Chester Borrows

Chester Borrows

Last year, the government set up an advisory group, Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, to advise it on what reforms should be made to our criminal justice system. In the wake of the release of its first report, He Waka Roimata (A Valley of Tears), Dale Husband talked to Chester Borrows, the former cop and National Party MP who leads the group.


Kia ora, Chester. You’ve been a policeman for many years, and I understand you have a law degree too. But some people might’ve been surprised that Andrew Little picked you to lead this advisory group that’s been looking into the criminal justice system — because you were a National MP as well, weren’t you?

Yep, 12 years as an MP. From 2005 through to 2017.

That was representing Whanganui, wasn’t it? And the southern part of Taranaki has been your home?

Yes it has, although I was born in Whāngarei. My dad came from up that way. Then we moved to Nelson when I was about four. That was where my mum came from.

I joined the police when I was 17. Went off to the Trentham Police College and then served in the police in Auckland and Wellington. Back to Nelson. Hutt Valley. Then I left the police and went farming with a cousin.

That didn’t work out so well. So I rang up the police and asked for a job. They said: “Pātea or Taumarunui.” So we were off to Pātea. I told my wife: “We’ll just go for two years.” But I’ve been in Pātea or Hawera ever since. That was December 1985 and we’re still there today. We call south Taranaki home and we live in Mokoia, just a bit out of Hawera.

Where’s your Māori side?

I have no bloodlines or whakapapa to Māori. But I affiliate to Ngāti Ruanui who really took me under their wing when I turned up in their rohe as a local cop.

Couldn’t have done my job as a sole charge policeman in Pātea after the works closed without the kaumātua committee and the whole korowai of care that came with being one of their locals. So I consider myself a Pātea local and they don’t seem to object.

That must’ve been a sobering reality when the meatworks closed. Massive unemployment. Crime following on. What do you think you learned from Pātea and the experience down there?

It was a complete awakening and education for me. I grew up in Nelson. In those days, there were no marae in Nelson. This was before the Wakatū marae. I was educated in a state school so, as far as I knew, all this marae stuff was back in Captain Cook’s day. I didn’t realise that they still operated today. Not until I went to Pātea.

We had a fantastic relationship there, but, of course, in Pātea, tikanga Māori permeates the whole community. And, if you want to be a part of it, you have to understand it, or else it’s not going to be a successful tenure. That’s where I got my understanding of things Māori — and I’m so grateful for that.

So, almost a year ago, you, a former National MP, were chosen by this Labour Government to head this group to advise what reforms there should be in our criminal justice system. That was an interesting selection, even though I’ve read that your parents were lifelong socialists.

Well, I was absolutely staunchly Labour, right through until I went to Pātea, where I was the local cop, and I saw what happened there with the change in government policy. The truth is that Labour (which was my party) swapped sides with National. This was in the middle of Rogernomics.

We had PEP schemes operating and we had people fully engaged with their community. Then Richard Prebble decided it was too expensive to keep doing that, and that it was much cheaper just to pay the dole. So that’s what he did.

I knew what was going to happen. Everyone would get on the booze. There’d be a massive fight. I was there on my own and I was walking up to this scrap thinking I was going to get absolutely snot-nosed.

And I thought to myself: “Where are you now, Prebble?” And I made a little pledge that I was going to join the National Party to teach Labour a lesson. I don’t think anybody noticed. But, funnily enough, about two weeks later, National were canvassing for party members in our street and a bloke knocked on our door. So I gave him two bucks and joined the party.

I didn’t vote National, though. Not for the next two elections. I’d get into the polling booth and I just couldn’t do it. Then I got politically active. Became very involved in National. And I was asked at some stage if I wanted to be an MP. I said yes.

I’m pleased I made that choice. I still belong to National and will carry on being a member of the party. But, at the same time, I was always known as being on the left. That’s how John Key saw me. He’d say: “You’re our leftie.”

They encouraged me to be the person I am, and I was allowed to be that within the caucus. I’m not really saying anything differently now from what I’ve been saying all along.

That’s interesting isn’t it? A blue leftie. But here you are, selected by Labour, to check out our justice system. And you’ve been saying that we’re not being served well and that the colonisation process has a lot to answer for. So, when you were offered the job, did you have any gut feeling about what you might uncover?

