In praise of Judith Collins

My last post of 2012 said some mean things about Judith Collins. Let me make amends by starting 2013 with some nice words.

A couple of years ago, I had a grumpy prod at Simon Power for introducing a revamped Prisoners and Victims Claims regime into Parliament before he took off to enjoy a real life working for Westpac. You can have a look at that post for a full account of what he proposed, but in a nutshell it went something like this:

A prisoner is in jail serving their punishment - doing the time for their crime. Whilst in jail, they are mistreated ... in a way that breaches the rights guaranteed to all New Zealanders under legislation. They then get monetary compensation (only after all other means of remedying the situation have failed). That compensation first pays any debt they owe to any person they may have harmed through their crime - assuming there is such a debt in place.

And then the Government takes back the rest of the compensation and uses it to bolster the account it uses to pay for the support of victims of all crime.

So, in essence, the Government is proposing to fund a system of helping crime victims with money that it pays to prisoners after mistreating them whilst they are in its custody. And it will take that compensation away no matter how grievous the rights breach the prisoner has suffered, and irrespective of whether the crime that put the person in prison caused any individual any loss at all.

For me, this is the sort of lazy, knee-jerk populist legislation that gives Parliament a bad name. Sure, lots of prisoners are not-nice people who have done not-nice things. And yes, the actions of lots of prisoners leave lots of people hurt and out-of-pocket. And yes, we as a society have an obligation to help those who are harmed by crimes.

But to go from those propositions to a solution that prisoners have no right to receive compensation for harms caused to them by the State, but instead must pay it over to help society meet its obligations to crime victims, is to in effect say that prisoners are not people. And that is wrong.

That is why I'm pleasantly surprised to see Judith Collins essentially agree with me and announce that she won't be following through with Simon Power's proposal, but rather moving to make permanent the existing claims system. As she said late last year:

"I just think it's really important that we get that right, that we don't go so far overboard in one direction that we end up causing injustices in another. I think it's important that we don't have injustices or wrongs done ..."

Quite right. So credit where credit is due - my first words of 2013 are praise for Judith Collins.