Reading books to escape from the unhappiness of one’s life

Todd Stephenson. Photo: Facebook
Todd Stephenson. Photo: Facebook
As any school pupil or tertiary education student can tell you, there are few things more excruciating than having a teacher or lecturer going through your homework in public and picking holes in it.

It has been a few years since one-time Otago law student, Act New Zealand Southland list MP Todd Stephenson, has had the "pleasure" of having an essay or classroom answer dissected forensically in front of his classmates.

But that was, essentially, what happened to him this week when he appeared before the Justice select committee — which he is a member of — to present on his member’s Bill, the Parole (Mandatory Completion of Rehabilitative Programmes) Amendment Bill.

That might have been bad enough, but to make it worse presenting right after Mr Stephenson was Sir Ron Young on behalf of the Parole Board, which he chairs.

Quite apart from that exalted role, Sir Ron is a former chief district court judge. He’s got some game.

And if that was not enough to have Mr Stephenson shaking in his shoes, the Parole Board’s written evidence could not have started on a less encouraging note: at 1.2 it said it had "grave concerns" about the Bill, before following up at 1.3 with its belief that it would "create significant barriers to safe release for offenders on parole" and putting the boot in at 1.4: "It will often delay prisoner release for no apparent purpose and create unfairness by requiring prisoners to complete programmes that are not of value to them".

Now, to be fair to Mr Stephenson, the Bill is not of his drafting: it is an Act member’s Bill left over from the last Parliament which he has taken over.

And since he had the good fortune of having it drawn out from his very first member’s Bill ballot, he has consistently acknowledged that there are issues with it as it stands and that he hopes to address those through amendment at a select committee.

Those included the fact it most likely would breach the Bill of Rights should it become law and that Corrections does not have the resources or staff to fulfil the Bill’s good intention — that inmates make every effort to rehabilitate while in prison.

"I am very open to adapting and changing this Bill to meet its objectives," Mr Stephenson said.

"What I and Act are wanting to do here is properly provide opportunities for people who are incarcerated to actually get rehabilitation and support and to have the best possible chance to reintegrate into the community."

Mr Stephenson and Sir Ron met before the committee hearing, a constructive discussion which meant the MP was better informed on parole matters and the retired judge knew that rather than being a tough on crime law reform it was intended to reduce recidivist crime.

However, Sir Ron was not backing down from his written submission.

"The Parole Board’s perspective is that the Bill is not a solution to ensuring that offenders complete rehabilitation ... the problem in our experience is not the lack of offender interest, lack of motivation or lack of preparedness to attend a programme, it is timely availability."

Prisoners knew that the fastest way out of jail was to complete their programmes, but those programmes were not always available, he said.

"I’m not here to criticise Corrections; they do the best with the resources they have ... but these programmes are run by highly trained people and it will not be possible to conjure them up within a few months."

For good measure, he added there was often a good reason why inmates refused to complete programmes: often they were unfit.

The drawing board, which Mr Stephenson has to go back to now, will need to be a big one.

I’ve been reading

Meanwhile, fresh from taking a pasting from the arts sector after his disastrous Newsroom interview referred to in Southern Say last week, Mr Stephenson has — literally — hit the books and this week posted a photo of himself on Facebook reading Lloyd Jones’ classic Mister Pip.

As an example of receiving feedback and acting appropriately it’s not bad, but a spoiler alert to Mr Stephenson — Mister Pip is a real tear-jerker; you’ll need to have a hanky handy.

Who are you?

Speaker Gerry Brownlee is, generally, doing a good job in tough circumstances in the big chair, but his Achilles heel is a terrible memory for the names of the MPs in front of him.

"Mr Speaker," Taieri Green list MP Scott Willis said on Wednesday, then patiently waited to be called to speak on the ministerial statement on gas production.

"OK, my mind has slipped again," Mr Brownlee apologised.

"Scott Willis, Mr Speaker," the MP said helpfully.

"Yes, I know, Scott. We just spent a week away, and I can’t believe that after a week away overseas with you, I forgot your name."

That was on a recent Cook Islands inter-parliamentary exchange visit, for the curious. Thankfully the Speaker knew who Mr Willis was by the time he got up to ask question 11 on Thursday.

Nelson Hospital, with special guest appearance from Dunedin

On Thursday local Labour MP Rachel Boyack was getting very exercised about the future of the Nelson Hospital rebuild. We know how you feel.

During her grilling of Health Minister Shane Reti, Finance Minister Nicola Willis intervened to ask Dr Reti "can the minister confirm whether Health New Zealand has taken lessons about what went so terribly wrong that led a hospital that was announced in Dunedin in 2017 to still not be delivered?".

He replied "I can confirm that the lessons learnt from that project will be applicable to other builds, such as the build in Nelson that the member is asking about".

What does that mean for Dunedin which, as we covered last week, is still nervously watching the direction of its own hospital build? Who knows, but the fact the finance minister feels that it has gone "terribly wrong" hardly sounds positive.