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Matt Robson: $1.3m On Jail Talks Money Well Spent

Matt Robson – Op-Ed
$1.3m On Jail Talks Money Well Spent

In some countries, governments can build a huge prison, or a nuclear power station, anywhere they like without consulting anyone.

The government of North Korea, for example, doesn't subscribe to the view that ordinary Koreans have the right to be listened to, consulted with or respected.

We, in contrast, live in a democracy, something all of us can celebrate.

Act MP Rodney Hide has shouted "scandal" over the consultation process, and community involvement, on the proposed Springhill site for a 650-bed prison south of Meremere.

To me, Mr Hide seemed to be screaming fire because he thought he saw some smoke. To make a shocking allegation doesn't turn the allegation into a fact.

When I became Minister of Corrections in 1999, four prisons were on the drawing board. I learned very quickly that once a prison site was named, months of public controversy follow.

It is understandable that people living in the immediate area designated for a prison site often view the prospect with dread, loathing or at least suspicion. Consultation with the affected community is absolutely vital. It is not only a legal requirement but a moral and human responsibility.

The major concerns of those living in close vicinity to a proposed prison site often revolve around whether the prison will harm property prices and the quality of life of their families and loved ones. These are genuine, human concerns.

In the Springhill case, the legally required consultation process began early with the local community and has continued to the present day.

The Department of Corrections tried to provide as much information as possible about why it preferred this site and to provide answers to all queries.

All people in the local area, and indeed some with an interest in the project from further away, were entitled and encouraged to be part of the democratic process.

Many took advantage of this, a sign of healthy civic participation. Democracy costs money, but the alternative of totalitarianism is always more expensive in the long run.

Maori tribal interest in the Springhill site is Tainui - its district stretches from the shores of the Manukau to Taranaki-King Country.

On behalf of the Crown, I offered a genuine partnership to Tainui. I offered a challenge to them to work through the issues and to sort out any differences.

In return, Tainui challenged the Crown, through me, to allow them to be involved, from design, particularly as a Maori focus unit will be a central part of the rehabilitative initiatives, to the delivery of services. This would be in return for Tainui accepting responsibility for their offenders and working to turn them away from crime.

The scandal would have been if the Department of Corrections had not entered into a genuine partnership with Tainui.

As reported, $1.3 million was spent over four years. Of that, $438,000 was the cost of face-to-face consultation at a large number of gatherings, big and small, over wide distances. Tainui received only that part which related to their costs.

One thing that I appreciated was the dedication of Corrections staff who spent hours away from their families, without overtime pay, ensuring that every person who had an interest, whether Maori or Pakeha, had a fair chance to be heard and to be involved.

I commend that level of public service, and I wish the Opposition would, too.

The other part of the cost of consultation, $875,000 over four years, was spent on a variety of tasks, which included reviews of the engineering reports, help with design and landscaping and input into water and sewage management.

Early talks were held with those knowledgeable on the potential implications to spiritual sites should the project proceed. I found Tainui handled this with dignity, circumspection and tact.

These were private matters. Appropriate ceremonies were held to ensure that spiritual matters were handled properly. This included the location and transference of any human remains. It included the marking of all sites of spiritual significance.

The consultation with Tainui allowed Corrections, among other important issues, to discern genuine claims on sacred sites, allowing officials to dispose of frivolous objections from those prepared to go to extreme lengths to delay the project with red tape.

The truth is that Tainui moved from initial opposition to the proposed prison to suspicion of the project and finally to supporting it.

That support included signing a statement of intent to move to develop a memorandum of partnership and an ongoing relationship to make the prison work.

I admire the leadership shown by Tainui. They delivered on their part and showed goodwill. They have taken up with pride the responsibility to participate in the national challenge, which is to reduce Maori reoffending.

That is good news for all New Zealand.

Instead of demanding that the prison be placed in someone else's backyard, genuine consultation has seen Tainui incorporated into a long-term strategy of turning offenders away from a life of crime and failure to a life of success. A strategy that tries harder to get offenders matched with new skills which will allow them to participate fully in society.

The result of the consultation process has been a more informed and involved community, both Maori and Pakeha. That is not a bad result for the investment made over four years.

* Matt Robson was the Minister of Corrections from 1999 to 2002.

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