Law and order issues are shaping up to be one of the main areas of political debate in New Zealand. Despite little differences between the parliamentary parties, increasingly they all stress how socially conservative they are on such issues. Labour in particular, is ditching any policies that smack of liberalism and has now begun to assert its socially conservative side in order to fend off National’s law and order campaigns. So today we see the Labour’s announcement of Tougher rules to smash gangs and Increased coercive powers for police. The reason for this resurgence of political conflict on these ‘social issues’ can be explained by the decline of economic differences in the parliamentary parties. [Read more below]
In this first story, we find that Labour wants Police to have ‘stronger powers to eavesdrop electronically on gang activities’, National accuses Labour of ripping off its own ideas, while Canterbury University sociologist and former prison inmate Greg Newbold helpfully points out that the stiffer penalties are simply window dressing: ‘This will have no effect on organised crimes or gangs, because most of the offences they're involved in carry more than 10 years in prison anyway.’ Likewise, Civil Liberties chairman Michael Bott explains the move by stating that the election campaign had obviously started early.
In a second story, we find that Labour is considering More leeway for police under search proposals. Apparently, ‘Police will be given new powers to frisk people and enter homes without warrants under proposals to overhaul search, seizure and surveillance laws.’
Labour’s social conservative law and order approach also involves the consideration of importing the UK’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). For a summary of this, see No Right Turn’s Explosion post, which explains that these are often ‘used to punish behaviour which is not actually an offence at all’.
Much of Labour’s resurgence of social conservatism can be seen as a reaction to National’s recent reassertion of law and order issues (along with NZ First and Act, of course). These issues have been on the rise for a number of years. In the 2002 elections, for instance, NZ First fortunes were revived when it campaigned for tougher law and order measures.
The emergence of growing debate around social issues such as law and order policy, Treaty of Waitangi policy, drug reform, and environmental policy reflects a move towards political conflict occurring primarily over non-economic, non-materialist issues. This is interesting, because throughout the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand politics have been overwhelmingly characterised by materialism, with political debate being dominated by traditional economic-class issues like unemployment, the provision of health and education, and increasing inequality. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s successful parties (and the then fast-rising new parties such as Act, the Alliance, and NZ First) concentrated their campaigns and general marketing on materialist issues.
By the time of the 2002 general election, 'postmaterialist' issues dominated the campaign, as most political parties ran campaigns that centred on societal issues. In particular, it is indicative that New Zealand First’s much-heralded three major issues of the 2002 election – immigration, crime, and the Treaty of Waitangi – were all non-economic issues. Act, likewise, also placed non-economic issues – namely law and order and the Treaty – at the centre of its campaign.
On the so-called 'left' the adherence to the postmaterialist dimension has mainly been around issues such as the environment, anti-smacking, anti-smoking, identity politics, prostituion reform, anti-GM, Treaty settlements, anti-nuclear, civil unions etc.
In recent elections nearly all the parties have adopted hard-line law and order policies. In particular, it seems all the parties of the centre and centre-right have been attempting to outbid each other in order to differentiate themselves as the party of law and order. National, Act and New Zealand First all took harder lines on crime in 2002 than previously. Yet much of their rhetoric was stronger than their policies. In government, Labour has entered the competition to be the most hardline on law and order. It has shown little differentiation with the parties of the right, and in office, initiated legislation to lengthen sentences for serious crimes of violence.
The emergence of contentious social issues since the late-1990s suggests that the postmaterialist consensus that had been developing earlier in the 1990s has been breaking down, especially due to a concerted effort by conservative parties to differentiate themselves from the parties inhabiting the centre. It seems that because the new political centre is mostly based around the economic, third way consensus, any parties that wish to differentiate themselves must find other non-economic points of difference. In the past, when polarisation on the main socio-economic spectrum was greater, the parties could afford to move into a consensus on social issues, but once the spread on the socio-economic scale shrunk, polarisation on postmaterialist issues was triggered. Most parties have chosen societal issues and positions on ‘identity politics’ as a way of asserting points of difference. This is especially the case for parties of the right in opposition, as they cannot make any progress by emphasising their centrist economic policies since the parties to their left have already claimed the economic centre as their own. Instead, the parties of the right offer a move to more conservative social stances to complement their orthodox economic orientation.
Because the party was increasingly similar to Labour in economic policy, National had to find other non-economic issues in which to differentiate itself, leading to socially conservative policies on issues like law and order and immigration. But essentially, National found it impossible to contest the middle ground in a way that is sufficiently differentiated from Labour’s approach without scaring off moderate voters.
Hence we now have a parliamentary battle over non-economic issues – some of which are very important. But more than anything, we can see that the conflict over these issues is essentially a game rather than signifying any return to real political conflict such as in the 1980s and early 1990s.