Monday 4 January 2021

A Powerful Political Metaphor.

Lost Opportunity: The powerful political metaphor of the Maori Party leading the despised and marginalised from danger to safety, is one Labour could have pre-empted by taking the uprising at Waikeria Prison much more seriously.

Rawiri Waititi’s successful intervention in the Waikeria Prison stand-off spreads, the Maori Party’s mana will grow significantly. It is difficult to think of a better metaphor with which to illustrate the party’s political mission than its co-leader, under the disdainful gaze of the authorities, leading 16 parched, burned, bleeding but unbroken prisoners out of danger and into safety. Surely, somewhere in New Zealand, a young Maori musician is already composing a song to celebrate Waititi’s success. He’s earned one.

It is difficult to imagine anyone bothering to write a song for the Corrections Minister, Kelvin Davis. Throughout the six days of the crisis at Waikeria, the Minister maintained an obdurate silence. The resolution of this crisis, New Zealanders were given to understand, was an “operational matter” – something best left to the public servants and corrections officers on the spot. The very same public servants and corrections officers whose actions – and failure to take action – were responsible for sparking the uprising in the first place.

The Ombudsman’s report of August 2020 made it very clear that conditions at Waikeria Prison left a great deal to be desired. Had the authorities responded to that report swiftly and decisively, then it is highly unlikely the uprising would have occurred.

It is very difficult for those who know nothing of life behind bars to fathom the degree of degradation required to make prisoners risk an extension of their sentences by violating the rules of their confinement. When you’re in jail, all you want to be is out. You’ll suffer an awful lot in silence before raising your voice in protest. That’s why any form of prison protest is a sure and certain sign that something very rotten is festering within its walls.

How rotten may, perhaps, be gleaned from the following passage, taken from the media release sent out by the protesting prisoners’ to (among others) Action Station and Hone Harawira:

Our drinking water in prison is brown. We have used our towels for three straight weeks now. Some of us have not had our bedding changed in five months. We have not received clean uniforms to wear for three months – we wear the same dirty clothes day in and day out. We have to wash our clothes in our dirty shower water and dry them on the concrete floor. We have no toilet seats: we eat our kai out of paper bags right next to our open, shared toilets.

If even half of these complaints are true, then New Zealand should hang its head in shame. Conditions such as these are what we associate with the hellholes of Central and South America – prisons wracked by riots, uprisings and mass escapes, and quelled by tear-gas, rubber bullets and (all too frequently) live rounds.

The pall of black smoke which, at the time of writing, still hung above Waikeria is a signal. A signal that we’re not doing it right. That we’ve got it wrong. That we have to stop listening to the people who have presided over these institutional failures for far too long. Most of all, however, it is signalling the importance of ceasing to react to the vicious messaging from our nation’s amygdala.

Crime and punishment are not issues that can be resolved successfully by our instinctive “flight or fight” reaction. They are matters for the national cerebellum, the seat of reason in the human brain. We must not leave them to the violent reptilian lunges of the Kiwi limbic system.

At times like these, however, the first political responders are almost always reptilian. Why are the authorities waiting? Where are the Police? Why aren’t we seeing the deployment of armed tactical units? Is there no pepper spray? No tear gas? No long batons? Are there no automatic weapons?

When a human-being is convicted of a crime, he or she does not cease to be a human-being. Imprisonment does not, contrary to the punitive expectations of many New Zealanders, permit the extinguishment of all the rights to which human-beings are entitled. This country is a signatory to a raft of international treaties and covenants affirming the fundamental human right to be treated decently.

These documents should have made it unthinkable for servants of the New Zealand state (which, presumably, includes the authorities at Waikeria Prison!) to refuse water and food to protesting inmates. If our soldiers refused to give prisoners water they would be guilty of a war crime.

What does it say about us as a people, that we are willing to treat the soldiers of a foreign foe with more respect than our own citizens? What does it say about our Minister of Corrections that he did not publicly repudiate the inhumane tactics of the Waikeria authorities?

More importantly, what does it say about the government of Jacinda Ardern? Why is her Cabinet so unaware, seemingly, of the acutely dangerous politics of the Waikeria Prison uprising? Yes, it’s holiday-time. And yes, Kiwis are taking full advantage of their success in defeating Covid-19. Very few people (including most of the mainstream news media) are paying much attention to events at Waikeria. But that does not excuse the Prime Minister for not noticing just how big a “win” her government has gifted the Maori Party.

Because that metaphor: the Maori Party leading the victims of the system out of danger and into safety; will speak with great force to the thousands of New Zealanders who cannot afford an expensive holiday in Queenstown. Those paying extortionate rent for substandard accommodation. Those parents working two jobs but still not making enough to keep their families fit and healthy. The New Zealanders who hear their leader talking about “kindness” and a “Team of Five Million”, but who just can’t see any evidence of it at work in their lives and neighbourhoods.

