In January, it’s unlikely few outside Lower Hutt could’ve confidently picked Ginny Andersen out of a political line-up.
But in the space of six short months, the Hutt South MP has effectively become one of Labour’s chief decision-makers on crime as she takes on the justice portfolio after it was stripped from Kiri Allan.
It adds to her responsibilities as Police Minister, which she was given in March after Stuart Nash resigned for criticising a judge’s decision and then calling the Police Commissioner to discuss appealing it.
It’s not a conventional way to move up the ranks, linked with the failings of others rather than solely a result of her own achievements.
Andersen believes she’s earned it, but acknowledges the complicated nature of taking over from Allan, her friend and colleague, considering the circumstances.
“It’s never easy to watch someone you care about going through such a distressing time and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about her, but that doesn’t distract me from getting on with the job that needs to be done,” Andersen says from her fifth-floor office in the Beehive that she’d shared with Allan.
“Politics is never an easy road but part of the job is to make sure that you take up opportunities when they come and do a good job with them, and I’d like to think I’ve done that.”
It was Allan, not Andersen, who last week fronted arguably the Government’s toughest policy on crime - a new ram raid offence with further powers to address offenders under 14 that Allan and then-Police Minister Chris Hipkins had been working on for months and something Andersen had hinted at.
The new offence was the exclamation point to three consecutive days of law and order announcements that featured the introduction of aggravating factors at sentencing for those encouraging young people to commit crimes and those posting their offending to social media.
However, with only four sitting weeks left before the election campaign begins, Andersen says it’s unlikely the necessary legislation will get further than its first reading in the House.
“I think it’s important when you’re making changes that impact upon human rights that people, the community, get a chance to comment,” she says.
“So I think a full select committee process and having the ability for people to have a say on what’s being proposed, that’s important too, and while we want to crack on and make sure we make progress in this area, we don’t want to ride roughshod over good process.”
Much of Andersen’s work in the police portfolio has focused on prevention, expanding programmes that engaged young offenders soon after they committed crimes to get them back on the straight and narrow.
That was despite repeated calls from business owners and Opposition parties for harsher consequences as ram raids spiked in August last year and remained high into 2023. The number of ram raids in June (42) was the lowest since November 2021.
Asked why the Government had waited until now to action a new ram raid offence, Andersen says it took her a few months travelling around police districts to ascertain what the real problem was - children under 14 who weren’t answerable to the Youth Court and were able to regularly offend.
Another factor was reported by the Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett, who cited “squeamishness” from Cabinet colleagues over taking a harder stand against young people and instead opted to wait to see the efficacy of prevention programmes.
Andersen wouldn’t speak to any potential reluctance in Cabinet, but she defends the Government’s approach to the post-Covid spikes in violent youth crime.
“The first reaction was before I was minister to introduce those circuit breaker programmes. They worked; 82 per cent not reoffending.
“We expanded those, they’re doing a great job, but then we’re still seeing ram raids occurring again and again. That’s not okay.
“There is a line and we need to make it clear where that line is and if we are seeing the same person repeat the same crime again, they need to make sure that they suffer consequences.”
That’s a message Andersen says she’s been pushing among those most impacted by crime. In recent months, she’s been having more meetings with business owners and prominent voices on law and order, such as Dairy and Business Owners Group chairman Sunny Kaushal - a supporter of National’s crime policy who hasn’t been afraid to criticise the Government.
Andersen acknowledges the political benefit of regular engagement with the likes of Kaushal but says her main motivation is to further understand the problem.
“It’s great to get advice from officials, but my personal approach is I really like to hear straight from people who have been through crime.”
When she began as Police Minister in March, Andersen set out her goal to make communities feel safer.
Just one day after Hipkins had announced his crime policy trifecta, two people were killed in a shooting in downtown Auckland. The tragic incident was broadcast all over the world as it was also the first day of the Fifa Women’s World Cup.
Andersen is reluctant to give a firm “yes” or “no” when asked if New Zealanders feel safer than they did in March, but her answer recognises the current impact crime is having.
“What we’re seeing right now is unacceptable, it is not the New Zealand that I grew up in, it’s not the New Zealand that I want to live in.
“I think we can do a whole lot better to make our community safer.”