By Chris Trotter*
There are rule for radicalism. Or, at least, there are rules for the presentation of radical ideas intended to become a part of our daily lives. The most important of these rules requires radical ideas to be explained and justified. Failure to make clear why radical solutions should be embraced and implemented will only ensure their rejection by a decisive majority of the population. Radical ideas and policies are only ever adopted when that same majority has been convinced that a refusal to adopt them will only make matters worse.
It is difficult to imagine a more radical idea than the abolition of prisons. And yet, along with a proposal to establish a Māori Education Authority, the abolition of the New Zealand prison system is one of the key recommendations of the iwi-based group charged by the Labour Government with responding to the controversial He Puapua Report on the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Asked by Q+A’s Jack Tame whether they supported the call for prisons to be abolished, the co-leaders of Te Pāti Māori, Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, both replied “absolutely”. The question now, having signalled their support for this radical policy, is whether Waititi and Ngarewa-Packer are prepared to explain and justify it to the voters of New Zealand.
On the answer to that last question will turn the broader electorate’s view of Te Pāti Māori. With the last three public opinion polls indicating that the party may well end up holding the balance of power after the 2023 general election, its ability to spell out clearly what it expects to receive in return for its support on confidence-and-supply motions – and why – has become a matter of acute political interest.
A serious response will likely generate increased support from angry and alienated tangata whenua – quite possibly at Labour’s expense. But a flippant, “we’re more radical than you are” response risks cementing in the voter’s mind an image of Te Pāti Māori as a collection of vainglorious political flakes, who should be kept as far away from power as possible.
Te Pāti Māori’s public support for the abolition of prisons cannot now avoid becoming part of the right-wing parties’ argument for giving the potential “Red-Green-Brown” coalition the widest of berths. With so many of National’s and Act’s supporters alarmed at what they see as a sharp rise in violent crime – due largely to the growth of gangs – the very notion that a party in Parliament is willing to countenance radical reforms that would see the Māori perpetrators of serious crimes escape incarceration, leaves the Right with no option but to go on the offensive against the entire He Puapua prescription.
This, in turn, will inspire all manner of fears and doubts within the ranks of Labour and the Greens. While neither party will be anxious to alienate Te Pāti Māori, the so-called “Centre-Left” will, nevertheless, be extremely loathe to endorse a policy as radical as the abolition of prisons. For most Labour and Green candidates the whole concept will appear so outlandish as to be dismissed out-of-hand as “nuts”. For Te Pāti Māori, however, such a reaction would only confirm the “colonialist” mindset of their putative partners. The formation of a stable coalition would thus become even more problematic.
All of which makes it clear why it is never enough to simply announce one’s support for a radical policy. Indeed, what the above considerations reveal is the huge potential within such radical protestations for an electorally fatal backlash.
That is not to say that radicalism should be avoided at all costs. As Simon Bridges told Parliament only last week in his valedictory address, there is little point in seeking a political career if the only forces driving you are focus groups and opinion polls. Members of Parliament should come to Wellington on the wings of ambition – not the plodding feet of caution. What the above considerations should reinforce, however, is the crucial importance of the rule about explaining and justifying radical change.
The template for successful radical reform is there for all to see in the unceasing explanations and justifications for the radical economic changes proposed by the “Free Marketeers” of the 1970s and 80s. When these latter “policy aggressors” first emerged on the scene, they had to endure hearing their ideas dismissed as “extreme” and/or “nuts”.
Were they discouraged? Not a bit! As the 70s wore on, and the economic situation deteriorated across the Western World, “Free Market” explanations acquired an ever-expanding audience, and its justifications for a fundamental rearrangement of the way modern industrial economies were run began to sound increasingly reasonable.
The way forward for Te Pāti Māori is clear. It has to demonstrate that the regime of crime and punishment that has grown up in New Zealand over the past 180 years is no longer fit for purpose. The recidivism rate, alone, offers proof that the experience of incarceration is anything but rehabilitating. Similarly, the disproportionate number of Māori behind bars points to there being a great many more factors at work in our justice and corrections systems than straightforward criminality. All of the scientific evidence confirms the proposition that criminals are made not born.
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer observed to Jack Tame that there were no prisons in pre-colonial Aotearoa. A cheap point, some might say, but one worth following up. Obviously, in the centuries prior to European settlement, Māori who offended against the customs and practices of their tribal and sub-tribal communities were required to atone and/or make recompense for their “crimes”. Explaining to Pakeha how that worked would be a good place for Te Pāti Māori to start in its quest to reform fundamentally this country’s treatment of offenders.
Those Pakeha convinced that Te Pāti Māori’s support for the abolition of prisons confirms it as being “soft on crime” might be very surprised to discover the fate of those who breached the norms of Māori society before the arrival of the Europeans. The concept of “utu” – the making of proper restitution for harms done – was manifested in many ways. “Soft” wasn’t one of them!
A more courageous Labour Party might also feel inspired by Te Pāti Māori’s advocacy for fundamental penal reform to interrogate its own history.
There was a time when Labour leaders were not unacquainted with the interiors of prison cells. When the working-class people whose votes they solicited did not universally consider such familiarity to be a bad thing. On the contrary, it made Labour’s claims to represent them all the more authentic. When Jack Lee wrote The Children of the Poor, he was speaking from bitter personal experience.
There were time, too, when a Labour Shadow Attorney-General, all-too-well-acquainted with the bleak and soulless quality of Her majesty’s prisons, argued that no jail should be escape-proof. The urge to be free, said Dr Martyn Findlay, was what made us human. To render that urge impossible of fulfilment was, accordingly, to make the state complicit in the crushing of the human spirit.
Māori healers recall a time when “words had power”. The words that give substance to ideas, no matter how radical, still do – but only if our representatives rediscover the courage to speak them out loud.
*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.