Dylan Asafo, a lecturer at Auckland Law School, put it like this:

Contrary to popular belief, the ‘centre’ isn’t a place for reasonable, measured minds who can see valid points on both sides and find a just and fair compromise. The ‘centre’ doesn’t actually exist. It’s an imagined safe space for people who are deeply invested in inequality in a settler-colonial, capitalist state but still want to be perceived as kind and decent people.

A left-wing Labour government would have reacted very differently to the uprising at Waikeria. It would have reassured all those members of the Maori working-class with fathers, brothers and sons locked away in hellholes like Waikeria, that Labour was committed unequivocally to their fair and humane treatment. Under a left-wing Labour government, it would have been the Corrections Minister leading those prisoners out of danger and into safety – and making sure every one of the Ombudsman’s recommendations was implemented.

By preferring to put their faith in an illusory political centre, Labour has ceded a crucial swathe of electoral territory to a Maori Party unafraid of placing itself at the head of an uprising much bigger than the one Rawiri Waititi just helped to end at Waikeria.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 4 January 2021


Jack Scrivano said...

I suspect that Mr Davis was in a no-win situation. Even with the best will in the world, ‘fixing’ the problem is going to take some time. Mr Waititi, on the other hand, can just take the plaudits for highlighting the issues, without having to take any responsibility for remedying them.

Geoff Fischer said...

Kia ora Chris
As one of the many who have passed through the New Zealand penal system, I can say that there are good and humane prison officers, just as there are good police officers (and even good SIS officers) with some of whom I have formed deep friendships of long standing.
However, the colonialist system as a whole tends to rely on coercion, intimidation and humiliation to attain its dubious objectives, and it is no wonder that it provokes continual resistance from among those in "custody".
The inescapable reality however is that the colonial regime's approach to the management of prisons reflects the kind of social and political order that it defends, and although some degree of reform within the present system is both possible and necessary, the prospects are limited.
Over the years I have had occasion to take a number of prisoners myself, most often for relatively minor offences. Two out of three offenders have ended up as firm friends and the remainder have had no complaint to make about their treatment while in custody. So under rangatiratanga it is possible for us to have a law-abiding society with respectful and effective treatment of those who offend against the law. Our chief focus should be towards community based corrections, and keeping our people out of the regime's prisons altogether.

greywarbler said...

Kelvin Davis seems a bit constipated as far as political movement goes, That is my coarse, visceral approach after the various disappointments felt when noting his absence of bright, encouraging ideas promoting better ways for Maori strugglers and those of other ethnicities as well. So perhaps it would be more polite and politic to remark that he seems constrained by something; lacking Winston's punchiness and quick-wittedness he must have some value to Labour and Maori advancement. I wait anxiously for him to show his ardour for Maori and whatever cause he has in mind for the proletariat.

This is a stuff article on him by Luke Malpass from October 2020 with some background:

Unknown said...

It's surprising that Corrections aren't aware of political dangers, because prisons are a core part of progressive ideology (Foucault), just waiting for the moment? BTW these Mongols aren't poor (necessarily). How about machines that print credit cards (including the hologram) etc, etc.

Odysseus said...

Good column. Prisoners are the State's responsibility. If they are treated inhumanely, whatever their crimes, then this demeans us all. I cannot fathom why the Corrections Minister was not on the spot within hours, especially if there is an Ombudsman's report critical of prison conditions and raising important points for the Minister to action. This has been a disgraceful episode for the Labour Government and there's likely more humiliation to come. Shame!

Boris said...

I know journalism (and blogs) are the first draft of history, but one of the iron requirements of proper historical research is evidence. Is the evidence about any event sufficient and reliable? And in this instance Chris, I think that it’s too early to tell whether the current media narrative accurately represents what has gone on in Waikeria. Already other inmates are of Waikeria are casting doubt on this “first draft” and characterising what has happened as a “protest” might be gilding the lily somewhat. Undoubtedly there will be some enquiries into this incident and it might be judicious to wait until evidence is collected from a range of sources ( as historians do) before making a definitive interpretation of what actually happened and why. I think a knee jerk anti-establishment narrative is unhelpful at this time.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Would you be so quick to accord such heroic descriptors - "... parched, burned, bleeding but unbroken prisoners" - had you been one of their innocent victims? In your imaginary world of class warfare and systemic oppression readers will cheer. But in the real world the complexities of crime and punishment, forgiveness and redemption continue to exercise a fairminded but realist populace.

David George said...

All of what you say is reasonable Chris, at least to some extent.
The Government inaction, for that is what it was, is, I believe, more an indication of a more general incompetence, particularly in regard to the corrections minister Diversity Davis.

David George said...

