The generous offer of 8000 or so votes from the gangs is not exactly an endorsement that is likely to appear on a political party’s billboards.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was quick to make that clear after National unearthed the Mongrel Mob’s voting strategy for the 2023 election.
National discovered it on social media, set out by Mongrel Mob spokesman Harry Tam.
It was for gang members to vote strategically by supporting Labour candidates in marginal seats and giving the Greens the party vote so Labour had a governing partner.
Whether that is a sound strategic voting plan or not, it was a very welcome one for National – and unwelcome for Labour.
National merrily advertised it more widely – clearly in the hope that doing so would be counter-productive to the strategy by making fewer people vote for Labour.
Hipkins was quick to say no to the generous offer of more than 8000 potential gang votes for his side of the game, describing gangs as having done a lot of harm to people.
There are very few groups in society whose votes would be less sought after.
It is more of an anti-National voting strategy than a pro-Labour one, and few people would think Labour was actually trying to foster the gang vote.
However, it was awkward and inconvenient for Labour to have it mentioned at all, especially after publicity around events such as a recent gang tangi all but closing Ōpōtiki for days on end.
It’s not a new thing from the Mob: Tam also urged members to vote for anyone but National ahead of the 2020 election. The key difference between now and then is that the video of that did not emerge until after the election.
The other key difference is that Labour is on much rockier ground now as far as law and order and popularity go.
Back then it was at the height of its popularity and the big villains in society were people breaching lockdown rules rather than ram-raiders or gang shootings.
The timing of the Tam nod to Labour and the Greens was perfect for the National Party.
National leader Christopher Luxon has added the Mob to his list of the so-called “coalition of chaos” – the combo of Labour, the Greens, Te Pati Maori “and the Mob”.
It also coincided with the release of a report by the PM’s chief science adviser, which included commentary on the “hard/soft on crime” rhetoric that is on repeat play from National and Act MPs and raised questions about whether the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach would have the desired effect.
Luxon’s response to the report made it clear he did not particularly care for any nuance when it came to the law and order question. When it comes to gangs policy, National is working with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel.
National and Act are in something of an arm wrestle to be the toughest (or most populist) on law and order.
National’s recent law and order policies have been more in line with those of Act than of the National Party of yore. It has taken up Act’s three-strikes policy as its own.
It has decided judges are soft on crime, and so adopted a policy that will restrict how much judges can reduce the sentences of offenders, no matter how compelling the reasons for a reduction might be.
Act’s new law and order policy will appear on Sunday – just how far will it have to go to one-up National?
Part of National’s efforts are aimed at trying to stop Act taking too much of its vote – a vote that went to Act during National’s time of woes before 2021. Despite the change in leader and fortunes for National since then, that chunk of the Act vote has proven difficult to claw back.
The other part of its efforts is to try to portray Labour as soft on crime by comparison to try to mop up votes in the middle. This is unfair – Hipkins points to the greater powers police have to seize firearms and break up gatherings. But it is politics and he can do little about it.
The Mob strategy – and an inopportune visit by a Labour MP to a Mob meeting – gave National more grist to try to portray the gangs as being in the bosom of the Labour Party.
There were some comical elements to the news that Labour MP Ingrid Leary had stumbled upon a Mongrel Mob election meeting in Dunedin.
Leary is a former journalist and so perhaps more robust in facing such situations than others might be. She should at least be credited for having the guts (albeit perhaps not political judgment) to exchange words with Tam, rather than seeing the patches and bolting in the opposite direction.
Nor could she stand accused of sucking up to the Mob or trying to solicit their votes, no matter how hard National tries to argue that she did.
According to Tam’s version of the conversation on social media, Leary “gatecrashed” and then told him she did not particularly want to be seen to be associating with him, given the controversy around gangs.
It’s understood Leary realised her mistake fairly quickly – and had not stayed for the meeting, but told Tam she had not realised it was a Mob meeting and that no political party would want to be seen associating with them so she was leaving.
Leary’s explanation was that she was invited by a member of a reputable community group and was told it was an Electoral Commission event to promote enrolment and voting in an area of her Taieri electorate in which engagement was particularly low.
Leary’s confusion is understandable on that explanation (National might not think so, of course): the Electoral Commission subsequently confirmed the gang had invited it to the hui and two people had attended as part of its overall community engagement and education programme.
It should not be criticised for that – the Electoral Commission should be politically blind and unrestricted by the same political considerations that apply to politicians. Gang members also have families, who can vote.
Nonetheless, it was all manna from heaven for the National Party.
Then there was the third law and order issue of the week: fights in a youth justice facility in South Auckland.
Opposition parties don’t have many luxuries in life – but one they do have is the ability to paint things in black and white terms.
Government parties are dealing with real life, and all the grey areas and facets of human behaviour that come with that; the Opposition is dealing with a hypothetical future life.
The problem with the hypothetical future life is that it has to be believable. It can also come back to bite you.
An example of the latter popped up this week – after a rooftop standoff and footage of fighting at the Korowai Manaaki youth justice facility in south Auckland while staff watched on.
Children’s and Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis came under fire over it.
National and Act remembered how Davis responded to similar troubles of “fight clubs” in the Mt Eden remand prison when he was in Opposition in 2015. He called for then Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga to resign to show ministerial accountability.
And that was between adult prisoners – not teenage children fighting and being filmed by the staff.
Lotu-Iiga was demoted in the end.
But National remembered how Davis litigated it – and that his litigation of it brooked no excuses.
For now, Davis has taken refuge in a review by former police commissioner Mike Bush into the youth justice facilities – a review called after two staff were stood down for alleged inappropriate and sexual behaviour in the residences. He has said it was good that such incidents had been “flushed out” and pointed out any staff who had been there during the fights had been suspended.
Davis has had a relatively smooth run in the notoriously fraught Corrections portfolio until now, but it never pays to have to rely on criminals or prisoners behaving to maintain your credibility.