By Chris Trotter*
The images were the stuff of nightmare. Cars being driven at speed – not on the streets, but inside a shopping mall. Jarring enough for most people, but what followed the cars was even more disturbing. Hooded figures moving swiftly and purposefully across the mall’s polished floor: a loose formation of young offenders heading for the shops. Unstoppable, for the very simple reason that no one was present to stem the larcenous tide.
Well-meaning experts – like Professor Ian Lambie – will implore New Zealanders to refrain from making their usual rush to judgement. They will be told that youth crime statistics are actually registering a drop in offending. That the individuals captured on the mall’s CCTV represent only a tiny minority – the product of the very worst instances of familial breakdown and dysfunction. Lambie, himself, in discussion with Q+A’s Jack Tame, suggests that the offenders are drawn from just 200 families nationwide, and all are likely well known to the authorities.
It will do no good.
The CCTV recording of the ram-raid against Auckland’s Ormiston Mall is so disturbing, so inspiring of dread and rage, that no amount of rational commentary will make the slightest difference. Brief and ill-defined though it may be, the recording confirms in the most powerful fashion the stories so many New Zealanders have been telling themselves. It speaks of societal breakdown: of a generation utterly unfazed by laws and rules and social expectations. More dangerously, it prompts questions that are all-too-likely to generate highly prejudicial answers.
The first and most obvious of these is: “What are these kids doing out late at night in the company of unabashed criminals?” Immediately followed by: “Where are their parents?” And then by: “Where are the Police?” A moment-or-two’s cogitation will then prompt the question: “Why aren’t these kids worried about the consequences of their actions?”
All of these questions are fair and reasonable. It is, however, unlikely that a great many of the public’s answers will be either reasonable or fair.
The idea that the youngsters involved in the ram-raid have parents waiting for them at home is almost certainly erroneous. Most of the individuals caught by the CCTV cameras are likely to have endured seriously dysfunctional relationships with one or both of their birth parents from a very early age. Almost certainly, neglect and abuse will have been constant features of their brief lives. Institutional care, most of it of indifferent quality, and some truly appalling, has been their lot. For these kids, “home” is not a word with positive and/or comforting connotations. Nobody is waiting for them.
Such education as these children receive is almost entirely informal. The lessons delivered by their teachers: older kids, mostly, from more-or-less identical backgrounds, will be ruthlessly practical. How to drive a motor vehicle. Which motor vehicles have the easiest security systems to circumvent. The most effective way to force a door and/or shatter a plate-glass window. The legal system’s helplessness when confronted with offenders under the age of 14. The importance of offering nothing to the Police. The deadly consequences of narking on your mates.
Certainly, the vast majority of these young offenders will not have seen the inside of a classroom for months, maybe years. The statistics compiled by Charter Schools advocate and private education provider, Alwyn Poole, paint a grim picture of widespread truancy in New Zealand’s poorest educational catchments – approaching 50% in some schools. These truants are seldom tracked down and returned to the classroom. A toxic mixture of scandalously under-funded enforcement, coupled with the learned helplessness of under-resourced institutions means that large numbers of children are entering adulthood lacking the wherewithal to pursue anything other than a criminal career.
These are the people referred to by worried politicians as “NEETs” (Not Engaged in Employment or Training). The best of them will be recruited by the gangs, the rest of them will end up as the gangsters’ clientele. To feed their drug habits, these latter unfortunates will be forced to put their criminal educations to more and more frequent use. If their drug of choice is methamphetamine, then the likelihood of extreme criminal violence is high.
Small wonder, then, that in the light of a spate of ram-raids by young offenders, the Education Minister, Chris Hipkins, has announced, pre-Budget, his intention to take steps to improve school attendance rates:
“A regional response fund of $40 million over four years is being established to meet local education needs, with a strong initial focus on ensuring students are going to school and are engaged in their learning.”
Not that “Middle New Zealand” is likely to notice the difference $10 million per year will make to the truancy statistics, nor to evince a conspicuous willingness to investigate the social pathology and institutional inadequacies that gave rise to the shocking CCTV images of the Ormiston Mall Ram-Raid.
Not for nothing are social commentators referencing “the exhausted middle” and its growing disinclination to engage with a political system that itself appears to have become dysfunctional. The stories that New Zealand, as a nation, used to tell itself: that in spite of their differences Māori and Pakeha had contrived to become “one people”; that “fairness” was what counted most in the formulation of public policy; and that the state commanded sufficient loyalty and respect to arbitrate political and cultural conflicts; are attracting fewer and fewer adherents.
Almost certainly, a majority of the middle-class New Zealanders who watched the CCTV record of the ram-raid on Ormiston Mall understood that what they were witnessing was yet more dramatic and disturbing evidence of the crisis that has been gripping working-class Māori and Pasifika for decades. At the same time, however, those middle-class Pakeha would have told themselves that any attempt to identify and comment upon the ethnic components of the ram-raids, and the future they portended, would likely be met with a storm of criticism and angry charges of racism.
The upshot is the worst of both worlds. The images will sink deep into the electorate’s political consciousness, waiting there for a suitably mendacious politician to lift them to the surface. At the same time, the discussion and debate that such a jarring event would once have ignited will not take place. Consequently, the anxiety and anger will remain, unrelieved by the political and cultural engagement that offers the only effective remedy.
The great virtue of democracy is that when citizens are shocked and frightened by events which suggest a breakdown of law and order, they are always able to answer “we, the people” can fix it. Through free, frank, and often hurtful debate, the shape of a solution emerges, and consensus develops over the next steps to be taken.
Facing the truth is never easy, but it is always better than the alternative. Because, no matter how diligently we weight it down; no matter how earnestly we hope it will remain sunk, Truth’s body always resurfaces. The challenge then is not simply to deal with it, but to understand how we could ever have considered it wiser to keep it hidden.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.