Harry Tam (Photo: Q + A/TVNZ)

Harry Tam, a lifetime honorary member of the Mongrel Mob and the man behind the Kahukura programme, was a guest of Jack Tame last Sunday morning on TVNZ’s Q + A. Their interview (lightly edited here for clarity) followed National’s criticism of the government for its $2.75 million funding of the Kahukura programme. We start with Harry responding to Jack’s question about the increase in gang numbers. 


Harry: Well, there’s a couple of things with the increase in gang numbers. First and foremost: how accurate are those numbers? I think, in the past, people like Jarrod Gilbert have interrogated some of those numbers, and they aren’t always accurate. So, I’ll put that up first. 

And the people coming into the gangs are pretty much third-generation — and you’ve got to look at the drivers behind that. 

And I think there’s a direct correlation with the growth in disparities, particularly with Māori and non-Māori. If you take a look at the Māori median wage, I think it’s around $24,000, and your non-Māori is about $34,000. 

And really, those communities are not unemployed. They’re jobless. They’ve stopped actively looking for work, because they’re actually unskilled. So they’ll come into unskilled employment or semi-skilled employment, and the returns are relatively low. 

Like, your minimum wage has just gone up to $20 an hour — which is good. It’s a step, definitely, in the right direction. But you’ve had 30 years of this low-wage, low-skill economy. And these people have been brought up with intergenerational dysfunction. 

You only have to have a look at what’s coming out of the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Where did the gangs originate from in New Zealand? It’s the people that have been in state care and have been abused, and their traumas have never been dealt with. 

So it’s an intergenerational transfer of trauma and dysfunction. And by the time you get to your third generation, of not working and all that, that’s the norm, you know? Not having fathers around — that’s the norm. 

And so people are disconnected from their culture. They’re disconnected from their whakapapa and all those things. And then they see a group that lives in what they perceive as a family, and the closeness, and people that don’t judge them. It becomes an attractive alternative.


Where did the gangs originate from in New Zealand? It’s the people that have been in state care and have been abused, and their traumas have never been dealt with. 


Jack: If gang numbers are increasing, what role are the returning 501s having?

Put it this way. For the 501s that come back, there’s no pōwhiri for them, is there? I mean, these people have been so disconnected from their own whānau. They’ve been living over in Oz or wherever. And then all of a sudden, you’re sent back to somewhere. You get met at the airport by two detectives, and you walk away with $300 — and I don’t think they even say good luck to them.

So we do need to look at how we treat them. Maybe we need to get iwi involved in that, to help reconnect them with their hapū and their whānau, so they don’t have to go to the gang. 

Particularly, like, if you haven’t got an identity, you can’t apply for a benefit. If you haven’t got an address that you can say, “My power bill went to this address”, how do you get help? So these people will no doubt go back to others that they know of. 

But, overall, I think the 501 thing is probably played up more than what it really is. What we’re not looking at is the causes of them getting into crime as a means of support for themselves. 

As a lifetime honorary member of the Mongrel Mob, how effective has the gun ban been, when it comes to getting guns out of the hands of gangs?

First and foremost, the guns are generally illegal, right? And the other thing is that we really need to be asking ourselves: “Why are people going around with guns?” Because if we don’t understand that, then you can ban guns but it’s not necessarily going to change a hell of a lot. 

My view is that people feel insecure, either through their lifestyle, because they’ve got other things going on with other groups and they feel they need to protect themselves. Or they’re involved in selling drugs or something and they can’t go to the police if they get ripped off. 

Now, if we understand those things — for example, if there’s rivalry between gangs, well, let’s try and resolve the rivalry. Because then you start taking away their need to carry guns. If it’s about drugs, well, look, how do we get them out of drugs? A lot of the people they’re selling to are actually their own. It’s almost like brother killing brother. 

Now, if our whole strategy is around cutting off supply, that will work so far. But what we also need to focus on is reducing demand, because if we can reduce demand, there’s less need for supply. This is just market theory, isn’t it? Supply and demand.

A lot of our strategies have been focused on reducing supply, which I don’t disagree with, but we need a balanced approach. And if we understand those dynamics within the gang communities, then we’ll start on the path of making a difference.


They haven’t opted out. They’ve been pushed out. If you’re locked up in an institution, and your carer’s beating the crap out of you, did you choose that?


So what role does methamphetamine play in financing gangs?

Well, I don’t know how much they finance gangs, as such. I think they’re individuals. At least in my time being involved in gangs, it’s more of an individual operation. Now, I can’t say that for every gang, because I don’t know.

How else do gangs get money, though?

I don’t know. I mean, some go to work. In recent times, a lot of the Mob guys have actually gone into work. The older guys. But, yeah, it may well be meth. 

But again, like I say, unless you actually deal with the problem in itself . . . I mean, for me, it’s that we focus on the top end of the meth thing, right? The big busts. And we say: “Jeez, that’s another couple of million dollars.” And we feel good about it. 

But I remember a situation here in Wellington where it came out in the court case that the police were watching these two Mob guys for a year. And over that year, I think over $2 million of meth had gone through that meth house. 

And it made me really question: Is this the right approach? Because over that year, we allowed $2 million worth of damage to our community before we got them. 