The comments of someone that uses the deliberately incendiary expression "a settler-colonial, capitalist state" to describe our system of government are immediately suspect as propagandising ideologues.
We're a representative democracy, a free market economy with significant state ownership and no colonies. The continuing use of "colonists" to describe people with some non indigenous genetics, people who were actually born here is deeply offensive, divisive and flat out wrong.

Ricardo said...

Where can one get the facts here?

The column paints the protesters as noble resisters against oppression. Other news reports state they are hard core 501 gang members (mongols and commancheros) who beat up and intimidate other prisoners and cause mayhem because that is what they are, criminals.

It seems the reportage here depends on where you are situated ideologically.

greywarbler said...

It would be wise for PM Jacinda to start organising a retreat from her position to be in mid-term. I think that children should receive a well-rounded background that leaves them as aware of their place in the real world as is Greta Thunberg. I do not think that full-time working women can be good parents to the under-fives. This is a considered opinion.

I think that feminists failed to get suitable conditions for women to do their mothering and have a careee - maternity leave is a minimum of what is required. Sure there will be a time set-backto careers while women are away. There may be part-time contract work that doesn't have deadlines. But preparing children for our difficult future and not putting financial and material goals first, and expensive gifts and toys as recompense, ie latest clothes, handsome furniture, bikes, gadgets, does not carry forward our morality formed over many years of hard fought argument. The wealthy have money sufficient for their kids to have all they want. The division between moneyed and not will grow unless moral parents make a deliberate demonstration of their commitment to rearing good kids, good in mind, and good in actions.

Jacinda has given Labour a chance to show itself as having good productivity in its policies and implementation. They need to front up and realise that they are sitting over a smelly latrine, started in 1984. Howard Huges end sitting on a toilet eating chicken soup is not what we expect or will accept from Labour leaders. Let Ganesh Nana look at our pollies and what they deliver for all the money shelled out.

PM Jacinda should bow out midway to elections, citing the baby getting to an age where it is very receptive to role modelling which should be her, or rather both parents. Labour will suck her dry otherwise. She will end up like Helen Clark, a bland and able academic with the useful legacy of the past Labour Party; a vibrant, fiery party in touch with the lower income classes who mostly weren't full of her brand of self-satisfaction though some of the union leaders might have been.

Nick J said...

I admit that when this kicked off I was of the opinion that these prisoners deserved all they get. That judgmental attitude comes from a job that exposed me to some unsavoury habitually violent people. Sort of "well you dish it out, now take it". Biblical eye for eye attitude, which doesnt get us any further ahead.

I changed my mind very quickly when brown water was mentioned. I have never believed that punishment works, but denying basics like clean water is beyond comprehension. Why? Why, and hundred whys?

It seems to me that there is a culture of judgmentalism throughout our government departments. They seem to exist for their own benefit, but not to deliver to those who they are supposed to deliver to. You see it in welfare, in prisons. Jacinda says be kind, it doesnt seem to be in the public service lexicon.

With regards to prisons I am realistic enough to understand the need to detain individuals who are a danger to society. I see no benefit to treating them to substandard conditions. That at best is cruelty by omission, at worst it is state sanctioned sadism.

Im really beginning to wonder if this Labour government has any control over the bureaucracy, or any desire to reform them to serve the people?

John Hurley said...

We don't have the long term experience to judge societies where (within a generation) we see such dramatic transformations. The media realise that it is new, different and uncertain. Acknowledging that this could have been an ill-judged decision is like igniting petrol. So I think you have this nervousness and need to silence "populists". Some people do extremely well out of it having big increases in asset prices on the one hand and cheap services on the other.

Or perhaps we do
a place like Thailand. If you have an unhappy populace you need authoritarian government. Business is only too happy to oblige?

Societies need a common narrative. In one video Susan Devoy tells Shine TV "I'm a white woman, from the majority ("for now") ethnic group. Because tomorrow (we may be dead but) who knows. We may have trendy Klingon culture dominating; we may be living in 6 square meter apartments; who knows it's all so exciting.

Geoff Fischer said...

The words "Colonial" and "Colonialist" have nothing to do with ethnicity.
A colony is a semi-autonomous territory which is politically subordinate to an imperial state and which serves to supply primary produce to the empire.
The Realm of New Zealand is definitively colonialist because it is subject to the sovereign authority of the British Crown, is a subordinate member of the Five Eyes alliance, and has a classic colonial economy based on the export of primary produce and importation of manufactured goods.
The test of whether one is a colonialist is the test that the colonial regime itself has kept in place for nearly two hundred years - namely, whether one will swear allegiance to the British Crown.
That has nothing to do with your whakapapa, and everything to do with your political principles - or lack thereof.

David George said...

Not convincing Geoff, our relationship with the British Crown is little more than a technicality and the nature of our exports a complete non issue.
What I object to is the use of "colonists" in reference to Kiwi born citizens. How can that be possibly justified, it's clear that it is intended to have everything with your racial origins. It's a racist dog dog whistle intended to divide