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Garrett: Justice Revolution Required

Justice Revolution Required

David Garrett MP, ACT New Zealand
December 17 2008

Maiden Speech to Parliament; Wednesday, December 17 2008.

In the 1980s, my colleague the Hon Sir Roger Douglas presided over an economic revolution in this country - and it was sorely needed.

Imported goods were rationed, and supplied only by the fortunate holders of import licences that were issued to them by their mates in the government.

Farmers were subsidised in every area of their endeavours - and for things that had nothing to do with farming - and those subsidies were funded by high taxes paid by everyone, including those on low incomes.

In the words of the late great journalist Frank Haden, the "gummint" - as he called it - has no money. They get it from the people.

Although they have been much criticised by many - some of whom formed part of that government and are still in this House - none of the major economic reforms of the 1984–87 Labour Government have been reversed 20 years later.

Today - largely thanks to the reforms introduced by Sir Roger and those who came after him - the incoming government at least had a reasonable idea before the election of the serious economic problems it would face.

Mr Speaker, I come to this House firmly believing that a revolution of no less a magnitude than the economic revolution of the 1980's is required to repair our broken justice system.

Consider where we have come as a society in the 50 years since I was born.
Measuring homicide rates per 100,000 of population allows us to compare New York with New Plymouth, or Dunedin with Dusseldorf.

Until the beginning of the 1970's, New Zealand's annual homicide rate per 100,000 of population was about five per 100,000 per year. Today, that rate is about three times higher than it was in 1970 - around 1.5 per 100,000 per year. That's a threefold increase, or 200 percent compared with 40 years ago.
Seven men are currently serving time in New Zealand prisons for their second homicide - in other words, they've already completed one sentence for culpable homicide, either manslaughter or murder, and have killed again when they got out of jail.

Seventy eight of the killers currently in prison had, at the time they committed the killing for which they are now incarcerated, served at least three previous sentences of imprisonment for serious violence. This means 78 people would be alive today if - at the time they were killed - New Zealand had a 'three strikes' law of the kind ACT is promoting. Some of the survivors of those victims are in the gallery today.

And it's not just homicide that has increased exponentially: in the past nine years alone violent crime generally - stabbings, serious assaults and aggravated robbery - increased 47 percent.

Increased reporting? No amount of spin - from either politicians or officials - can disguise that reality. Spurious 'explanations' - such as greater reporting of crime - are just that: spurious. Homicide and armed robbery have never been underreported in this country - at least not since we've had newspapers and a police force.

The fact is that the crime has fundamentally changed over the past 40 years. A researcher today could pore over newspapers from 40 years ago searching in vain for stories about drive-by shootings, gang members killing rival gang members' children, and contract killings. None of those things appeared until the 1970's or later.

The fact that human vermin - like samurai sword-wielding killer Antonie Ronnie Dixon - go about armed with automatic weapons is no longer remarkable, in the literal sense of that word. One does not remark upon it because it happens - if not every day, then every other week. That, Mr Speaker, is an appalling indictment on us as a society - and, sadly, on this House as the place in which ever more liberal policy has been transformed into law.

But just how did our society become so altered? One of the favourite explanations offered by many academics and others is unemployment. The only problem with that theory is it doesn't fit the facts.

We have recently come out of a period of around seven years of full employment. The former Prime Minister was quite correct when she said a year or two ago that everyone in New Zealand who wanted a job had one. Our 2007 unemployment rate of less than four percent is regarded throughout the western world as full employment.

If unemployment causes crime why, then, did violent crime increase 47 percent over the past nine years?

Go back further in history to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment then was over 20 percent and there was a minimal welfare safety net. People literally starved in this country. In 1932 there were food riots in Queen Street. Rioters weren't looting shops for camcorders and plasma TVs - they looted because they needed food to stay alive.

Why then, if unemployment is a major cause of crime, did violent crime actually drop in 1932 in the midst of such deprivation and misery?

The usual riposte when this little problem with the 'unemployment causes crime' theory is pointed out is 'we were all suffering together back then.' Wrong. Disparities between rich and poor were actually greater 70 years ago.

I have seen photographs of the members' stand at the Ellerslie races in 1932 - the same year as the riots. It is full of well-dressed people, and the car park is filled with large American cars and uniformed chauffeurs standing beside them.

We have the society we deserve. It is often said that we have the society we deserve. I quite agree with that sentiment - but not for the reasons those who overuse that cliche usually have in mind when they say it.

I firmly believe we are reaping what we've sowed. We're reaping the harvest of a focus on rights without consideration of responsibilities - by viewing criminals as victims who just require the right kind of therapy in order to become decent citizens, and by making our jails places to which some people are quite happy to return.

A criminal with a record recently held up a bank in Te Puke and then waited outside to be arrested. His lawyer said he wasn't coping financially and, so, wished to go back to jail - back to a place with no bills; with three square meals a day paid for and cooked by someone else; to a cell with a plasma TV and underfloor heating. The story wasn't even front page news in December 6's NZ Herald - it is no longer remarkable.

