Are We Too Slack?

Far too much policy is driven by mañana: when tomorrow comes we panic.

It was political genius to establish a royal commission to consider the role of the security agencies in the mosque massacres. I did not know that Simon Bridges, who first proposed it, had it in him.

We shall have a lot of fun with the commission as we argue over its terms of reference and its procedures. How the security and intelligence services function is (inevitably) a great mystery which we hope will be reduced by the enquiry. No doubt there will be revelations and recommendations and some may even be relevant.

The beauty of the commission is that it diverts attention from the real culprits whose activities (or lack of them) made the massacre possible. They were the politicians, not the public servants.

The Australian gunman seems to have come here because of our slack gun laws, not because of slack security agencies. Why were our gun laws more attractive to him than the Australian ones?

Following the Port Arthur massacre of April 1996,in which 35 people were killed, the Australians massively tightened gun control. You might have expected New Zealand to follow suit.

The government even commissioned retired judge Sir Thomas Thorp to conduct an investigation into tightening gun control. His 1997 report made 60 recommendations, including a ban on assault weapons in private hands, controls on handguns, registration of all firearms, and improved security and vetting. None of the recommendations was implemented.

The politicians proved spineless. Legislation was promised and even introduced but never passed. Officials drew politicians’ attention to the issues but were ignored. [See the Appendix] Observe that the Thorp recommendations were made in 1997 so that politicians of both parties failed us.

Today, the official figures are that Australia has 14 guns in private hands per hundred people while New Zealand has 26 (the United States has 121 per hundred). The imbalance of assault weapons would be much larger.

The politicians claim that they were overwhelmed by the gun lobby. Certainly any change was opposed by numerous submissions from them. One police minister announced he would not ban assault weapons because he wanted to keep gun owners ‘on board’, rather than ‘waving a big stick’ by threatening to seize their guns. There were further gun-related incidents and deaths.

It is easy to blame the procrastination on the gun lobby, giving it a power akin to the American National Rifle Association. What nonsense! Gun law in the US is controlled by the second amendment in its constitution – the right to bear arms. We have no such limitation and an astute politician, were gun control a priority, would divide the users of hunting weapons from the users of assault weapons. The gun lobby has proved to be no obstacle after the mosque massacres.

The fact is that gun control was not a priority for our politicians. Mass killings happened in the US and in Norway in 2011. But they had not happened in Australia for ages, why would they happen here?

The politicians’ behaviour might be almost forgivable if this were the sole instance. What strikes one is that there are so many other examples of this slackness, of our knowing about a problem but the politicians not addressing it until it was too late. The list is so long it is difficult to know where to begin. Here are a few in the social policy area.

We knew by the mid-1990s that there had been a sharp rise in poverty among children and their parents which would have serious consequences for their and our future.

There is an excellent study published twenty years ago which cautioned against regulating schools by competition. A couple of a million students later and with increasing evidence of educational inequality and poor attainment, the government is trying to do something about it.

In 2007 the leader of the National Party said we faced a housing crisis; last year another leader of the National Party said we still face a housing crisis. Who was in charge for most of the interim?

In 1996 the government closed down the Public Health Commission. We are no longer in the international forefront of population-based healthcare. Are the measles and the meningococcal outbreaks accidental?

The Woodhouse Royal Commission on Compensation for Injury plaed considerable emphasis on prevention. It took over three decades for the ACC to take this seriously.

Here are some environmental issues:

I became aware that we were handling the quality of our water badly in the 1990s; aint got much better.

We have been going on about climate change and rising sea levels since the 1990s.Add in storm surges and tsunamis. What are we doing to address the increased insecurity of our coastline?

Then there is the puzzle of what has been going on in the construction industry. Why have so many buildings built in the last thirty years fallen down in earthquakes, or have to be condemned or rebuilt? (Why have construction companies also been falling over while the industry is burgeoning?)

I spent a bit of time analysing the leaky buildings fiasco. There is a host of things that went wrong but a key element was a slap-dash approach to the introduction of new technologies. (That may also be relevant to the previous paragraph.) Apparently there has also been related problems with house decks. Who knows what else is lurking inside the buildings?

Part of the problem has been inadequate skills of the New Zealand labour force as we have moved from the general to specialist ones. The problem has been known for decades. Our response? Import the skills in migrants.

One last one. Go back to the Pike River disaster. It became publicly evident then, as it had been earlier to the knowledgeable, that our approach to workplace health and safety had been inadequate. There were many examples of the failure – fortunately not as spectacular as what happened at the coal mine. When the disaster happened, we put in an enormous hasty effort to set up an occupational safety and health service.

Isn’t that just typical? We slack away; when the crisis blows up, the clanging of the closing stable door is deafening.

That is what is happening with the mosque murders. Of course we should tighten up on gun laws – we should have twenty years ago. Perhaps the security agencies can be improved (although I hope there will not be the clanging of a more repressive regime).

Is that always the best we can do, turning our attention to the issue after the crisis emerges? There are exceptions. Twelve years ago the Governor of the Reserve Bank charged the Deputy Governor with the task of supervising financial stability – a responsibility in the 1969 RBNZ Act. The RBNZ has been working away at the challenge ever since. (It was not in charge of the finance companies when they fell over.) Currently it is raising trading bank capital reserves to make the banks more robust in the next financial crisis. Interestingly, the RBNZ does not expect a crisis for at least another decade. Good heavens, they are looking ahead! (As you might expect, the trading banks are resisting – just like the gun lobby.)

Is that a clue to why we are so slack? Where else in the government sector is there an agency which is looking intelligently ahead? That there are hardly any tells you something about the slackness in our political process.


Appendix: In a briefing to the incoming police minister in late 2017, police said: ‘The Arms Act has not been significantly updated since 1992 and has not been adjusted to take into account changes in the marketplace, changes in technology and increased civilian access to the worldwide firearms market. The failure to provide for the possible manufacture of firearms in New Zealand, or for the interchangeability between “A category” semi-automatics and military style semi-automatics (MSSAs), or for the conversion of and “A category”, semi-automatic firearm to [an MSSA] by the addition of an unregulated high-capacity magazine has opened up a risk of criminal harm, and undermines the Parliament's intention to limit the number of MSSAs in New Zealand.’

Each year since 2010, proposals for substantial amendment to the Arms Act have been included in the governments' Legislation Programme. For various reasons they have not progressed.