John Key got his first taste of what lies ahead on the campaign trail yesterday when he received a resounding "booing" over his plans for boot camps.
Mr Key was speaking to an initially polite audience at the Every Child Counts annual conference, until he mentioned his policy for "Army-style correction" camps for "wayward youth who are going off the rails".
He was interrupted by a chorus of booing and jeering, which reignited when he tried to claim "they actually do work".
It continued until the Mc, Pio Terei, intervened and asked the audience to listen to his explanation.
The ECC is an umbrella lobby group, generally viewed as sympathetic to Labour, and made up of about 380 organisations involved with children, including Plunket, Unicef, Barnardos and Save the Children.
Mr Key stuck to his guns and defended his policy with vigour.
"Let's say we don't do that. What's option b? We've got an issue with about 1000 young New Zealanders, if we do nothing about them they're going to go into those, in my opinion, those youth gangs that we see and they're eventually going to go on to a life of crime.
"That is the probability of where they are going. I'm not going to sit back and let them hang around on the streets of New Zealand until they eventually go out and kill someone. Sorry, I'm going to stand up and do something about it."
He agreed boot camps did not work if they were used as a short-term treatment, but said chief youth court judge Andrew Becroft had supported them as part of a longer term programme, with follow-up mentoring, training and education.
Every Child Counts chairman Murray Edridge conceded Mr Key's mention of boot camps was not well received. "Yes, boot camps weren't popular today. Which is not a surprise, and this is a partisan audience."
He said Mr Key had handled it well. He would not express a view on boot camps, but said taking people away from their normal settings was not part of modern-day thinking about youth justice.
Labour's Ruth Dyson met a warmer welcome. She told the conference she understood the reaction.
The current youth justice system worked well and "in a way that respects our youth, keeps them out of the adult justice system". She said New Zealand risked losing its comparatively low youth offending level if it changed the approach.
Mr Key also defended his plans to make single parents on the DPB work or train up to 15 hours a week after their children turned 6.
"I don't think it's healthy when you're starting to get generation after generation after generation where no one in those households has worked."