bikies'. Big Norm never did take the bikes off the bikies but he did get elected. And ever since failed or foolish policies have made way for the fact that the politics of them worked.
Perhaps because this is such an old trick, politicians now have to ramp up the gimmick to get traction. Labour's Stuart Nash said he would simply 'crush the gangs' if elected, but perhaps because we'd heard that so many times before most of us just sniggered. Last time it was Judith Collins saying that gangs were targeting wealthy school children to sell P to. Why wealthy school children? Well, that's the demographic of her voters, so it made the issue more relevant. The fact there wasn't a shred of evidence to support the claim was beside the point.
We can roll our eyes at that nonsense, but Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett's latest effort is far more sinister.
National is proposing to give police powers to search gang members without a warrant. Allowing police the power to march through people's houses at their will is a power that if targeted against anybody else (the parents of wealthy school children, for instance) would be seen as completely outrageous.
But as Bennett said, 'Some people have fewer rights than others.' And that's a statement that should trouble us, particularly when the Prime Minister supports it by saying, 'It's good that we don't have a written constitution it's enabled the country to deal with issues in a practical way.'
But this isn't even practical. Far from it. Bennett said on Twitter that 'scumbag gangs don't deserve protection'. But the majority of drug dealers aren't gang members, so why do those scumbags have greater rights than those in a gang?
Also, who constitute a gang member may sound like an easy question, but it isn't. I've been confused for one by police because of my research associations - and I can tell you that having the police target you unjustly is incredibly unpleasant. Furthermore, what if your son is in a gang and he's staying with you, can your house then be searched without a warrant? How far does the discretion extend? How many times can a gang member's house be searched without finding anything before such searches are stopped?
That much power vested in police without judicial oversight is concerning but because it says 'gang' fewer people will be concerned: at least that's what Bennett is backing on.
We are rarely challenged by human rights in New Zealand on easy issues, we are challenged by difficult ones. That is when our commitment to them is tested. If we are prepared to run roughshod over them in situations like this, I fear what happens when we face a crisis, such as an act of terrorism.
The proposed law will not have any meaningful impact on the drug trade in New Zealand. But it does speak to who we are as a country. Paula Bennett ought be called out in the strongest possible terms for this cynical politicking.
Our country, and the principles of Western justice that underpin it, are more valuable than a political party's advantage on the hustings.
It's not that I think we shouldn't vote for Paula Bennett. I think she should resign.