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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Paula Bennett

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Paula Bennett
In response to criticisms about the online sale of guns, following the recent shooting in Whangarei, police minister Paula Bennett says the current process is about right, and the government’s not planning at reviewing them.

Bennett says the government has plans for a new drug strategy, which will be released before the election.

Bennett says she doesn’t believe recent deaths linked to synthetic cannabis can be traced back to one batch, because of the geographic spread of cases. She says toxicology reports are still being done.

Lisa Owen: The Police Association has called for a complete ban on the online sales of firearms, following the double fatal shooting in Whangarei. But restrictions to online sales recently recommended by a select committee have been rejected by the government, and a proposal for a firearms database has been turned down because the government says the $30 million it will cost is too much. I asked the police minister and deputy prime minister, Paula Bennett, why it’s not worth doing.
Paula Bennett: So what we looked at for that, and I’m not sure that registering all the guns… a) we couldn’t go backwards and get all of those guns that are already in the system, particularly with those that are illegal.
You do have to start somewhere, though, don’t you?
Yeah, but that’s not going to save a life. I mean, that’s just taking it a whole step further than where it is.
In the future, it arguably could, though, because if you look at Australia since they reformed their gun law, 72% drop in gun crime since their 1996 reforms which included registration.
Well, though, to be fair, for all violent crime in New Zealand, the use of firearms in that violent crime is 1.4%, so it is incredibly low in New Zealand. Look, if I was choosing how to spend 30 million within Police right now, I felt that there are other priorities, like more police on the street, more police in our organised crime unit, and that would make a bigger difference. We do need to actually look at the whole process for firearms and everything else and getting technology and the right databases with that. So that will happen in the future. But I just felt the registration wasn’t the priority.
But the front-line officers, the Police Association, they think that’s a good idea, and it’s their people that are confronted with this on a day-to-day basis, isn’t it?
Yeah. And as I say, I suppose we’re putting 500 million more into Police that went through in this Budget, and when I was weighing up the spend for registration — that you couldn’t go backwards; it’s already, they estimated, about 1.2 million guns that are in the system; then you’ve got grey firearms and illegal ones, so grey being predominantly people that have died and their firearms are still kind of going round. There is a kind of amnesty, so people can go in and hand those guns at any time and not, sort of, see penalties for that. I just at this point don’t think that registration was the answer for it.
Well, one of the things that you did accept was that you should ban gang members or prospects from getting a gun licence. I mean, how are you going to define that? How is that going to be workable in a practical way?
Yeah, so it already is. So we’ve already gone through the process of defining who is a gang member. We’ve got a gang intelligence unit, and within that we’ve got just over 5000 patched gang members and prospects in that database.
Prospects is the kind of grey area, though, isn’t it? So that sort of seems like, I don’t know, quite a complex law to administer, versus some of the other changes which seemed more black and white which you rejected.
No, I think that everyone would agree — I can’t find anyone that would disagree — that gang members should not be getting firearm licences and guns, because they are predominantly going to be used for criminal means.
So the Police Association says that gun sale law should be revisited in the wake of what happened in Whangarei with the two deaths there. It wants all online sales banned. Will you look at that again?
With TradeMe, you can no longer purchase a gun through TradeMe, so you have to go into a police station, have your identification verified and produce your gun licence, and then that verification is used to purchase that gun.
But you’re saying that knowing what the rules already are, Minister. So the Police Association’s very aware of what the rules are. They say you shouldn’t be selling guns online full stop. That would be the best case scenario. Will you revisit it?
I think that we’ve got the process right at the moment. I don’t want to rush to media reporting and even with the Police Association and them hypothesising what may have happened with the Whangarei shootings. Police are doing an investigation, taking it very seriously as to how he got firearms. And certainly some of the early advice I’ve seen is that it could be a lot more complex than people think.
So that’s a no for a revisit at the moment?