Well, there were two or three lines to the brief. One of them was to have a public conversation around transformational change within the justice sector. So it was a given that it needed to change and not just be tinkered with. We needed to turn it upside down and shake the hell out of it.

And what we found was a confirmation of what a number of us on the committee have felt for some time — that the system was broken and needed a big fix.

There’s a real diverse group of people around the table. You’ve got abolitionists. You’ve got activists. You’ve got academics. You’ve got a politician. A victim advocate. A local lawyer. Strong Māori representation.

So we’ve got a big spread of people and we don’t all agree about everything. But we knew there needed to be changes, and we were committed to leading that conversation and to seeing change.

But it is big. And when you point to colonisation as a major factor, a lot of people are inclined to dismiss that and say: “Yeah, but that was back in the 1800s.”

The fact, though, is that colonisation is an ongoing process. You take away a group’s economic base, educate them in a foreign language, relegate them into housing that isn’t certain. Is it any surprise that, a few generations down the track, this indigenous population has been corralled into low-decile, vulnerable communities, where they have the smallest voice in our democracy?

Take Pātea, for instance. Eighty percent of that town was on government support. They were the people who were vulnerable to centralisation, or work being moved offshore. And they find themselves unemployed, almost in a cyclic way.

It’s no wonder that they get into a cycle where they fail in education, they fail in health, and they fail in employment because their jobs keep moving. And they keep finding themselves in court.

Through the 1950s, when they had to move away from whānau support in the country and look for jobs in the urban areas, that’s when incarceration of Māori really took off. It went from under 40 percent in 1950, to a place now where Māori are over 50 percent of the prison population.

There’s another factor in the failure of the justice system — and that’s the collaboration of other government agencies. If we look back into the 1970s, for instance, the state took one in 100 Pākehā kids and put them into state care. But they took 14 in 100 Māori kids and put them into state care.

This is what we mean when we talk about ongoing colonisation. It was those government policies that affect outcomes for Māori today. And indigenous people around the world in colonised countries have the same statistics.

Are we talking about decisions being made by well-meaning but misguided people? Or are we talking about really racist attitudes?

I think some of it is well-meaning and paternalistic stuff. But it’s racism nevertheless. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s malicious or accidental or just ignorant racism. It’s still racism. And the outcome is just the same.

Members of the justice advisory group Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora, (from left) Julia Aumua Whaipooti, Tracey McIntosh, Shila Nair, Chester Borrows, Ruth Money, (standing) Quentin Hix, Carwyn Jones.

Your first report is out, and the responses are coming in. And some of them are coming from lawyers at JustSpeak. Tania Sawicki Mead for example. There’s this new emerging group of principled young thinkers and academics who form the basis of JustSpeak. What’s it been like working with them?

They’re great. It’s been really refreshing to see a new generation of thinkers coming through. They are people with academic grunt. What they’re saying is all evidence-based. And they’re saying it emotively. Just because it’s evidence-based doesn’t mean it’s got to be dry.

Ka pai. Tania is saying the only way forward is with cross-party consensus. And she argues that the tough on crime approach from governments simply hasn’t worked. Is that how you see it?

That tough-on-crime, broken-windows stuff started in New York in the early 1980s. What lay behind that approach was the idea that, if the police jumped on even a minor offence, it would prevent any more serious offences coming along later.

But it didn’t work. Initially, it sounded really good and the New York police reclaimed the city. Took it back, street by street. They treated it like a war. But, once that was done, all they’d really achieved was to set a new low.

And that sort of mentality was taken on around the world. It became a bit of a mantra and it was picked up by us. In actual fact, it’s just put a focus on the punitive aspects of justice. It doesn’t focus on being smart on dealing with crime and recognising what lies behind it.

You’ve seen, in our generation, the introduction of rangatahi courts, marae justice panels, and restorative justice hui and the like. Are we heading in the right direction with them?

We are, but we’ve restricted them largely to kids. For instance, the 1989 Children and the Young Persons Act, which instituted family group conferences and all that sort of stuff, was seen as world leading. And it had some excellent results early on.

But why wouldn’t you then move that into the adult courts? We’ve never done that. So our youth justice system works really well, but then we’re incredibly punitive once that child turns 17. We need to change that.

