(Photo: RNZ / John Edens)

Last week, the prime minister’s chief science advisor released a report on gangs. It is well-considered and backed by local and international research and evidence, writes Denis O’Reilly — so of course, it’s been instantly dismissed by the shouty tough-on-crime brigade.  


I suspect most of us know a variation on the joke about the traveller who stops to ask a local for directions. After a long pause, the local answers: “Well, if I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t start from here!”

Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, in her role as the prime minister’s chief science advisor, has recently published a report, Toward an understanding of Aotearoa New Zealand’s adult gang environment.

It’s a well-considered and comprehensive piece of collaborative research intended to contribute to a policy agenda to reduce gang harm in our communities. In part, it’s a literature review of local and international evidence on gangs, including academic literature, reports published by government agencies, and the synthesis of consultation with those familiar with the scene in Aotearoa, including those with lived experience.

The report bemoans the lack of evidence about the experience of women and children in our nation’s gangs and indeed suggests that we should reframe the “problem” as one of marginalised whānau best addressed by a public health approach.

The foreword notes that the report was requested by the former prime minister Jacinda Ardern in 2022. Lest it be put into a political “woke” box, it actually picks up on an insight by Sir Peter Gluckman, when he was the chief science advisor for then prime minister, John Key.

Sir Peter said at the time that we need to utilise the social sciences to:

Address issues of growing complexity and uncertainty in an environment where there is plurality of legitimate social perspectives . . .

This type of science almost never produces absolute answers but serves to elucidate interactions and reduce uncertainties. Precision is not the outcome, rather an assessment of probabilities . . .

Despite the less-than-optimal place to start, Dame Juliet has picked up Sir Peter’s social sciences baton to address “the gang problem” and brought it to a point where others can, in her words, “move the conversation forward”.

In politics, as in life generally, timing is everything. Regardless of the sub-optimal starting point, one might also lament the timing, and the usefulness of providing such a considered piece of work during a period when the gang issue is a political hot potato seasoned with outrage and shouty rhetoric.

Most of the major political parties battle over who is going to be tougher and more punitive. I put National, Act, and Labour in that camp. I’m not too sure where to put New Zealand First, but Matua Winston packed the house out in Napier last weekend so his view clearly still counts.

There’s not a lot between them. When it comes to gangs, Kiritapu Allan, despite her lived experience, talks like a Tory. Chris Hipkins reminds me of Phil Goff who, as a minister in the Fourth Labour Government, disestablished the modestly progressive gang policies developed from the 1981 Comber Committee on Gangs and the 1987 Roper Report, criminalised the Indigenous gangs, and kicked off what seemed to be a policy of locking up every young Māori the police could get their handcuffs on.

National’s police spokesman bloke, Mark Mitchell, was formerly a police dog handler — not a job in which one takes home work stories about redemption and human kindness. Having been out among his unhappy former workmates, he wants to take back forceful control of the streets, and, I presume, reposition the police as the biggest, meanest gang, like in the good old days of Gideon Tait, who was the assistant commissioner of police in Auckland from mid-1974 to the end of 1975.

Tait favoured a military type approach and utilised large “team policing taskforces” to sweep on pubs and clubs as an Assyrian dog handler might on the fold — the “fold” primarily being brown-skinned people. Mitchell, mimicking Tait, may well end up as our next minister of police.

ACT’s grip on the real drivers of community cohesion is tenuous at best.

Yesterday, Donna Awatere Huata confessed to me that she was worried about the tough racist talk emanating from the political bullhorns. I told her not to worry about trying to counter it. It’s just the piss talking, a waste of time, like talking with drunks.

These people are drunk with the quest for power, and in their misty haze, they believe they’re talking sense, be it on a street corner or at a bar among their equally politically intoxicated and hyper-aroused friends and supporters.

Like dealing with any drunk, it’s best to keep your distance until they sober up.

Sobriety will dawn in the days following the election when whoever finds themselves in power will be confronted by the same intractable and complex problems faced by the current administration. On that day, they may find recourse in the good Dame’s report and pick up on a sober conversation.


Denis O’Reilly is a lifetime Black Power member and chairman of the Consultancy Advocacy and Research Trust. He lives at Waiohiki, Hawke’s Bay, where he chairs the Waiohiki Community Charitable Trust.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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