In recently launching the Government's gang strategy, Police Minister Judith Collins said: "I'm going to say something that hasn't often been said in this Parliament - and that is that gangs are bad."

Whether Collins believes gangs have been unaddressed or indeed praised by politicians in the past is a mystery for the ages. And when I mean ages, I mean for people under the age of about six. No one older could possibly accept her statement as true.

In the early 1970s, for example, Norman Kirk promised a hard-line approach on gangs saying that he would take the "bikes off the bikies" and thus the electoral advantage of talking tough on gangs was discovered. But the gangs endured, Norm.

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, John Banks was forever banging on about gang members, calling them "sewer rats" and "depraved mongrels in every sense of the word". Banks promised to use "commandos from the armed forces" to deal with gangs. But Banks knew as little about the army as he did the gangs. New Zealand doesn't have commandos as such, but by crumbs he talked a big game.


The gangs endured, John.

In the mid 1990s, Mike Moore said gangs had "graduated into serious organised crime". He and others said the gangs had machine guns, wore badges proving they had murdered, and had better technology than the police. They were, he said, a "ticking time bomb lodged against the heart of the nation" and a "threat to our democracy".

Early in the new millennium, then-Whanganui mayor Michael Laws had so many insults to spray gang members with that he had enough left over to spit some at other people too. When the former head of the Auckland police gang unit questioned the merits of Laws' plan to ban gang patches, Laws launched into him calling him an "idiot", "bitter and twisted" and a "broken arse". Despite having the backing of Parliament, Laws overcooked his legislation and it was struck out by the High Court. The gangs endured, Michael.

Calling gangs bad isn't rare; it is in fact a national political pastime. But so too is failure. None of the measures stemming from the above had a meaningful impact on the gangs. If Collins had a better grasp of this history she would know this. But perhaps she will succeed where others have failed because she knows the contemporary gang situation so thoroughly well? It appears not.

In an opinion piece in the Herald, Collins stated that one third of our prison population are "active gang members". Given her own data say there are 4000 gang members in New Zealand and the country's prison muster is over 9000 that would mean there are just 1000 gang members out of jail. Utter nonsense. It's not even remotely close to being true. In fact, I will resign from the University of Canterbury if she is correct.

And let's not get started on her claim that the gangs are grouping together in a strategy to sell methamphetamine to rich school kids; a better example of dog whistle politics you'd be hard pressed to find. As such, Collins joins the long cast of politicians who use the gangs for political advantage. The gangs exist in marginalised communities and the vast majority of New Zealanders reading this will have absolutely nothing to do with them - probably not even see them - and because of this they are perfect folk devils. It's baffling really, given there are enough very real problems and concerns surrounding the gangs, ramping up the issue is unnecessary.

Recently I wrote an encouraging view of this Government's shift to evidence-led social policy development but good outcomes will only be realised if the approach isn't ineptly or cynically managed. Gang formation and development are complex phenomena and unless this is understood, the gangs will invariably endure Collins too.

It has been revealed that Collins likes a "double rule" approach to politics, meaning anyone who criticises her gets double the criticism back. Given this, she may seek to attack me for pointing out these deficiencies but I suggest something different. I teach a course on gangs; meaning I have 140 undergraduate students who are better informed about the topic than the people charged with seeking political solutions.

So please accept this as an invitation to come and see me, Judith. After that meeting you will still be able to stand up in Parliament and say the gangs are bad, but you will know how and why; and knowing those things are good starting points. I'll put the kettle on.

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