Gang numbers up

Attacking the Government over the increase in gang recruitment in New Zealand is an easy win for National, but that does not mean the party's rhetoric should be easily dismissed.

It is fertile territory for any opposition party when statistics are released that are easily digested by the public and point to a concerning development in society.

So it was last week with figures obtained by National that showed nearly 1400 more people had joined gangs since the coalition took office.

"Soft on crime", thundered Simon Bridges, as he promised his party's "gang plan" would crack down significantly harder on gangs and their nefarious activities, and said government policies aimed at reducing prison numbers had created a safe breeding space for gang recruitment.

Like anything, there are two sides to the story.

Deputy leader of the Labour Party Kelvin Davis says the Government is, in fact, working to address the rising tide of gang membership, especially the high proportion of gang members behind bars.

He says the key is to try to solve problems "at the top of the cliff", by boosting mental health and addiction services, engaging with gangs, and using kaupapa Maori to break the cycle of reoffending.

Police Minister Stuart Nash, meanwhile, counter-attacked by claiming National's claims did not stack up. He said gang crime was being heavily targeted, and frontline police had been boosted by 10%. Ergo, Mr Bridges was spouting so much hot air and contributing little to the debate.

Whichever side you lean towards, there is no doubt it is concerning to hear of a 26% bump in the number of patched gang members in this country since October 2017. And whatever the reason - Labour has pointed the finger at Australia, saying its aggressive deportation of criminals to New Zealand has led to a spike in the methamphetamine trade, in particular - it is an increase that needs to be considered at a government level.

There has been something of a push to soften the image of gangs in recent times. Just last month, leading gang researcher Dr Jarrod Gilbert invited Mongrel Mob members to speak at a University of Canterbury lecture, and Mob president Sonny Fatu said the gang was undergoing a "paradigm" shift. Members won praise for their solidarity with the Muslim community after the Christchurch shootings. And the Mob revealed a push to have a female chapter.

It would be nice to think there are gangs genuine about becoming a force for good in the community. Sadly, most still seem to exist primarily to intimidate, and to profit from criminal activity.

More gang members does not, as a rule, mean more peace and harmony in our towns and cities. It means more drugs, more assaults, more guns and more intimidation. That is a view - that gangs, by and large, "peddle misery" - many of us share with Mr Bridges.

On this issue, National knows it really cannot lose.



But, what will it do? Disband them?

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