And it seems to me that we’re too fixated on the big busts. For God’s sake, just have a cop car outside the meth house with a cardboard cut-out cop, if you like. Because it’s highly unlikely the people are going to sell there when there’s a cop car outside. It’s highly unlikely the buyer’s going to buy there, right? 

Have some more drug courts in the community, because often, my understanding is that people get into selling meth initially to support their own habit. Then they realise they can make quick money, and big money, and then they go on and on. And so then they become big suppliers.

I want to pick up on something you said. You said it’s brother dealing to brother. So how much is addiction a problem in modern gangs?

It’s a huge problem. It’s a huge problem. You only have to look at the mental health issues, the number of people that are going to prison. It’s a huge problem.

What is the best way to give assistance to people who are addicted to drugs in a gang setting?

A lot of our people don’t trust people. There’s this whole thing of trust. And if you look into their backgrounds, they’ve got good reasons not to trust authority. 

A lot of these people have been institutionalised most of their lives, and this is some of the stuff that’s coming to the surface now, where you see children being plucked out of families through Oranga Tamariki. 

They go into institutions. They get beaten up. They get abused. So they don’t have any trust, right? You can say: “You need rehab. Go here, go here.” But they don’t know those people. They’re not them. Without that trust, it doesn’t work. 

So one of the things we’re trying to do is break some of those barriers down, and actually engage and influence our people to want to make change, right?

So I always talk about the need to penetrate. Because we often assume that you can just rock on up and say: “Hey, bro, I want to put you through rehab.” And it’ll be: “Piss off.” But if it’s somebody that they can trust that comes in there and has the conversations, you’ll be amazed what comes out. People want change, but they don’t know how to change.


We just want to demonise people, because we’ve got this society where it’s all about who is worthy and who is not. 


Why should we give any sort of assistance to people who have made an active and conscious decision not to participate in society?

Well, I think the thing is: Who is “we”? Does that include OT (Oranga Tamariki)? Does “we” include the abusers? Does “we” include the paedophiles that have abused these people? Does it include the Lake Alice people? Are they the “we”?

I mean, we as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

Well, they are too.

Law-abiding? Come on, Harry.

No. The stuff that is coming out of the Royal Commission of Inquiry — they were law-abiding citizens. They were employed by the state. So that is “we”, right? So let’s be clear about who “we” is.

My question is, why should society at large support people who have chosen not to be a part of society and made that a conscious decision?

That’s not a valid question, because, again, you’re forgetting the backstory of why they have opted out. They haven’t opted out. They’ve been pushed out. You know? If you’re locked up in an institution, and your carer’s beating the crap out of you, did you choose that?

I wonder, how does anyone — be it Mobsters, bureaucrats, journalists — know where your loyalty lies?

Well, I think my loyalty lies in being a good New Zealander. I think that’s why they gave me a medal. I can show you. “Services to the country.”

Do you carry this around with you everywhere you go?

No. Just thought I’d show you. Just in case. For the non-believers.

The New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal. You get my question, though?

Well, it seems like Jacinda seems to trust me. Why wouldn’t you?

Because you’re . . .

See, that’s where the problem is. It doesn’t matter what I do. Because I’ve had that label, you’re not going to trust me. And that’s the thing. We demonise these guys, right? And then we’ve got reason to hate them. But when they try to do something for themselves, we’re going to bash them again anyway. They can’t win.

And I think therein lies your answer. It doesn’t matter what I do. It doesn’t matter what references I’ve got. You’re still going to look at me as like: “He’s one of them.” 

So how are we going to make a difference? On one hand, we’re concerned about the rising numbers. We’re concerned about gun crime. We’re concerned about meth and all the rest of it. And we’re going to do the same thing again and again and again, right? 

You only have to look at the stats. If you go and have a look at the Ministerial Inquiry into Violence, the Roper report, and see what the estimated numbers of gang members were then, there was actually a reduction. And it’s the only period in the history of New Zealand where there was actually a reduction in gang numbers. 

So what happened between ’81 and ’87? It was Muldoon. He actively looked for solutions, employed people like myself to go out there and engage those communities and get them into work, get them into education, get them into training. 

But we don’t want to look at that, because we want to demonise them. We want to demonise Muldoon, because he was close to gangs. And that’s the problem. We just want to demonise people, because we’ve got this society where it’s all about who is worthy and who is not. 

We’ve had this Royal Commission of Inquiry going on for the last couple of years, and the truth is starting to come out. But they’re not worthy. “They’re not us.” In your own words. 

So as long as we’ve got a society of “us and them” and we use this judgment tool of who is deserving and who is not, these problems will continue. And we never look at what underpins these problems. We never get to try and understand the problem. 

But right now, and for the last 30 years, literally, we’ve had this model of suppression, which is purely surveillance and law enforcement. And what have you got? You’ve now got an increase. Because part of that surveillance and law enforcement also glamorises gangs to a certain extent. And you’ve got this sort of commercialisation of gangster culture that gets into the minds of our young people. 

So there’s all those dynamics that are happening. 

And on the other hand, the other side of the coin, their observations are uninformed. They conjure up more fear. So you have this perpetuation. There’s no end in sight. 

And, yeah, it frightens the hell out of me. 

(This interview has been edited for clarity. It was screened on TVNZ’s Q + A on Sunday July 18, 2021. See also Harry’s kōrero with Dale Husband about his life and work.)

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