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Real Issues: Vigilantes, Nth Territry, Tax Credits

Real Issues No. 309 - Vigilantes, Northern Territory, Tax Credits

Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 309
10 July 2008

Wounded community
One Year On
Making work pay

Disability defined
Statism vs Social Justice
Maxim Institute's Annual John Graham Lecture 2008


Recent talk of training vigilante groups and recruiting Triads to help with law enforcement has ignited both concern over crime levels in some communities and alarm over such extreme and dangerous responses. These calls have come amidst a public cry for harsher penalties and accusations that the Government's responses are weak. Such reactions, while understandable, do nothing to stem the factors that contribute to crime and offer no hope for a sustainable approach.

The debate has been sparked by a fresh spate of crimes against members of the Asian community, leading to a public protest of concerned citizens in East Auckland, calling for greater protection against crime and increased penalties for offenders. There is also talk by some that 'vigilante groups' are being trained for public protection and that the Asian community needs to take justice into its own hands by recruiting Triads to keep offenders at bay.

It is often the first reaction of a wounded community to cry out for harsher penalties for offenders. Following the murder of 71 year old Nan Withers in 1997, a Law and Order Referendum was included in the 1999 Election ballot, questioning whether harsher minimum penalties should be implemented. Almost 92 percent of the public voted in favour -- the easy answer is always to suggest locking up a criminal and throwing away the key, and we expect that severe penalties will make a criminal think twice before committing crime. Of course imprisoning criminals for life means they can not re-offend, and in some circumstances is necessary, but research has shown that prison itself does nothing to lessen offending if prisoners are released and in fact in some circumstances it can actually lead to minor rises in recidivism. We also need to consider the human cost; much is lost to our society when capable people are incarcerated rather than restored to being contributing citizens. It is also important to remember that people do not always respond rationally, before committing crime offenders often do not weigh the likely consequences.

Training vigilantes and recruiting Asian gang members is an extreme response from a scared community, when combined with the call for increased sentence length it highlights how much more thoughtful we need to be in tackling crime -- the emotional panicked response is seldom the most helpful one. How our communities respond to crime will determine our success in addressing it. The recent attacks have awakened a keen public interest in doing something about it, but rather then starting vigilante groups, maybe communities need to look at mentoring at-risk youth.

Are we willing to ask hard questions of ourselves, to reach out to those around us struggling with relationship difficulties, educational under-achievement and behavioural problems; are we willing to forgive and to offer people a second chance.


For a country that is commonly called 'lucky,' Australia has its fair share of scars and barriers. Last year a report was released by the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. The findings were shocking with evidence of child sexual abuse found in 43 communities. As a result the Federal Government intervened, launching the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER). The Response involved a range of controversial, tough measures including heightened police presence in Aboriginal communities, mandatory health checks on children and quarantining of welfare payments to be spent only on particular necessities such as food. A year later, a review One Year On looks at the progress that has been made.

The raw data presented in the report seems to suggest that NTER is making significant progress in key areas of children's welfare with school attendance increasing, the creation of jobs and children receiving health care. Aboriginal magistrate Sue Gordon chaired the Emergency Response and she is positive about the progress made, while recognising that the energy that drove the influx of funds a year ago needs to continue.

Despite the findings of the report, not everyone has been positive about the NTER. Some argue that although school attendance has increased in some communities, in others there has been a decrease as families move from their homelands into Alice Springs, either chasing work or trying to avoid alcohol restrictions. Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) which ran farms, youth programmes and community work are being phased out and replaced with 'real jobs,' but as yet many of these jobs remain theoretical; meanwhile people's contribution to the functioning of their community through CDEP has been eroded.

Although these latest interventions are addressing some of the damaging social problems facing communities in the Northern Territory, the challenge facing Australia is deeper than policy and more tangled than economic solutions. The chequered history of Australia and particularly of government involvement in indigenous affairs continues to haunt the country. Finding a way forward is not easy but the limited success of these interventions should not be an excuse to stop trying.

