Is New Zealand Unsafe?

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.

13 thoughts on “Is New Zealand Unsafe?

  1. I largely agree with what your saying. Neo-liberalis, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia lead directly to increased inequlaity and poverty in our nation. However I don’t think this was market driven. A freer market would, in my mind and in the mind of many who characterise themselves as left wing, lead to a more egalitarian society. I would note this from Roderick Long when dicussing Reagan’s neo-liberal reforms and labour reform in France:

    So in this case: when government passes laws giving group A unjust privileges over group B, and then passes another law giving B some protection against A, then repealing the second law without repealing the first amounts to increasing A’s unjust privilege over B. Of course a free society would have neither the first nor the second law, but repealing them in the wrong order can actually decrease rather than increase liberty.

    That’s how I pretty much see neoliberalism (as I pointed out today at the standard both Reagan and Thatcher increased government spending) – they speak in the rhetoric of a free market, but the result of their deregulation, or re-regulation, is not a freer market, but an entrenchment of privilege and a furthering of corporate plutocracy and greater state subsidization of corporate profits, at the expense of the bulk of the people. They intervene in the market as much as any centre left government they just do it more so on behalf of the corporate elite. Hollow consumerism, “ostentatious material wealth, shallow celebrity culture, over-the-top conspicuous consumption” none of these things are inherent to a market system. It is the state-corporate system that instills this. I would posit, as many others have, that it is the state-corporate oliogarchy that has sought to atomise us in order to better control us. Much more should be said about overproduction, the state fostering thereof and our consumerist lifestyle. Undoubtedly inequlatiy and poverty breeds crime, but so to does a lack of freedom. As Proudhon said “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” As you say the left often proposes decriminalising various low level offenses – these are not all simply social measures but market ones. For instance decriminalisng the use and sale of recreational drugs would allow people to legally engage in market activities, selling and buying drugs. The state criminalises engagment in what should be a legitimate form of income and foisters the cost of enforcement of these absurd laws and imprisonment of people, who have harmed no one else, onto the taxpayer. People who are, largely, poor. One more thing I would like to point out there need be no conflict between individualism and cooperation. So I’m nitpicking, but I think you make some really great points. Points that are all too infrequently made when discussing crime in this country.

  2. NZ doesn’t have that high a crime rate compared to other countries.

    What it does have is a different pattern of social deprivation to Europe (and to some degree the US).

    In (Western) Europe, most deprivation is in urban areas. The majority of rural areas are comparatively wealthy and safe (with a few exceptions, like Sicily). European tourists tend to expect that when they’re in a remote and attractive rural area, they are fairly safe and don’t need to be as wary as they would be in a city.

    In NZ, the development and then closure of rural industries has led to a high rate of social deprivation in the countryside. Coupled with the tendency for educated kids to leave rural towns and not return, that makes places like Tokoroa somewhat unpleasant (although I would add that lots of perfectly decent and nice people live and work there).

    So I guess the fact that tourists need warning about rural NZ isn’t surprising. It isn’t Lagos though, or even Nairobi.

  3. I deny the premise, completely. New Zealand is not more dangerous than 10 or 15 years ago. Homicide rates are down, and at a similar rate to that of 1980. New Zealand was of course most violent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the midst of poverty, dislocation and desperation. South Auckland wasn’t a comfortable place back then.

    Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, of course, but these are now tragedies lodged in the public mind through increased media coverage and sensationalisation.

    So when Russell says above that

    “things” are tangibly worse.

    he is right, things feel worse.

    The death by assault rate is the only really reliable crime metric. There is some variation as better medical intervention saves lives that might have been deaths, but not enough to drown the clear downwards trend from the mid 1990s onwards.

    The Labour Party needs to stop playing this desperate game – it is an auction they can only lose. They need to stand up, and tell the truth, in a clear and coherent manner. I fear that while Goff is leader, and in charge of the “get tougher” brigade, this will not happen.

  4. Oh, and NZ’s population is over 40% larger than it was in 1990. If rates per 10,000 were to stay static, the total would increase dramatically.

    So, again, things feel worse.

  5. Thanks for this thought provoking piece. I made a gentle case in a Labour Party planning meeting that the simmering rage that lies beneath New Zealand society, and which you talk about here, is one of the key things we need to confront both in policy and in organising strategy to build a centre-left majority.

    The progeny of it in our deeper history and the liberation of it by the neo-liberalism of the past few decades is an argument I readily accept. There are political opportunities presented by it as well as political risks. Dealing with it is not going to be easy for us in Labour, but deal with it we must.

  6. Pingback: Time is at the heart of Social Democracy | Just Left

  7. Pingback: Sorry! | BK Drinkwater

  8. Pingback: Taking Your Time | Bowalley Road

  9. Pingback: Time and freedom | No Right Turn

  10. In New Zealand the fastest you can go is 100k’s and this is only on the motorway. Any faster than this and the police would be on your tail. I know there are some country’s out there whom let you exceed 100k’s and have their own speed regulations but I highly doubt anyone has a speed allowance of 150k+. These speeds are horrific. Why are vehicles built to these large speeds when we know there unsafe and are just looking for trouble.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *