Government coalition partner New Zealand First will not support the repeal of the "three strikes law".
Its MPs met today to discuss the party's position on the proposal by Justice Minister Andrew Little but it had already shot down his paper before it got to Cabinet.
Following the meeting today, New Zealand First's law and order spokesman Darroch Ball said the law, officially known as the Sentencing and Parole Reform Act 2010, provided a firm framework to deter recidivism and sent a clear message to the most serious offenders.
"While New Zealand First agrees with the need for legislative changes to prevent the moral failure and fiscal burden of an ever growing prison muster, 'three strikes' is not the priority in this necessary reform effort," Ball said in a statement.
"We're talking about serious violent or sexual crimes - murder, rape, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. We need to protect our community from these recidivist, highly dangerous offenders."
Little said publicly last week he would take a paper to Cabinet on Monday on the repeal but yesterday announced he had dropped it.
Calling the law the "high watermark of policy stupidity" today, he acknowledged that it must stay for now.
"When you change laws you've got to have the numbers to do so, that's the nature of parliamentary politics, and in a coalition government it is even more so," he told RNZ.
Little indicated he had the support of New Zealand First while the paper was being prepared but the Government coalition partner had changed its mind.
"In order to get a proposal ready to go to Cabinet you go through a variety of hoops ... I'd gone through every one of those hoops. More recently New Zealand First had reconsidered their position, which they're quite entitled to do."
The party had told him last week it would prefer to consider a broader justice reform package together and not individual elements.
He said pushing the proposal back a few years did not mean it was off the table.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also did not rule it out as one day being repealed.
"Down the track, who knows what could happen in three or four years' time, but for now New Zealand First aren't supporting it," she told RNZ.
National leader Simon Bridges today described Little's handling of the issue as haphazard and incompetent.
"What we still don't quite understand here ... whether ultimately this has been Andrew Little's complete process failure and inability to do the basics around Cabinet and consultation with support partners or whether in fact it's the New Zealand First party having second thoughts, having been through actually acceptable process."
National's justice spokesman Mark Mitchell said the entire coalition Government had to take responsibility but Little had been stabbed in the back by New Zealand First. He believed New Zealand First must have supported the proposal initially before vetoing it after gauging public opinion.
Under the law, which was passed by the National-led government in 2010, a person with three warnings after serious violent, sexual or drugs convictions must be sentenced to the maximum jail time without parole unless the sentencing judge believed it would be manifestly unjust.