The Power game: easy politics, hard policy

Judith Collins has sharp teeth. This week they went deep into Corrections Department chief executive Barry Matthews because of the report on (mis)management of parolees (with not enough staff).

Tony Ryall has chomped on Otago District Health Board chair Richard Thomson and spat him out because he was the chair when a massive fraud was discovered (though he fixed it).

John Key on Monday just held back from nibbling at Conservation Department chief executive Al Morrison about deals with dam builders so environmental concerns were addressed and paid for.

It’s called politics. Every new government likes heads on platters to expose its predecessor’s waywardness and display its own sterner and stricter management.

Remember Helen Clark’s early days. There was tension between some ministers and senior officials. Remember Christine Rankin.

Simon Power more commonly wraps his teeth in a cheerful smile than embeds them in enemies. He has many decent bones in his body.

Nevertheless, he has been one of the Key cabinet’s foremost politics-mongers, with a swag of laws against evildoers and a promise new prisons will not have underfloor heating and televisions (though elsewhere they have been found to render convicts soporific and thereby less violent, thus cutting costs).

Since Parliament reconvened in December, Power has brought eight bills into the House, some passed outright, some sent off to select committees. When Gerry Brownlee, as leader of the House, stuffed up procedure last week, Power (who would do Brownlee’s job better) was on the spot to fill the void with a couple of bills.

Power’s bills includes tougher bail laws, tougher sentences for offences against children, more power to police in domestic violence and to clamp down on gangs, a levy on convicts to compensate victims, DNA samples from everyone charged with an imprisonable offence and no parole for the worst repeat violent offenders and worst murderers.

His list could have been boiled down into a couple of omnibus bills. But dealing with them piecemeal highlighted campaign promises and validated a public need for serial vengeance. That’s politics.

And Power, a tall fellow with a jutting jaw and a once-a-Catholic’s sense of right and wrong, does this politics well.

Well, “good” politics is easy. Good policy is hard. Power’s challenge now is to produce policy which deracinates crime so there is less need for showbiz-politics laws.

The risk is that good-politics vengeance takes us to California: a huge, expanding prison population, housed three-tiered in gymnasiums because the state long ago ran out of prison space. California has a “three strikes and you’re out” law, which ACT wants and National has agreed to take to a first reading.

Criminals, when locked up, can’t directly harm folk outside (except by way of loading the cost of their keep on taxes). But almost all come out.

More important, most have children. And life stories of people who have made good after terrible childhoods in criminal and violent households are stories of near-superhuman effort to escape what was otherwise a predestined date with violence and crime.

Actually, Power also has a subtler and deeper agenda. He will use a speech next Thursday opening a symposium on the causes of crime, including the impact of a bad very early childhood, to relocate to the top of the cliff from his past few months patrolling the bottom.

Up there he will find Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, a recidivist smiler, and Key.

Bennett regards very early intervention to stop maltreatment of children as her top welfare priority — much more important than the (ho-hum) boot camps she announced on Monday. Key wants his legacy to be progress in building good lives for those children — talking about the boot camps on Monday, he said the government accepted that change was needed a lot earlier than in the teenage years.

Here Power’s crime path and Bennett’s welfare path cross.

Power wants remedial action — “before handcuffs and after handcuffs”. He wants “conversations” on “why young kids go down these paths” and “why so many are Maori”.

Bennett aims to build on programmes developed over the past 10 years with bad households. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” she says but there is a need to sort out which government and non-government agencies do what and who leads.

A soppy liberal hangover from times past? Actually, sensible economics. If 15 years hence there are fewer youngsters of the sort who cost taxpayers heaps because they cannot contribute to the economy and pay taxes, the money spent now on them as babies and toddlers will have been good investment.

It is better investment than prisons. Prisons are easy politics but they are a defeat, the opposite of law and order. Winning with kids is hard policy, the stuff of law and order.