Politics: Settling contentious policies

Two largely-under-the-radar shifts have been going on in the Government over the past year or so. Unlike lot of what the Government has been doing, these may well lead to durable consensus.
One is in penal policy.
Justice Minister Judith Collins maintains the fierce face of lock-em-up politics that gave her the nickname “Crusher” for legislation to crush street racers’ cars. Very few have been crushed but it looked tough, which served the politics well.
Collins is also claiming lock-em-up policies are the cause of drop in reported crime. In fact, this is principally due to fall in the proportion of crime-age young men in the population.
There is also an intriguing United States thesis that crime rose as more cars spewed out more mind-affecting lead, but rose less in less densely populated – and so less car-dense – areas. After the lead was removed from petrol the crime rate began to fall.
Lock-em-up certainly makes it harder for career criminals to pursue their careers against free citizens. But there is also much evidence that prison schooled, and set on career in crime, young people who, given time, might have aborted those nascent careers.
About two years ago there was an unsung shift in thinking. It costs lot to keep someone in prison. Bill English needed to rein in government spending. But when he eventually spoke out, he called prisons “fiscal and moral” failure. The moral bit was an important addition and he didn’t mean just that prisoners were immoral, but that society had failed, too.
About that time Collins was putting more money (not lot, but more is more) into drug counselling and psychological help. That came out of savings from falling prisoner numbers. The 2012 budget pushed on with that. The Howard League added literacy and numeracy tutoring with post-release help to find job. In January Anne Tolley added more work opportunity.
There is now trajectory, even if modest, from lock-em-up to fix-em-up. In the long run, to the extent it works, it is cheaper, especially if some offenders leave the cost side of the budget ledger and join the revenue side as productive taxpayers.
Labour and the Greens back that trajectory.
Another quiet shift is in the role of the private sector in providing public services.
The post-1984 mantra was that the private sector does most things better than the public sector, so privatise public services where practicable.
Mt Eden prison was privatised. Labour reversed that privatisation on the ideological basis that punishment was state prerogative and responsibility. National re-privatised Mt Eden once back in office.
Moreover, it decided to sell down half of its big four state-owned energy enterprises. Two of its arguments for doing that were marginal at best: that they would run more efficiently and that the loss of dividends would be less than the cost of borrowing for capital projects (which may actually be wrong in low-interest environment). The only arguably non-marginal argument was to deepen the capital markets to encourage savers out of deposits and bonds into the stock exchange.
The state, note, stays (for now at least) as majority owner.
And there are no plans for more private prisons. The introduction of “charter” schools is tentative and constrained.
The thinking now is the reverse of Labour’s “commanding heights” theory of 40 or 50 years ago that the state should own company in each big market, to keep private players honest. Now ministers’ thinking is that having one or two private players provides comparator for the public operators.
It is not big news. But it marks shift that future Labour-led governments may be able comfortably to live with. As with penal policy, it might well settle down highly contentious policy area.
Which is what good government management is supposed to deliver. M

Colin James is New Zealand’s leading political commentator and NZ Management’s regular political columnist. [email protected]

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