National has turned to some predictable villains in its proposals for social sector reform, in what may be a sign of things to come as we head into election year. 

Talking tough on welfare? Must be election time.

That is a bit facile, but there is some familiar rhetoric in National’s social services “discussion document”, part of a series of policy proposals being released by the Opposition party in the lead-up to the next election.

The portion of the document which has attracted the most attention has been a mooted crackdown on gangs – aided by a social media teaser by party leader Simon Bridges the day before the launch, complete with video footage of patched Mongrel Mob members barking as a group.

“National hates gangs,” the document proclaims, previewing the release of a more detailed “Gang Plan” next year.

That document will include a requirement for gang members to prove they do not have illegal income or assets before they can receive a benefit; exactly how that would be tested is not yet spelled out, although there is already a lesser burden of proof for the seizure of assets suspected to be the proceeds of crime.

National would also compel government agencies to share information about gang members and their families, although it is unclear how, if at all, this would differ from the information sharing agreement signed by agencies and the NZ Police’s Gang Intelligence Centre earlier this year.

Talking tough about gangs is a popular political pastime, and one with a long history in New Zealand.

In January 2017, Labour’s police spokesman (now Police Minister) Stuart Nash called on the National government to take the “real action required to smash gangs once and for all” – including cutting off the benefit for gang members, seemingly even more drastic than what National is proposing now.

Solving New Zealand’s gang problem is more complex than many make it seem. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

In 2008, John Key launched National’s election campaign by promising to crack down on gangs – “because New Zealanders don’t want LA-style gang crime, they don’t want spiralling youth crime, and they don’t want dangerous criminals on our streets”.

Even further back, Labour’s Norman Kirk ran for election in 1972 on a pledge to “take the bikes off the bikies”.

It may be good politicking, but whether it is good policy is another matter altogether.

As Newsroom’s Laura Walters has written, experts agree that political grandstanding over the issue is both overly sensational and unlikely to solve the more complex drivers of organised crime and the drug market in New Zealand.

There are other familiar pressure points being pushed by National, such as the reintroduction of benefit sanctions for solo parents who don’t name the other parent of their child, a requirement for solo parents to have their children fully immunised, and a six-month time limit for young Kiwis on the dole.

International evidence of the effectiveness of welfare sanctions is both limited and mixed, as spelled out in a report for the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, but there is a significant chunk of New Zealand voters that supports such policies – perhaps because it is easier to think people are flawed rather than the system as a whole.

Of course, there are some less contentious proposals in the plan – what ACT leader David Seymour disparagingly described as “Labour-lite”.

Simplifying the income support system to reduce both over- and underpayments seems sensible, while its solicitation of views on rent to buy schemes for social housing brings it closer to the Greens than some supporters may like.

A proposal to provide three days of postnatal care for all new mothers (up from 48 hours at present) is part of a wider “first 1000 days” policy that sits comfortably with National’s focus on early intervention and social investment (which would also be reinvigorated under the party).

But there is a reason why Bridges led off with the gang-related proposal: stoking emotions, bad or good, is a more reliable way to make headlines and attract public attention than incremental reforms.

With social media advertising and strategy likely to be more prominent than ever next election – even Winston Peters is jumping on the bandwagon – a triumph of noise over nuance seems almost inevitable.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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