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BRASH-REPORT - No. 34, 14 July 2004


An update from the National Party Leader

No. 34, 14 July 2004

National Party Conference

Last weekend, National Party delegates and Caucus members met for the 2004 Annual Conference, held in Auckland.

All of us, delegates and Caucus members, came away from the weekend invigorated and enthusiastic. We discussed a range of policy issues, with important contributions from our spokespersons and a range of invited guests, on employment relations, the economy, the Resource Management Act, welfare, Maori economic development, transport, health, agriculture, education, defence and crime.

Our President, Judy Kirk, outlined our focus for the next election - the Party vote - while our General Manager, Steven Joyce, updated delegates on the revamping of our party systems in preparation for the coming election campaign.

The speeches can be found on our website: National Party Speeches

In my own speech I covered a wide range of issues, but I also spent a little time responding to the criticisms of my recent major speech on law and order, given to a meeting organised by the Sensible Sentencing Trust the previous weekend.

In that speech I said New Zealand has one of the highest overall crime rates in the developed world, and too many criminals regard the present justice system with contempt - with only 40% turning up to do a sentence of community service, with 86% re-offending within five years of being released from jail, with many criminals being in and out of jail 10 and 20 times.

I promised that the next National Government will give police the powers they need to crack down on criminals - including DNA testing for all people arrested, more resources to beat the methamphetamine epidemic, a change in the Proceeds of Crime Act to strike at the economic base of organised crime, and more police.

We will require non-violent first offenders to do at least 75% of their sentences, will abolish parole for all repeat and violent offenders, will greatly strengthen post-release monitoring, and will make more proactive use of preventive detention to keep "career criminals" off the streets.

The Government has largely declined to debate the issue with us, but some ministers and many commentators have argued that our crime problem is not notably worse than in other developed countries, suggested that policies of this kind have not worked in the United States, that the cost of such policies is enormous, and that in any event it would be very hard to find places where the public would be willing to see additional prisons built.

The critics are wrong on all four counts - as wrong as they were after my Orewa speech.

To be sure, New Zealand's murder rate is lower than that of some other developed countries, and about the same as in the European Union. Some journalists have quoted statistics for rape which suggest that the New Zealand offending rate is much lower than in Australia, Canada and the US, although about double the average for major European countries. Such cross-country comparisons are hazardous because the definitions of sexual assaults vary widely across different countries. Whatever the true comparison is, we know our situation is not remotely satisfactory. For assaults, New Zealand is up in the same range as the US, Australia and Canada, and well above major European countries. For the grand total of all recorded crimes in a recent OECD survey, New Zealand was clearly amongst the worst, although definitional problems make precise comparisons impossible. There are absolutely no grounds for complacency about crime in New Zealand, and plenty of grounds for alarm.

What we do know for sure is that in New Zealand offences generally fell during the 1990s, when National was last in Government, though were still too high when we left office in 1999. But that decline in offending has stopped under Labour, and violent offending has actually been rising again.

In the United States, harsher sentencing has been resoundingly successful, with a very dramatic fall in recorded crime in that country over the past decade (see the US Department of Justice site). I am not suggesting they have got it absolutely right, and they appear currently to be revisiting some of these issues. But the evidence from the decline in crime in the US is simply overwhelming. Tougher sentencing and more effective law enforcement will reduce crime.

I suggested last Sunday that the cost of imprisoning more criminals would, over five years, build up to about $300 million annually. Well, Helen Clark suggested that the cost of running the additional prisons would amount to about $3 billion over a decade. Interesting isn't it, that she chooses to use a decade's worth of cost rather than a year - an attempt to scare people into thinking that doing something about crime is just too expensive.

She is telling us New Zealanders we will just have to put up with it.

Well we don't.

Of course my $300 million a year - or well under 1% of total government spending - is her $3 billion over a decade. The cost of not adopting policies of the kind I advocate is that far too many criminals will continue to roam our communities, preying on the most vulnerable - women, children, the elderly, single parents, beneficiaries.

The fact is, the costs exist. We cannot wish them away. It is just a question of whether that cost is spread over all taxpayers or borne by those unlucky enough to become victims.

Nine years ago, the Ministry of Justice commissioned a study by the Institute of Economic Research to assess the cost of crime. It was estimated that crime was costing New Zealand about 5% of GDP at that time. If the same is true now, and there is no reason to suspect that the figure will have declined, it suggests that the cost of crime today is about $7 billion per annum. Incurring a cost of only $300 million to significantly reduce crime seems like a very good investment to me. To look at the cost of imprisonment alone is to ignore the huge reductions in costs that will be avoided elsewhere in our society by clamping down on crime.

In any case, the cost estimates do not allow for any reduction in offending, but we have every reason to believe that offending would decline.

We can reduce crime, and we will.

I suspect we won't need to find any new prison sites at all. There should be ample space at existing prison sites, and those currently under construction, to accommodate additional prisoners. The four prisons which are currently under construction, for example, involve a total land area of some 640 hectares - an enormous area - and only 13% of that area will be covered by buildings.

If New Zealand was being attacked by an external enemy, we would, I have no doubt, build barracks to house troops within months, if not weeks. We are being attacked by an internal enemy. Let's be equally determined.

While our first responsibility is to keep the community safe, we are very well aware that to deal with this problem adequately we need to do much more than just lock people up.

Tony Ryall, in his conference speech outlined where the focus of our policies will be.

He used the image of a conveyor belt to crime to describe the rolling history of the law-breaker moving through different stages: neglected child, disruptive pupil, anti-social teenager, young offender, first-time prisoner, repeat offender, hardened criminal.

At each stage, the individual has the choice of stepping off the conveyor belt. Our job is to help him or her make that choice; to give the offender every opportunity to get off the conveyor belt and every discouragement from carrying on.

He reminded us that the current system is not doing enough to provide the exits to make this happen. And the consequence of that is the spiralling violent crime rate and the growing number of violent and repeat offenders filling our jails.

Families, schools, the courts, the police, the probation service, and the prisons each must present a series of exits from the conveyor belt to crime.

Don Brash

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