Punitive political group-think rules... J'accuse too

The legislative failings exposed by Andrew Geddis this week also reveal a depressing political reality

Andrew's post on the Law and Order committee's incompetent drafting has certainly got folk talking this week, and it's got me pondering how imprisoned our political thinking on prisons has become.

It's been quite a week for Pundit... Deborah Coddington's damning post on the David Garrett fall-out ("ACT deserves to die") became the must-read take on the debate, then the legislative dickheadedness exposed in Andrew's post was picked up by every newspaper, radio station and TV network (at least their websites). Makes us feel proud of all the effort put in by the Pundits here to try to inject some smarts into the national conversation.

The sheer lack of thought demonstrated by the members of the select committee is easy to dismiss as the work of poor, dead-end backbenchers. But there's another possibility as well, which is just as worrying.

I'm wondering whether the punitive politics in New Zealand have become so ingrained in the way our politicians think, so powerful, that many in parliament have simply stopped looking at law and order through any other lens.

It's as if the committee members thought, "tough on prisoners? There's only one thing the punters want to hear on that, so I'll just tick the box and go home early". It's as if, politically, there's only one possible answer anymore.

At some point, who's going to have the courage to stop the steady march, chain-gang-like, to tougher and tougher treatment of offenders? To be other than a lemming? Or does the Sensible Sentencing Trust own our judgmental soul?

Looking at the politicians lining up to speak at the Trust's recent conference, it sure looks that way. The conference was jointly hosted at parliament by National, ACT and Labour.

Labour in its previous term built a whopping four new prisons, deciding that as a centre-left party it had to pander to the 'lock 'em up' predilections they saw in the centre and on the fringes of National's centre-right vote. Those prisons were the political balance to the "nanny state" policies.

Phil Goff, as Justice minister, was in the midst of that political calculation, so I can't see any sign of change there.

National has been forced even further right as a result and as got into bed with ACT's three strikes and other measures that cut even more rights from those in prison. More prisons are promised, and Aucklanders heading into our great city are met with the symbol of this zeitgeist, the additional floors being built onto Mt Eden prison, rising over the motorway.

Political instinct, depressingly, now tells every party but the Greens to push harder and harder on law and order, and this select committee seems to have been caught in that web of group-think.

Yet this bill could be a sort of tipping point,especially if the SST wears any of the fallout from the David Garrett nonsense. While it won't suddenly make us a society that embraces rehabilitation, it might make some think that we've reached a cul-de-sac of thought on this issue.

Consider, for example, that something like half our 8500 prisoners are inside for less than a year, many for minor drug offences or due to an inability to pay fines. Do we want to de-register them within an electoral cycle and lose their vote when they come out? Are we so casual with our democracy?

Andrew has made the arguments better than I could, so I won't repeat them. The question is now whether the government has the backbone to put this bill to one side in the interests of what Jim Bolger would have called a "decent society".