I’m not revisiting at the moment, but if recommendations come out of the police investigation, I am very willing to look at it. I do not want guns in the hands of lunatics like we saw in the last few weeks.
Okay. Let’s move on to another issue. We’ve seen a spate of deaths that have been related to synthetic cannabis or what’s been described as synthetic cannabis. There has been an argument in overseas jurisdictions that legalising cannabis has led to a reduction in synthetic use. Has this whole situation made you rethink legalising cannabis here?
Yeah, I mean, I haven’t seen the evidence of that, which it may be there and it just hasn’t come to my desk yet. So I’m always willing to look at it. Part of the new role that I’ve taken on around the meth action plan as well, and I’m extending it into synthetics and into other drugs, because you can’t just look at one drug in isolation. I must say, I do get increasingly concerned, and I hear often enough anecdotally that cannabis is almost harder to get hold of than other drugs, and so I can see some kind of link as you’re describing. That doesn’t mean I advocate, you know, the legalisation of cannabis, but I do think it’s something that’s worth us researching and looking further into.
Well, because your support partner Associate Minister for Health Peter Dunne says, you know, he would like cannabis laws to be liberalised, and he says there’s two problems with that; one’s Labour and one’s National. So why not? Because…
Yeah, why not is because it’s actually not a great drug for teenagers or young people either, and you can try and put an age on it and then how would you actually get access to drug, and then would it become a legalised growing, and then is it just a commercial business, and it’s actually not good for you, I’m afraid.
Too hard basket?
Well, I’m just saying it’s not as easy as me sitting here now and saying, ‘Let’s legalise cannabis.’ I think that’s a very big call and not something that I would be supporting at this time.
Okay. The government’s now coordinating the response to the synthetic cannabis deaths, so how much do you know about what’s happening? Is it one batch? Is it still in production? Do you have the ingredients yet?
Not really. Toxicology reports are still being done, and we haven’t got the consistency for all of those potentially 10 deaths due to it. And we’re even hearing different reports as to the last two as to whether or not it is due to the synthetic psychoactive substances. I don’t really like calling it cannabis, to be honest, because I think that undermines just how absolutely hideous the synthetics are. So, look, we’re waiting for that kind of information to come through, but I don’t think it’s one batch, to be quite honest with you, because we’re seeing it in different parts of the country.
Okay. It’s now generally accepted that the war on drugs hasn’t worked and isn’t working, and you’re not having a war on meth any more. So if you don’t want to legalise cannabis, which you have suggested now, and we don’t have a war, what is our strategy?
There’s lots and lots of things. I mean, we are having successes in a whole lot of areas, and I want to push them further, and there’s others where we could be doing more at. You can’t just tackle the drug problem in New Zealand by hitting supply. You’ve also got to look at the whole demand and harm reduction there as well. So for me, it’s going to be looking right across from a treatment and addiction, through to communities being more involved and things we can do earlier, education.
So can you sum up our strategy in a sentence? You know, the simplicity of, ‘Okay, we’re having a war on drugs.’ Can you simplify it in a sentence?
We are looking more at how drugs are getting into New Zealand, how they’re getting distributed and harm minimisation and trying to get people not to take them and those that want help to get it sooner.
Because your critics would argue you’ve just given up on it because you don’t have enough resources.
I’ve not given up on it at all, and, in fact, I think you’re going to see whole new policies around it, direction on what we’re doing. I’m really invigorated, I’ve got to say, in what I think we can do and what we can achieve.
So will we hear a bit more about that before the election?
Yes, you can expect to hear more.
What might we hear, Minister?
Well, you’re going to have to wait and see, because that’s the core part of an announcement.
But you’re going to unveil a policy around it?
Yeah, I’m going to have some announcements to make around this.
And we’ll hear that definitely before the election?
Yes, you will.
Okay. You mentioned a bit earlier about finances and police funding. So the end of the financial year, we know that the police had drained their budget. In fact, we’ve been given a number of examples of police cars parked up, waiting for repairs for the new financial year to take over. One case that was raised in the House about a prosecution that was withdrawn because there was no money for ESR to do a crime scene investigation. Hawera Police Station didn’t replace light bulbs because they had no money. How worried are you about that kind of stuff?
Yeah, well, so I have been told from police that none of those examples are real or true. So I am absolutely—
So what? You say they’re lies?
