Three months into the job, Police Minister Chris Hipkins is promising no sound-bite solutions to gang tensions and youth crime as law and order looks set to be an electoral hot topic
Chris Hipkins knows what’s making headlines but is determined to resist short-term punitive fixes which he says bury the problem, rather than fixing it.
“Evidence-based policy doesn’t make good short-term politics, but it makes good politics in the longer term. If you look at the nine years that National was in government, they were very good at the short-term soundbite politics.
“But all of the fundamental problems continued to grow during that time… we’re trying to get underneath these problems and try and fix them, rather than just try and win the spin war about them.”
He’s talking about his police portfolio, handed over in June when Labour underwent its Cabinet reshuffle triggered by the departure of Kris Faafoi.
“My intention is to pursue an evidence-based approach and that means looking at not just what makes a good TV soundbite, but what’s actually going to make a difference.”
– Chris Hipkins
At the time Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the previous minister Poto Williams had “lost focus”.
Williams took on police in 2020 with a background in fighting family and sexual violence, but as the ram-raid headlines kept appearing and gang tensions escalated with reports of drive-by shootings, Ardern swiftly moved her on.
Hipkins agrees with Ardern’s justification that the “context” around policing had changed since 2020, and required leadership with a different skillset.
But he disagrees it was naivety by Ardern that ultimately led to the under-performing Williams having to be moved on and replaced by the more experienced Hipkins.
“There has been a reasonably significant escalation in certainly, the profile of gang related offending and the profile of youth offending.
“The overall across-New Zealand trend of youth offending is that youth offending continues to trend downwards but in the upper half of the North Island we’ve seen a recent spike where it’s gone the other way.
“And it’s not just about the spike, it’s about the nature of the spike, which is that it’s high profile, high visibility offending and that certainly, from a political perspective, puts it well and truly on the agenda.”
Hipkins was told to lead the organised crime policy work already underway as well as make headway on a plan for youth crime.
Since then the Firearms Prohibition Order Legislation Bill has passed and new laws allowing greater search and seizure of organised crime assets are imminent.
But given he also holds the education portfolio it’s the work involving young people that he’s excited about.
“At the youth offending end, really the brief is, get everybody together and make sure that we’re connecting up all of the different parts of government and the work that they’re doing so that we’re actually getting better outcomes for these kids so that they’re not getting into trouble.
“That really is the brief, and I’m very excited about it.”
He says the solutions and resources are there – and his role is to join them up. Something he admits is easier said than done.
“My intention is to pursue an evidence-based approach and that means looking at not just what makes a good TV soundbite, but what’s actually going to make a difference.
“So think about the kids involved in ram-riding for example, a lot of those kids are first time offenders, they’re quite young – kids as young as 12 years old – that’s just a tragedy and so to solve that we’ve got to look at what’s going wrong in their lives.
“They come from often dysfunctional families, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s happening there so let’s actually focus on that and let’s actually get them back on the straight and narrow.”
Earlier this month alongside the social development minister he unveiled the ‘Better Pathways’ package, which specifically expands the referral process for under-14s in Counties Manukau and West Auckland to a wraparound support service.
A number of previously successful youth engagement and employment programmes were extended as well.
The approach, rather than commitments to get more police on the beat or beef-up sanctions for teenagers, will likely see National’s “soft on crime” criticisms stick.
Their police spokesperson Mark Mitchell’s continued use of the phrase was instrumental in highlighting that Williams was the wrong person for the job.
Hipkins’ appointment to the role has seen the heat from the Opposition come down a notch.
But with his intentions for offender-focused rehab being a long game – some short-term pain, particularly in the eyes of anxious residents and ram-raided businesses, will remain.
While last week’s Taxpayers’ Union poll had the economy and cost of living as topics of most interest to voters, law and order was seen as a major voting issue as well.