Little Proposes, Middle New Zealand Disposes: If nothing else, the Justice Summit has shown Andrew Little what he is up against. The anger and hurt of Maori. The anxious attempts of various state institutions to meet the often contradictory expectations of their political masters. And last – but by no means least – the inescapable reality of “Middle New Zealand’s” veto: it’s indisputable power and its implacable determination to have the final say.
ANDREW LITTLE must be wondering whether his Justice Summit was worth it. Encounters between practitioners of deliberative democracy and participants in direct democracy are seldom trouble free. How could they be? Deliberators are elected, while participants in direct democratic forums are often self-selected, or, even worse, the delegates of special interest groups. By the time the Justice Summit drew to a close it was very clear that the formal practices of deliberative democracy and direct democracy’s roiling currents of passion and conviction had only Little in common.
If nothing else, the experience will have shown Little what he is up against. The anger and hurt of Maori. The radical programmes with which the latter propose to empty the prisons of their disproportionate ethnic muster. The anxious attempts of the various state institutions tasked with managing crime and punishment to generate outcomes that meet the often contradictory expectations of their political masters. And last – but by no means least – the inescapable reality of “Middle New Zealand’s” veto: it’s indisputable power and its implacable determination to have the final say.
That power was on full display in the opening hours of the Summit when Jayne Crothall, whose three year old daughter, Brittany, was murdered as she slept in 1997, was reported as breaking down in tears when a Maori woman claimed Pakeha did not know what it was like to be victimised.
“This has been a horrendous summit for victims of crime”, Crothall told the 700 Summit participants “People have been told they don’t know what it is like to be a victim because they’re European. There have been a lot of racist comments made. I have never heard so much racism.”
Sadly, it is Jayne Crothall’s words that Middle New Zealand will take away from the Justice Summit. Her accusations of racism will be amplified across the country by the Sensible Sentencing Trust who are also likely to highlight the words of University of Canterbury criminologist, Greg Newbold, who boycotted the whole event as a waste of time and told RNZ National that if Little is serious about reducing the prison muster, then he should “build more prisons and end double-bunking”.
Middle New Zealand: overwhelmingly Pakeha; gainfully employed; living in their own homes; law-abiding and tax-paying; is temperamentally impatient (if not contemptuous) of sociological and historical explanations for Maori offending. To their ears, the arguments of academics and “experts” about poverty and colonisation come across as sounding suspiciously like excuses.
Which is why nearly all of the evidence of Maori suffering will have been, at best, half-heard by Middle New Zealand. At worst, it will be taken as proof of the “Maarees’” manifest deficiencies as citizens. By contrast, and simply because they chime so completely with their own deep-seated prejudices, Jayne Crothall’s words will not only be heard, but they will also be remembered and angrily repeated. Such is the power of Pakeha confirmation bias.
The thing to remember about all of the colonial societies in which the settlers have triumphed demographically, is that the over-representation of the colonised in the criminal justice and prison systems will be welcomed, consciously or unconsciously, by the settlers as proof that their culture is still on top. Were only 15-16 percent of prison inmates Maori (i.e. the muster matched the percentage of New Zealanders identifying as Maori) a number (probably a distressingly large number) of Pakeha would interpret the statistic as evidence that the Police and the Courts were not doing their jobs.
Of course, Andrew Little can’t say that: not if he wants his party to win the next election. What’s more, the Labour-NZF-Green Government cannot even be seen to be addressing the gross over-representation of Maori in New Zealand’s prison system to aggressively. Middle New Zealand’s tolerance threshold runs out at the notion of convicted criminals being rehabilitated outside prison walls. They will accept intensifying rehabilitation efforts behind bars, and many would accept the desirability of every prisoner having their own cell. What they will not accept is criminals being “set loose in the community” before they have demonstrated conclusively that it is safe to release them.
That’s why Greg Newbold advised Andrew Little to “build more prisons and end double-bunking”. Because he is shrewd enough (as both an ex-con and an academic expert) to know that his is the only formula which Middle New Zealand (the people who determine the outcome of general elections) is ready to accept.
That Little gets this was illustrated by his last-minute offer to hold a special summit for the victims of crime. It’s a terrible idea. Such a gathering will, almost certainly, morph into a no-holds-barred display of Middle New Zealand’s retributive instincts. Little will be ordered to keep on doing everything that his just-concluded Justice Summit begged him to stop doing. The racist arbiters of crime and punishment in New Zealand will jubilantly exercise their political veto – and, God forgive them, Andrew Little and Jacinda Ardern will comply.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 August 2018.