HOW LONG before Labour’s senior ministers realise how much damage Kāinga Ora is doing to their Government? Because it is difficult to overstate just how bad the optics of the Crown entity’s “unruly tenants” have become. As story after shocking story is picked up by the news media, public disbelief and disgust is growing exponentially. What’s preventing Labour from cauterising this self-inflicted political wound?
The answer would seem to involve the peculiar moral blindness that afflicts so much of the state bureaucracy. Partly, the result of an unrelenting focus on the “challenges” faced by criminal and dysfunctional individuals – challenges that are permitted to obscure, almost entirely, the consequences of their criminality and dysfunction. Partly, the result of the impulse to offer protection to those deemed “beyond the pale” by the rest of society. And, partly, the result of an ingrained bureaucratic reluctance to have any state agency’s shortcomings exposed to public and political scrutiny. Bring all these together, and the chances of the responsible bureaucrats seeing either the bigger picture, or the even bigger problem, are slim.
From the perspective of Kāinga Ora, gang members harassing and intimidating their neighbours is seen as a symptom of a problem, rather than a problem in its own right. What it tells the caring bureaucrat is something very different from what it would tell just about everybody else – i.e. that it’s time to evict these tenants. On the contrary, such profoundly anti-social behaviour indicates clearly that these individuals are in need of more “wrap-around” assistance. Knee-jerk responses are simply inappropriate in situations of such “extreme complexity”.
Part of that complexity is likely to be the presence of children in the unruly tenants’ household. In the current bureaucratic playbook, the primary objective must be to keep children and their parents together. The object lesson of Oranga Tamariki is there for all state agencies to absorb: don’t allow the world to see Pakeha public servants ripping Māori children from the arms of their mums and dads. Just about anything is preferable to that – up to and including paying-off the unruly tenants’ aggrieved neighbours with large wads of taxpayer cash.
To the rest of the world, of course, the idea of allowing young children to remain in the custody of individuals who abuse and threaten their neighbours, is unthinkable. With that sort of parental example, they would argue, what chance do these kids have of growing into anything other than another generation of violent and uncaring thugs? “Get them out of there! Now!” Would be the immediate response of the average New Zealander. “And then evict their parents!”
In the eyes of the bureaucrats, however, this is exactly what must be avoided. Years of experience have taught them that breaking-up the family unit is only likely to make things worse. They insist that all these allegedly “common sense” solutions end up creating are more unruly citizens. Far from reducing the number of problematic individuals in state houses, you end up multiplying them. (Overlooked, or downplayed, is the fact that equally dire outcomes tend to flow from families in which unpunished violence, intimidation and harassment are part of everyday existence.)
Reflexively, the attention of the bureaucrats returns to the circumstances of the perpetrators. The complaints of the victims are not assessed on their merits, but in terms of how the incidents cited may have further contributed to the inappropriate behaviour of the offenders. Subtly and, all-to-often, not-so-subtly, it is inferred that the victims have contributed to their own misfortunes. That, somehow, the violence and intimidation experienced by the unruly tenants’ neighbours is their own fault. So fixated have the bureaucrats become with “managing” the perpetrators of what in many cases are criminal offences, that the harassed and terrified people on the receiving end of those offences are simply forgotten.
This is the moral blindness that drives the victims of such behaviour, and all who read about it, to utter distraction. They begin to feel like lab rats in some dark behavioural science experiment. Their terrible experiences are simply incidental to the pathology of the experimental subjects. The quality of the victims’ lives is not the point of the exercise. The agency’s only concern is how successful their interventions are at rendering unruly tenants less unruly.
Yes, of course they could evict these people. Indeed, the law requires their eviction. But evicting them would bring Kāinga Ora’s important social experiment to a premature close. With so much still to learn about how best to manage these criminal and dysfunctional individuals, that would be a tragedy. Hence the agency’s policy of not evicting even the most horrendous of its tenants.
They say there are none so blind as those who will not see. And, right now, Kāinga Ora is studiously not looking. The same cannot be said of the rest of New Zealand, which is looking at this unfolding scandal very hard, with rising incredulity – and fury. It is clear to everyone that the Minister responsible, Poto Williams, has (like so many of her colleagues) been entirely captured by her officials. Their moral blindness appears to be highly infectious, and Williams has caught it. This is very much a case of ministerial eyes “wide shut”.
Somebody needs to take charge of this debacle – and soon. The stories flooding into the news media feature the sort of copy editors die for. They’ll publish/broadcast everything they get for as long as they keep on getting it.
More ominously, the longer the Labour Government delays intervening decisively to end this scandal, the more credence voters are likely to give to Opposition claims that Labour’s Māori Caucus is responsible for allowing it to continue. The perception will be fed that Labour is “soft” on gangs, and perversely determined to foster one law for Pakeha and another for Māori. This racist narrative is already gaining traction in the wider electorate. Labour needs to shut it down – now.
If law-abiding citizens’ faith in the state’s willingness to protect its citizens from violence, intimidation and harassment is not rewarded with swift and decisive action, then people will look elsewhere, and to others, for protection.
Official inertia and vigilantism are not unrelated.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 25 November 2021.