Is New Zealand Unsafe?
Posted on 22:49, February 15th, 2009 by Pablo
The Dutch travel advisory on New Zealand, which followed two violent assaults on Dutch tourists this summer, places Aotearoa alongside other destinations such as the Congo, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Brazil as places where tourists are targets of criminal, as opposed to political violence. Criminal targeting of tourists in New Zealand is neither new or surprising; in fact, it has a rather long history. What is apparently new is the escalating violence of crime in New Zealand, not only against tourists but against the population at large. In fact, it is locals, not tourists who suffer the brunt of criminal violence in this country. That much is obvious.
But what are the causes for the upsurge in violence, and what can be done about it? This is one area where the Left are at a disadvantage, as Right anti-crime advocates can always use the issue of personal responsibility and the “get tough” canard as their rallying cry (as ACT did this past election). To that the Left has a variety of responses, most centred on decreasing poverty rates, decriminalising various low-level offenses and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment of offenders. But then the media offers more stories about more rapes and murders, gang intimidation. bail violators, increasingly aggressive boy racers, thuggish taggers and their angry (and armed) detractors, home invasions, domestic violence, child abuse and murder, all seemingly nurtured in a climate of police ineptitude, indifference, bias and corruption. For the pubic at large, the news is bad on all fronts, and it spells one thing: the criminals are winning, and the Left have no response other than to wring their hands. The last election clearly shows that the NZ public are not buying the Left approach to criminality, so new answers need to be formulated.
It is easy to point at alcohol and P as the cause of increased violent crime. It is easy to blame the vulgarisation of social discourse. It easy to blame failed families, the deleterious impact of the dole in creating generations of welfare addicts, the failings of the education system, bad role models in sports and pop culture, the influence of pernicious foreign music and video and their local imitators. It is easy to blame race or cultural factors. It is easy to push for tougher sentences and bigger prisons (even private ones). But is that really getting to the heart of the problem? Could it be that there is something at the heart of the NZ collective psyche at the beginning of the 21st century that has given foundation to the urge towards violence? Or is the issue structural?
Put another way. Could it be that in NZ the neoliberal-inspired, market darwinist experiments of the last 20 years have coupled with a pre-neoliberal bullying, raping, drinking, patriarchical and xenophobic culture to terminally erode notions of collective solidarity and empathy and replace them with an over-exalted hyper individualist ethos in an environment of ostentatious material wealth, shallow celebrity culture, over-the-top conspicuous consumption and increasing income inequality? (Now THAT was a mouthful!) Under such conditions, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows exponentially while the dominant socioeconomic themes are for individuals to maximize their opportunities regardless of consequence, could it not be that this offers a social sub-text that extends past the “greed is good” mantra of radical libertarians and into the rationalisations of the criminally minded? Could it be that there is an ugliness inside the NZ collective psyche that was raised to the surface by two decades of market-driven prescriptions and the material dislocations they brought to both traditional and new members of the local underclass–an underclass that now finds emulators throughout the social spectrum? Could it be that a culture that produced Ed Hillary and Willie Apiata produces them only as exceptions to a general rule of selfishness and latent rage that takes just a minor provocation or enticement to be unleashed? Could that be the root of the problem?
Of course, issues of police competence, individual responsibility, generational dysfunctionality, and punishment versus rehabilitation need to be addressed by the Left in a way that does not cede the floor to the Right when it comes to tackling the issue. But where the Left has its best argument is in the socioeconomic bases of increasingly violent criminality in NZ, and it is in that argument that the Left’s solutions to the issue may be found. One thing is for sure: tax cuts will not solve the problem, and until then New Zealand has become a country that for locals and tourists alike is alarmingly unsafe. I am no criminologist, so must defer to those who are when it comes to formulating a comprehensive remedy for the problem of increasingly violent crime in NZ. But I can say this: Above all other issues of domestic policy, it is this issue that the Left needs to confront if it is to regain political credibility in the eyes of the (scared) electorate.