People opposed to the views of groups like the Sensible Sentencing Trust claim - and probably believe - that ours has become a more punitive society over the past 30 years. That, Mr Speaker, is nonsense. It is actually quite difficult to get sent to prison in New Zealand today - prison populations have risen simply because we have become a much more crime-ridden society.

I recently read a biography of Sir Elton John. It included reference to an incident in New Zealand in 1974: Sir Elton's then manager Jon Reid assaulted well-known journalist Judith Baragwanath, pushing or knocking her to the ground and hitting a man who came to her aid. By today's standards, it was a pretty ordinary assault.

Reid was sentenced to - and actually served - a month in Mt Eden. Not a month of home detention, or 10 hours community work, but a month in the cold stone castle. A month in jail for common. How terribly draconian.

I have been unable to ascertain, Mr Speaker, whether Reid ever re-offended.
Now, 35 years later, it all makes for rather quaint reading given what is now commonplace in the criminal courts every Monday morning.

Mr Speaker, an essential ingredient of the good maiden speech is an explanation of why one comes to Parliament. It should now be obvious: my chief reason for coming to this place is an abhorrence of how our society has changed with regard to personal safety, and a passionate desire to do something about it.

Anyone who considers standing for Parliament must carefully weigh the effects on one's life and family against what they hope to - or might reasonably - achieve. For me, it was also necessary to satisfy myself that standing for ACT - as opposed to simply voting for, or being a member of, it - fit with my personal philosophy.

In that regard I reached a turning point when I realized that what I thought was simply an electioneering slogan was, in fact, a core part of the ACT Party's constitution.

Clause 3 of ACT's constitution says that the first duty of any government is to protect the safety of its citizens. That, Mr Speaker, is utterly in accord with my personal beliefs about the functions of government. It is also a function that successive governments have been failing to perform for a generation with the degree of failure becoming worse.

As naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am here to try and play a part in changing that sad state of affairs.

It is my firm belief that we can turn this mess around, and once again become a country where children can walk to school without their mothers fearing for them. A society where, when she is older, my daughter can - as my sisters did - go for a walk on a hot summer night without fear of being raped or worse.

A society where residents of a Gisborne State housing block could go to the beach and leave their house, not only unlocked but, OPEN so as to benefit from the cooling breeze blowing through the open front and back doors. I know this is true because I was there. That's the environment I grew up in.

When one talks about this to New Zealanders younger than about 35, they think such a society is but a Utopian delusion - or if it ever did exist, it must have been 100 years ago. It is, as older members well know, only little more than 25 years ago.

A senior member of the Labour Party said in this House that "there was in fact no golden age." Not true. In the New Zealand of the 1960s - just like the New Zealand of the early 2000s - we had full employment and all of the components of the welfare state. We had most of what we have now - without the crime.

If I did not believe that we can once again become a society where law-abiding people could go peaceably about their business - and criminals were treated like the criminals they are - I would not be here. I firmly believe we can return to that real and not illusory golden age - albeit with licensed restaurants, lattes and mobile phones.

So what should we do? I believe we must return to a system where a five-year jail sentence means five years jail, not two; a system where a judge can sentence our most odious murderers to life in prison without parole. A system where prisons are humane, but otherwise stark and cold places to which no one with half a brain would wish to return; a system where violent criminals get a second chance, but not a third; a system where three-time violent offenders go to jail for 25 years to life.

That said, we must face the fact that our prisons now contain many mentally ill offenders who shouldn't be there - because we've attempted over the past 25 years to treat all our social ills with imprisonment. The place to treat mentally ill offenders is in institutions set up to do so. We have secure units to treat mentally ill offenders, and should be use them.

Mr Speaker, those who say our prisons are five-star hotels are exaggerating. Wanganui, New Plymouth and Paremoremo West prisons - all of which I have visited - are one-star at best. But those who say they are Hell holes are exaggerating much more.

We have moved from a penal regime - where prisoners worked in the quarry behind Mt Eden before retiring to a cold cell - to a system where work is voluntary and prisoners retire to a centrally-heated cell with a plasma TV. This change has coincided with the destruction of our once civil society.

Whether those two phenomena are causally related, no one knows for sure - although there is convincing evidence from other countries that imprisonment does work.

It is time to say 'enough' to the ever more liberal penal policies of the past 40 years, and to try another tack. Only a fool expects different results from doing more of the same. That is exactly what we have been doing with penal policy for 40 years.

There is no quick fix, and no one answer.

If the policies I advocate were introduced as a package tomorrow, their effects would not be seen quickly. It has taken us a more than a generation to reach the sorry state we are now in; it will take us a generation to change it.

We now have an entire generation of thugs who've grown up knowing there are no real consequences for bad and criminal behaviour. We need to raise the next generation to know they - unlike their fathers - will be held accountable, and will be punished for their bad behaviour.

Finally, Mr Speaker, a brief word to my family:

Greetings to my wife and children who are here with me today. Thank you for the support you have offered me in this exciting new part of my life. Thank you for the love you have given me. I hope when I leave this place you will feel that I have done some good, and helped to create a better society for you, my beautiful children.

I love you all.

Thank you.


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