“For over a decade now, the Labour and National parties have been using law and order as an electoral weapon – both have been trying to outbid each other to be the most reactionary in terms of crime and punishment. This has meant that under the Clark Labour Government the prison population virtually doubled, and now National seem to want to keep it escalating. So in the 2011 general election, what are you going to do – and what can we do – to stop law and order policy being a cynical electoral weapon of the political parties?” – That’s the question that I asked last week at a ‘Public Square’ forum on Crime and Punishment at the University of Otago. The issues of crime and punishment have become central drivers in electoral politics, so the topic is worth considerable examination. [Read more below]
Labour and National’s law and order
In the last general election of 2008, issues of law and order were by far the biggest political issues. Analysis of political surveys has shown that such issues were the most important in determining how people voted – they had more impact on party choice than the economy, tax cuts, race relations, anti-smaking etc. For instance, Jack Vowles (2010) used New Zealand Election Survey data to show that that it was only really National’s policy on sentencing that really won it considerable votes off of Labour: ‘On sentencing, though, there was an even stronger skew towards National. Hard-line law and order policies seem to have provided the strongest substantive National party appeal, despite Labour’s considerable concessions to that point of view since 1999’ (p.378; see: The 2008 Election: Why National Won).
Colin James has also pronounced that it was law and order that dominated the 2008 campaign – see Key to Victory – Colin James on the 2008 election. According to James, virtually all parties concentrated on showing how conservative they were on issues of crime and punishment, even if those involved did so disingenuously:
Worse for Labour was law and order. Helen Clark’s governments markedly toughened up the criminal and penal law, which greatly expanded the prison population to the point of serious overcrowding…. During the campaign National ran hardest on law and order of all topics. There was a statement nearly every day and numerous policies. Simon Power, though a liberal, was so busy creating the impression of the sheriff coming to town that he didn’t get round to issuing a policy on competition and regulation under his other – and arguably more important – portfolio, commerce (p.51).
So what we appear to be seeing is a political war between all the parties on law and order – Labour and National have been attempting to outbid each other to be seen as the most conservative. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the key politicians in both parties – the respective Ministers of Justice – haven’t actually been particularly enthusiastic about their own law and order reforms, but are pandering to populist sentiment rather then their own personal convictions. That seems to sum up the political nature of ‘crime and punishment’ in contemporary New Zealand politics: law and order policy is a cynical electoral weapon used by elites, for which we all pay the cost.
Why has law and order become the key issue of the day?
How is the increased conflict over law and order to be explained? Why do such societal issues now dominate political discourse? Is it because crime is getting worse? Probably not. In general crime has been on the decline in recent years.
The answer has much more to do with the general decline of the left-right, economic, materialist spectrum in New Zealand. Traditionally New Zealand politics has been strongly based around left-right economic issues – what might be called ‘materialist’ issues. But in recent general elections, non-economic or non-materialist issues have dominated the campaigns, as most political parties have run campaigns that centred on societal issues. Hence we see the emergence of growing debate around issues such as law and order policy, Treaty of Waitangi policy, ethnicity issues, cultural freedoms, and gender and sexual politics, drug reform, and environmental policy.
As I explain in my lengthy blog post, The changing nature of ideological conflict in New Zealand electoral politics (1996-2008): The rush to the centre & the rise of post-materialist issues, the rise of these non-materialist issues relates to the decline of the differences in economic policies between the parties. This shift by New Zealand’s political parties towards a new centre of the political spectrum is made clear by the fact that there is now a real lack of significant disagreement among the parties on economic policy fundamentals, as the parties all share similar principles and assumptions. Indeed, the 2008 general election showed that there were few significant economic issues that separated the two main parties. The 2008 general election showed that there were few significant issues that separate the parties. In general, National attempted to run a relatively policy-free campaign. Little detail was given for what a National government would do in terms of the economy, health, education, the environment, industrial relations, and infrastructure development that was different from what Labour had been doing.
Thus it can be argued that the strong convergence by political parties on economic issues has led to parties competing on this alternative dimension of issues. In election they increasingly differentiate themselves by emphasising (or exaggerating) their differences in these areas. Therefore, on the right, the previous prime generator of public paranoia, communism (or at least ‘creeping socialism’), as well as the perceived militancy of trade unions, has been replaced by issues like crime and immigration. The National Party has had to campaign on socially conservative issues in recent years. Because the party has become increasingly similar to Labour in economic policy, National has 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.
Ironically, however, Labour has quickly copied National’s general hard line on law and order. And so in office, Labour has also shown little differentiation to National and has actually initiated legislation to lengthen sentences for serious crimes of violence.
The Labour Party’s Clare Curran MP was one of the panelists at last weeks’ public forum on Crime and Punishment organized by Prof Andrew Bradstock for Otago University’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Like many of the panelist at this event, Curran had some sensible things to say about crime and punishment. Yet she couldn’t seem to answer my question (posed at the start of this blog post). She could only continually assert that Labour and National were totally different on issues of law and order – yet not give any examples as evidence – and to say that she disagreed with the formulation of the question being asked. She also had some difficulty answering the challenge of whether Labour’s policy was to reduce imprisonment rates in New Zealand. She fudged this by saying that Labour did want to reduce the rate but only by reducing the rate of crime (which is essentially the same policy of National).
Blaming the masses
There was some very healthy discussion at Otago’s Crime and Punishment forum (pictured on the right) – and hopefully there will be many more such Public Square forums. But one disturbing, but not surprising, theme was a tendency to blame society for the problems of law and order and our predilection towards locking more and more people up. Despite this ‘law and order inflation’ being caused by the parliamentary parties, there’s still an elite tendency to blame the public for the problems of law and order. Audiences and panels like this one can too easily just pigeonhole the problem as one of populism and public ignorance driving public policy. But this unfairly lets the political parties and the politicians off the hook. It’s the political parties that are driving the debate and who push the reactionary law and order policies as the solution to crime. And of course it’s also important to remember that it’s also the political parties that have created this vastly unequal economy that creates all sorts of social sickness such as crime.
The ‘Public Square’ forum on Crime and Punishment was also reported in the Otago Daily Times here.