Key Points:

Wave the key to a locked prison cell in front of a bunch of politicians and chances are they'll immediately start a competition to see who can throw it the farthest. No sooner had National leader John Key declared that under his compassionate reign, he'd ensure our worst criminals died in jail, than his rivals were all on their hind legs calling him a softie.

New Zealand First's Ron Mark said it was all for show and that "the Nats lack spine to get tough on crime", a sentiment echoed by Mr Key's right-wing bedfellow Rodney Hide. The Act leader called it "just cynical politics to grab votes while New Zealanders are left as vulnerable as ever to criminals".

Corrections Minister Phil Goff claimed he'd beaten Mr Key to the draw. That Labour's reforms to the parole laws meant National's bogeymen criminals "will, on current policy, either never be released, or released only when they are too old and infirm to be of any risk to the public".

Puffing up his tough sheriff's chest, Mr Goff compared Mr Key's piddling promise of a new $314 million prison plus $43 million a year operating costs, with the Think Big prison expansion programme under Labour.

"Four new prisons and 2300 extra beds have already been provided over the last five years. The 71 per cent increase in prison numbers since that late 1990s is consequent on tougher laws and the 2500 boost to police staffing ... "

With the world's financial system slowly dissolving all around us, one might have thought a smarter vote-winning approach to law and order policy would have been to concentrate on the white-collar wide boys from the finance and property development sector who have brought sudden misery and penury to more elderly voters and their families than any common or garden variety thug in recent times.

Imagine the cheering in the streets if a political party promised to adapt existing "proceeds of crime" legislation to embrace these money and property market crooks.

We have laws permitting the state to seize farms and other property of yokels caught growing dope in the back paddock, and fishing boats, if the fisher was breaking catch regulations.

I can't imagine much opposition if the same principle was extended to the family trusts and other tricky legal devices, which enable the financiers and developers to luxuriate in their eastern suburbs mansions, while their victims erect mortgage-sale billboards outside the family home.

Until now, I thought Act's main focus was to install Roger Douglas as Finance Minister in a new right-wing National-led coalition. But no. Its manifesto says: "Act's top priority in government is to increase the law and order vote by $1 billion in order to achieve zero tolerance for crime policy, implemented and working effectively within 12 months."

Far from getting the state out of our lives, Act's law and order policy seems to have borrowed freely from the bad old dictatorships of South America and the Eastern bloc.

It wants "audit hit-squads" of former Army and SAS officers to burst into prisons to search for drugs. It wants to employ private security firms for police work. It wants to confiscate cars and motorbikes and other "assets used to facilitate the crime" of gangs. And woe to the mentally ill. "Mental illness is a significant driver of criminal activity, and drug-related offences properly fall into this category."

Declaring that "the ideology of Community Care has failed the most seriously mentally ill, their families and the public", Act says "it has cost lives and needs a comprehensive review".

It also plans to target the "few families ... responsible for a large proportion of crime". They will be allocated "mentors" - competitively tendered for of course - and if the ingrate families decline the offer, or refuse to do compulsory "workfare", state financial assistance, apart from "goods in kind", will be turned off.

Amid the authoritarian bombast of Act's policy there is a glimmer of recognition that trying to cure the problem is more sensible than building more prisons.

It's the same point Mr Goff made too, when he noted that in recent years, "the increase in justice spending has been at a higher rate than even health and education". In a veiled warning to a future Key Government, he said: "In more difficult economic times, major additional expenditure on prisons is going to be at a cost to other spending priorities or at the expense of tax cuts."

He said our imprisonment rate of 188 for every 100,000 people was one of the highest in the Western world - in most European countries it's under 100 - and we should be dealing with causes, not building more jails.

It's a shame his Government hasn't taken this message more to heart over the past decade. Then again, elections have never been won being soft on crime, have they?