The iwi justice panels and community justice panels are really good. But let’s allow them to deal with a higher level of crime. A rangatahi court on a marae is not an option, but it’s a smart option. Because you can stand in a youth court, look at your boots, and grunt — and that’s fine. But if you go on to a rangatahi court with your nannies already sitting there, you’re not going to get away with that.

Let’s talk for a moment about the devolution of power and resources. Tania Mead from JustSpeak is one of many who say we need to see the government devolve power and resources to Māori. Do you think that our people, Māori, could cope, if we were resourced adequately?

Around the place, there are pockets of good delivery of service. And we’ve heard from the communities that they want the opportunity to do justice themselves.

Also, we’ve seen that, in places like Ōrākei, Ngāti Whātua are delivering justice for their people, and crime has dropped significantly. There’s been more rehabilitation of those who offend as well. So they can do it.

But you end up with an immediate pushback from the government agencies who are saying: “You haven’t got a proven track record, so we don’t want to devolve funding.” The fact, though, is that the government way isn’t working.

As Tracey McIntosh says, we’re getting “fully-funded failure” from the government agencies. It’s a failure if 60 percent of people who go to jail re-offend within two years. If you’re shovelling money into a system that delivers that result, it’s a failure.

Whereas, if you allow people to be a bit more innovative within their own communities, they’ll get better results. So why not devolve some of that funding to them? And don’t restrict them to 12-month contracts because you can’t set up a worthwhile programme if your future funding is uncertain. There needs to be an element of trust.

But some people spend a heck of a lot of time, government money, taxpayer money, measuring and evaluating things, over and over again. They would’ve been far wiser to invest that money by giving it to those agencies and letting them strut their stuff.

How disappointed would you be if significant changes aren’t forthcoming?

I’d be really disappointed. When our final report is delivered in August, it’s going to be big picture stuff recognising some of the issues that Moana Jackson identified years ago.

What’s next for you, Chester? And how do you think your work and the input of your colleagues will be received?

Our next task is to give a response to the minister — that’s Andrew Little — at the end of August. Sort of explaining where we should go from here, and what we should be doing. Like, for instance, devolving resources, and building the capability and capacity in communities, which might be Māori, or other ethnicities, or other geographical communities.

Allow them to handle justice at that level. Try really hard to get the politics taken out of the issues and to make recommendations that politicians can’t disagree with. And address, for instance, the way the media reports crime, because there’s still the attitude that if it bleeds, it leads — it’s front-page stuff.

Another aspect is how we’re looking at victims and the way they’re treated as they move through the courts. And understanding that some of those victims have been victimised their entire lives and that their behaviour starts reflecting that victimisation by breaking the law.

For example, you can get a young girl who’s been sexually abused from 7 to 14. She starts taking drugs, associating with bad people, and committing crime. Half of us may want to say: “She’s no longer a victim. She’s an offender. So we don’t have to worry about her.”

Yeah, we do. Because, actually, she was a victim first. And until we start addressing what went before, we won’t be able to deal with what came later. When we look at who is in our prisons, we can see that the vast majority are people who’ve been victimised — and we need to understand that. So, there’s a lot we need to do about education as well.

A whole lot of people are living in the safest communities in the world, and yet they think they’re unsafe and they want to get tougher and tougher on crime. But they understand very little about what the causes of crime are.

May I say that I’m really heartened by your kōrero today. Let’s hope that your report doesn’t fall on deaf ears, for the sake of people up and down the country. What would you like to leave them with?

I’d like to leave them with a sense of hope. Our first report is called He Waka Roimata. I’d like to think our next one will be named for aspiration and hope because I think there’s plenty out there.

When we were speaking to people, they were frustrated and they were upset. But all of them felt we could do a lot better. Among them were a number of the decision-makers who know that this is hard and that there are no easy answers.

But there are answers.

And we found that, within our communities, there were people doing excellent work. But they were having to do it in spite of all the rules and the policy. The people who were prepared to bend those rules a little bit — or maybe break a few — were getting great results.

So we need to empower those people working right at the coalface in their communities. Let them do the business. And, as taxpayers, we need to recognise that it’d be a good investment for us to put some money there.

This is an edited version of an interview that ran on Radio Waatea last Monday.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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