It has been one year since the general election. One year since the Government used statistics that were so wrong they will make any reasonable person choke.

Then Police Minister Anne Tolley claimed that the country's 4000 adult gang members were responsible for 34 per cent of class A and B drug offences and 25 per cent of homicide-related offences. This was completely uncontroversial. It was also completely false.

When I obtained the actual data, I discovered that the true figures were 4 per cent of class A and B drug offences and the homicide figure (over the period Tolley had used) was actually zero.

These weren't small overstatements; they were wildly inaccurate figures that were used to promote far-reaching anti-gang policies. In using those statistics the Government created a massive problem and "solved" it just in time for the election.


Politics and gangs have been inextricably entwined since Labour's Norman Kirk promised to take the "bikes off the bikies" in the lead up to the 1972 election. Kirk won the election but never did take the bikes off the bikies; but that was of little consequence; the gangs had proven to provide politicians with their drug of choice: votes.

Having gone through the records of New Zealand parliamentary debates since that time it is clear that every three years there is a flurry of gang discussion. This either means gang activity spikes in line with the electoral cycle or something more cynical.

With the exception of an astonishing moral panic in 1996, last year's effort was by far the most egregious example of contemptuous politics.

When I pointed this latest nonsense out last year (and after being attacked for doing so) the figures were quietly and secretly corrected in Cabinet after the election. The Cabinets papers, which I obtained, place the blame on the police who "did not make it clear enough". Yet I have seen the data used and they were clear and unequivocal.

But despite the Government eventually conceding their figures were wildly inaccurate it has never publicly admitted the fact and the data are still being cited. I was asked last week to critique a draft book chapter for an academic colleague who was using the figures to demonstrate the gang problem. Given they are widely available on the internet through news reports, and thus recorded for all history, the figures will always remain in the minds of the public.

While many people will have no concerns about demonising gangs, few will appreciate being lied to.

Although I can prove the gang figures were an utter nonsense, two questions remain: was the Government unaware the data was faulty or did it use the data to fool the public? In other words, did we elect idiots or did we elect smart people who have treated us like idiots? The only thing we know for certain is that we elected people who will not reveal which is which. Either way we should judge them accordingly.

Given that this is one area I know well and can prove political manipulation, I wring my hands pondering how much other information is being used to create false impressions about important issues. This is hardly a situation that will comfort those who appreciate honest and open democracy.

Twelve months on, I am happy to be held accountable for what I have said here. I ask any journalist or any member of the public to question the former police minister or the prime minister about these facts and I will happily debate either of them if they deny what I'm saying is true. Neither will.

The percentage of people who vote in this country continues a downward trend, particularly among young people. Why? Because it doesn't seem to matter a damn that politicians lie. It should matter. It does matter.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury who specialises in research with practical applications.
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