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The Liberal Iron Lady

Apr 29, 2014 Politics

Editorial: Has Judith Collins got a softer side?

Who’s heard of the Adult Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court? What about the New Beginnings Court? Not exactly high-profile components of the endless debates about “law and order”, are they? Yet both are part of the government’s reform programme in Justice and Corrections.

That’s right, despite headline-hogging “law and order” debates, there is a reform programme, it’s led by the high-profile and supposedly hardline Minister Judith Collins, and “therapeutic courts” like those above have an important role to play. Their direct purpose is to help offenders deal with underlying issues relating to their crimes (substance abuse and homelessness), and thus diminish their reoffending. So far, the evidence suggests they work.

Therapeutic courts have another purpose, which is to help establish that the furious rush to lock people up — in a country that already incarcerates a bigger proportion of its population than any other in the developed world save the US — is not a constructive approach to reducing crime, making our streets and homes safer or rehabilitating criminals. The spirit that enlightens those courts is also evident in the Family Court reforms, some other judicial measures and the approach taken by the police to several aspects of their work.

All of which makes Act president Jamie Whyte’s arrival on the battlefield of New Zealand politics so peculiar. Instead of economic reform, it appears that with his proposal to extend the three-strikes policy what he really wants is to revive the memory of the ridiculous David Garrett.

Thank goodness Judith Collins is better than that.

Better, because the evidence suggests she is more enlightened in these matters. And better, because her handling of them reveals political skills of the highest order. Collins has been happy for the likes of Sensible Sentencing to set the agenda in debates about crime, because there are votes in it, yet she has not only enabled liberal judicial reform, she has managed to keep the hang-em-high brigade from kicking up a fuss about it.

I’m not trying to suggest Collins is at heart a wishy-washy liberal. That would be a stretch. But nor is she quite the Iron Lady in Waiting that many perceive, and that she herself clearly encourages us to perceive.

What a shame, then, that she is also filled with such hubris she doesn’t foresee the harm she will do when she flouts, or comes within a razor slice of flouting, the accepted practices of government ministers.

What a double shame, that she does this as Minister of Justice. If she behaves badly in that role, where respect for the letter and spirit of the rules should be of the highest, what misdeeds might she commit if ever she assumed the much greater power of the prime ministership? Steve Braunias has talked to her about all this, and his fascinating story is on page 42 of our new issue.

Will Collins ever be prime minister? It’s possible. Misdeeds do get forgotten and genuine leaders are hard to find. Take John Key out of the current mix and no one in Parliament, in any party, appeals as the next PM. There are some natural leaders among the smaller parties — Winston Peters, Russel Norman, Hone Harawira — but none looks remotely capable of getting the top job.

Collins may have done her chances harm, but the idea that Mr Backroom Boy, Steven Joyce, might be an electable leader is preposterous, and one shudders (some would say with delight) to think what the wily Judith Collins would do to the upstart Simon Bridges if he tried to push in front of her. She’s still in the mix.

The lack of obvious leaders affects Labour too, of course, especially now the entertaining Shane Jones has gone. But that doesn’t mean Labour’s malaise is terminal. There are many rogue elements in play this election than may affect the outcome. Just think: the Mana/Internet Party, Conservative and Act parties could all win several seats; the Maori Party and possibly Peter Dunne could win none; NZ First and/or the Greens could win a truckload. It’s even possible David Cunliffe will find his mojo — stranger things have happened.

Some argue the uncertainty over this election reveals the weakness of MMP, especially when there is one obviously dominant party. That’s not so. The next government will be formed by the party that commands a majority in Parliament, in coalition or simply with minor party confidence, and that majority will reflect its majority support in the community. That’s a good thing. In six elections now, no MMP government has collapsed; in fact, the government has changed only twice. Stability and popular support are both desirable outcomes in a democracy.

Calling Shane Jones entertaining, by the way, is not a criticism. Politicians have to make us enjoy the experience of listening to them: they have a duty to perform. Jones knows that; so does Collins. Regardless of her future, what we’ve lost with his departure is the prospect of the two of them becoming party leaders and going head to head. What a show that would have been.


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