Simon Bridges wants to "take beggars to court". I had to read the headline twice to make sure I had understood it correctly.
Surely a former Crown prosecutor, turned Leader of the Opposition wouldn't be suggesting clogging our courts with such a pointless exercise. Surely the leader of a party that is supposedly against wasteful public spending wouldn't be encouraging the use of ratepayer and taxpayer dollars to fund such fruitless legal action.
Not only is the idea of prosecuting the homeless for sleeping rough or asking for help ridiculous (what are you going to do, slap them with fines they'll never be able to pay? Throw them in jail? I suppose at least then they'd have a roof over the heads, three hot meals a day and an introduction to the gangs, courtesy of the taxpayer) it's also morally bankrupt.
What kind of miserable git would suggest that prosecuting the most vulnerable people in our society, most of whom have serious and chronic mental health issues, is a good idea? It beggars belief.
It's almost like he's stuck in a one-player game of Simon Says. Simon says ban the beggars. Simon says great idea! Simon says spend ratepayer money prosecuting people with no money. Simon says fantastic! Simon says even if the council loses, "at least they tried". Simon says brilliant! On Planet Bridges, anything Simon says, goes. Even if to most logical people it sounds utterly nonsensical.
To be fair to Bridges, he wasn't the one that came up with the anti-homeless bylaw in the first place. The Tauranga City Council deserves the crowning glory for that piece of masterful callousness (though it should be noted that similar bans are in place in a handful of other places around the country).
The council last year banned begging and rough-sleeping in the CBD, a move that has since been walked back, with councillors this week voting 6-5 to begin the process of revoking the restrictions. Local MP Bridges strongly opposes the U-turn, telling SunLive, "I don't want to stick it to the council too much, but I think well-intentioned people can sometimes get the wrong answer."
I wish I could say the same of Bridges, but can't comment with any confidence on the nature of his intentions.
Bridges' remarks, however, made me wonder about the direction of the National Party under his leadership. When the homelessness crisis erupted and metastasised under the last National Government, Bridges' predecessors eventually realised that punitive measures and/or neglect wouldn't solve the problem and committed to a "Housing First" policy (which aims to get homeless people into secure housing first then wrap services around them). The National Party website currently suggests that National would "expand" its commitment to a Housing First approach if they were to return to Government. It's a shame no one in National seems to have passed that memo onto their leader.
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So, Simon is suggesting prosecuting the homeless. He's also suggesting that his party will take a "tough on crime" approach if it returns to government, banning gang patches (though he refused to say whether he'd also ban swastikas, telling Newshub, when a reporter asked if he would be okay with someone walking down the street with a swastika logo on but not okay with a gang patch, "This is not about solving every problem in this world"), making achieving NCEA Level 2 literacy and numeracy a condition of accessing parole (university entrance only requires the satisfaction of Level 1 numeracy requirements) and increasing penalties for young offenders, among other things. His proposals have been resoundingly slammed by experts, with even former National MP (and former cop) Chester Burrows stepping forward to write a damning rebuttal of his former party's addiction to punitive rhetoric.
It almost makes you hanker for the days of steady and reasonably compassionate old Bill English (if you can forget for a moment his horrendously outdated views on abortion). Though Bridges' comments on the homeless in Tauranga and his approach to law and order may seem unrelated, I suspect that they're part of a broader strategy. The National Party of Simon Bridges is not the National Party of John Key and Bill English, it's instead reverting back to its old tricks. This National Party increasingly appears to be ultra-conservative, hard, uncompromising and, in my view and in the polls, going backwards. It's the party of yesteryear, and it's taking its gloves off to ready itself for a bloody, nasty fight to cling to relevance in 2020.
It might work this one last time – who knows? But in years to come, with new generations of voters coming of age and joining the ranks of the must-win middle, National will have to move with the times. Millennials and Gen Z know that our prison system is an abysmal failure. High rates of recidivism and the fact that prisons are used as recruitment systems for gangs surely suggest to anyone with half a brain that the status quo isn't working – and that keeping people in prison for longer, like National is suggesting – might have the opposite result to what is intended.
We, the much-loathed younger generations, want new, innovative solutions. We want approaches that may actually have half a chance of solving problems, rather than using criminalisation and punishment to exacerbate them. What we don't want is more of the same. Being "tough on crime" doesn't work. It doesn't make us any safer. It doesn't reduce recidivism. It may buy votes, but buyers should beware that they're falling for false advertising.
And if you don't believe me, believe Chester Borrows on this one, whose experience as a former MP, a former police officer and a former lawyer means he knows a thing or two about the system and its failures. Ask him what he thinks of Simon Bridges' reheated, outdated approach to justice.
But then, if you think about it, when you've got a leader who thinks that prosecuting the homeless for being homeless is a good idea, what can you really expect?