Read One Year On


The Ministry of Social Development has released a report indicating that low and middle income families are doing better than they have in the last decade. The report gives credit to the Working for Families (WFF) package for some of the improvement. WFF provides tax credits to families with children based on family size, income and hours worked. The report suggests that, as a result, the child poverty rate has decreased in real terms from 23 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2007. While these figures are welcomed by some as proof of the efficacy of WFF, we should be more cautious about this programme.

WFF tax credits do provide direct assistance to some people, but they also impose a series of adverse effects. One example is that as a family's income increases, not only do they face higher progressive tax rates, but they also lose WFF tax credits. This combination can create an extremely high effective tax rate on extra income, which reduces the motivation to increase earnings and improve your family's situation under your own steam. This distorting influence could potentially create middle-class welfare traps, encouraging families to remain dependent on government welfare.

Another problem arises because of the selective targeting that is at the heart of programmes like WFF. The money that is distributed to eligible families with children has to come from somewhere, and under WFF, families without children, or those whose incomes are outside the eligibility range, are made worse off as they are taxed to pay for the increased income to those who are benefiting from assistance.

We need to think hard about whether a general programme of redistributing money like this is really worthwhile. Many families would be capable of supporting themselves if their tax burden was decreased. Lower tax burdens would also have other benefits, such as reducing the administration and compliance costs associated with schemes like WFF. A proactive focus on growing the economy and generally decreasing the tax burden really would make work pay for a much broader spectrum of New Zealanders.

Read Household incomes in New Zealand: trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2007 http://www.msd.govt.nz/work-areas/social-research/household-incomes.html


The bounds to which the word 'disabled' can spread is being considered by the United States at present, after the House of Representatives passed an amendment to their Americans with Disabilities Act. The Act protects citizens with disabilities from discrimination and assists them in participating in public life. The amendment is seeking to clarify and extend the definition of 'disability' to encompass anyone whose impairment either continually or episodically restricts their ability to engage in 'major life activities' like working, learning, standing and sleeping. Although the intention of the amendment may be to clarify the law bringing support to vulnerable people, in extending the definition of disability so broadly it is possible that the most severely disabled members of society will suffer as their unique status under law is weakened and they are grouped with more functional citizens in applying for work or benefits.


Maxim Institute and the New Zealand Business Roundtable are delighted to invite you to Statism vs Social Justice, a free public lecture by Father Robert Sirico. The lecture will be held in Auckland on Thursday, 24 July. Father Robert Sirico is President of the Acton Institute and will explain what social justice can offer, through a combination of civil society and business.

As places are limited, RSVP is essential by Thursday, 17 July 2008.

Find out more about this event


John Graham is a New Zealand hero. He has spent his life training, inspiring and mentoring young New Zealanders in education and sport, having had a celebrated and distinguished career in both fields. He has been Headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Captain of the All Blacks and President of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. He is a dedicated leader in our nation and his passion for New Zealand has endowed this country with a brilliant legacy.

In honour of John's commitment to this country, we are holding the inaugural John Graham Lecture this year. This dinner lecture will be presented by internationally renowned constitutional law expert Professor Jeremy Waldron and is titled, 'Parliamentary Recklessness: Why we need to legislate more carefully.'

The event will be held on Monday, 28 July 2008, at 6.00 pm, at The Grand Tearoom, Heritage Hotel, 35 Hobson Street, Auckland. Tickets are $140 incl. GST (single) or $1,040 incl. GST (table of 8) and RSVP is by Wednesday, 16 July. We are delighted to invite you to attend this event.

Read more about the John Graham Lecture, including how to purchase tickets http://www.maxim.org.nz/index.cfm/Events


'People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.'

Eleanor Roosevelt

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Maxim Institute's regular email publication, Real Issues, provides thought-provoking analysis of developments in policy and culture in New Zealand and around the world. You can express you views on any of the articles featured in Real Issues by writing a letter to the editor. A selection of the best letters will be posted each week on Maxim Institute's website (http://www.maxim.org.nz/).


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