Well, I’m just absolutely— I can only take what police tell me, so I asked the question, as you can imagine, quite directly, and I expect a direct answer from them, and they absolutely, categorically tell me that the ESR example is not true. I haven’t heard about cars being parked up and not being repaired, so I can’t, sort of, comment to that one. And the light bulb one just seems absolutely ridiculous. So I just sort of think—
I suppose the bottom line is — do you believe that the police have enough money to do the things that they should be doing? Because we’re hearing no.
I think that the extra $500 million that they got in this Budget is going to make a huge difference for them.
But that’s for mainly front-line staff.
Yeah, and all of the needs that they have to go alongside of it, so that’s for uniforms, that’s for the technology that they use, that’s to make sure they’ve got enough cars that they can drive. It’s not just wages that we’re actually funding. We’re funding the whole picture, and I do think that police have enough to do their job.
Because you’d be aware probably that New Zealand First has raised a claim that the police are dipping into the justice ministry’s budget for funding top-up. Is that true?
In the past, they’ve certainly made some— they’ve put forward proposals for different things that they want to fund at different times, and I think some of them have been around wage pressures because they’ve had some—
So it is true? Because that suggests that their pot of money is not enough if they have to—
No, no. They’ve just been wanting to pay their staff a whole lot more and outside of the projections that they’ve got, and they’ve seen a fund there and thought that they might try and get some money from it.
What? So greed is their only issue?
No. I’m just saying that they had a justice sector fund, which is quite exciting. That’s where we’ve made savings in different areas and different things. And they’ve applied to it for different things, which is entirely appropriate. They haven’t actually been successful in those.
Okay. Well, let’s talk about party politics. How many points do you reckon Jacinda Ardern is going to bump Labour’s polling?
I’m not going to put a number on it. You know as much as I do what that might be, but I do expect her to get a wee bump. I mean, it’s different, and she’s had a whole lot of media this week, and she’s up there and into it, so, yeah, I would expect people to…
When she took on the deputy leadership, Nikki Kaye said that she has struggled to think of anything that Jacinda Ardern had achieved. She also said there’d be a lot of photo opportunities and not much substance. So now that Jacinda has moved from deputy to leader, are you all going to take her more seriously?
Oh, we definitely take leaders of opposition seriously, and I would take her as seriously as I have any of the previous five before her that I’ve seen in the last very short years. So I think that she’s got strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others that we all do, but we definitely take anyone that’s leading an opposition party seriously.
Because I suppose we don’t think many people would deny the fact that Bill English has economic chops, but one political commentator has said to be prime minister, you need to be able to talk, to communicate, and to think. You need both those qualities. So now that Bill English is up against someone who is seen as a good communicator as well as an experienced MP, is he facing a stronger threat?
I just think what they’re also looking for is substance and someone who’s got the kind of brain to pull this country together and has got a proven record and—
Doesn’t she have substance?
I just think he’s got a bit more is all. I think she does, but I think that he equally has a proven track record, that he’s got a strength in other areas, that he is a good communicator, that he’s passionate about this country, and there’s some pretty hard calls you have to make as being the prime minister, and we’ve had some pretty shocking things that have happened in this country just in the last few years, and so we want a leader and a prime minister that’s actually up to that job. You’re not going to have a lot of time to get to know her under that kind of pressure in just a few short weeks.
Are you guys backing off her? Are you going for the relentlessly positive approach too? You don’t want to be—?
I already had it. I feel that’s what I am. There we go. I’m putting that on the table. I feel like she’s stolen my relentless positivity, so I’m going to go for eternal optimism, I have.
Okay. Well, on another issue, 74% of voters in the Newshub-Reid Research poll say that Metiria Turei was wrong to lie to get a bigger benefit. Do you agree with that?
I certainly have always been strong and particularly when I was the minister in saying that I didn’t think that benefit fraud was appropriate. So I have always been pretty strong in that way. People work really, really hard to pay their taxes, and we’re kind of proud of our social security system, and if people are actually ripping that off, then it just doesn’t work and it’s not fair.

Transcript provided by Able www.able.co.nz

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