Chris Trotter


THE INTENSIFYING POLITICAL CONTROVERSY over the Coalition Government’s policy on gangs promises to be one of those sheep-from-goats moments. While the Left will veer instinctively towards the sociological, the Right will opt to (paraphrasing one of the best lines from Pulp Fiction) “get medieval” on the gangs’ collective ass. Practical questions, such as “Can this policy possibly work?” will crash into angry ideological responses, “Are you saying gangs are above the law?” The sociological “sheep” who believe in a world unconstrained by the fiction of “human nature”, will face the “goats” of realism, who recognise only the necessity of keeping human beings’ potential for chaos and cruelty under strict control.

One could argue that the gangs’ (or, at least, the Mongrel Mob’s) biggest political misjudgement of the past 12 months was to go large on the opportunity provided by the funeral of a fallen comrade. In retrospect, it almost certainly would have been wiser for them to pay their last respects in mufti, and to have hired busses for the journey to Opotiki. 

Where was Harry Tam when the Mob needed him? He could have outlined the risks, in an election year, of turning a fellow gang member’s tangi into a show of Mongrel Mob strength. Warning them that there’s not a conservative politician in New Zealand, or anywhere else, who could fail to register the extraordinary opportunity for making electoral capital out of the “gang takeover” of a little Bay of Plenty town.

Certainly, Mark Mitchell – former police officer, onetime gun-toting international security contractor, Member of Parliament and, in 2023, the National Party’s spokesperson for matters relating to Law & Order – can only have relished the scenes of hundreds of gang members, some on motorcycles, others piled onto the back of utes, riding into Opotiki in much the same way as the Wehrmacht rode into Poland and France. 

Mitchell knew, because he was one of them, exactly how conservative Pakeha males all over New Zealand would be responding to these scenes; was rolling the words around in his own mouth, even as they were spat out towards 100,000 screens: “Who the fuck is running this country!” Followed immediately by: “Where are the fucking cops!”

Cue the Left’s standard intervention. Gangs are what you get when the pathways to personal and communal prosperity are blocked by the exigencies of capitalist macroeconomics – always and ably assisted by the systemic and individualised racism endemic to all the white settler states. When the traditional cultural mechanisms for managing and socially integrating the young are rendered ineffectual by rapid and massive urbanisation. When being young and M?ori in a Pakeha town or city makes you guilty of whatever’s bugging the cops until your innocence is proven. When the only way to make it through the rite-of-passage of a prison sentence is by accepting the protection of people in exactly the same predicament as yourself.

All of which is true, but irrelevant. The how and the why of gangs cuts little ice when [insert small rural community’s name here] wastewater treatment plant is testing positive – very positive – for methamphetamine, and God knows what other drugs. Because in the absence of criminality, and the inevitable violence with which it is associated, a gang is nothing more than a club. One becomes a gangster by breaking the law. And one becomes a patched gangster by seriously breaking the law.

Which is why a gang patch is so intimidating. It tells you that the person wearing it is someone you had better not mess with – someone you would be wise to fear. No police officer operating alone, or even as one of a pair, is ever going to attempt to make a gang member remove his patch. 

That Mark Mitchell and Paul Goldsmith are pledged to shepherding a bill through Parliament that will give him, or her, or them, the legal right to require the removal of gang patch means nothing. Only with a hefty squad of armed police backing up the local constable/s will gang patches ever be removed from gang members’ shoulders and hung-up safely in the gang’s headquarters. And when the armed-up outsiders have gone back to the big smoke, what then? What happens to the local cops the next time they’re out on patrol? What can they do when the gangs know where they live – where their families live?

Is it possible that Mitchell and Goldsmith are well aware that the laws they are committed to passing cannot possibly be effective unless and until there has been a profound change in the way New Zealand is policed? And is that what they are planning? To move New Zealand away from its present policy of “policing by consent”, to policing the citizenry by threatening and, with rising frequency, using armed force?

Because with the Coalition Government’s introduction of laws forbidding the wearing of gang patches in public; laws mandating the immediate dispersal of gang assemblies; laws prohibiting criminal association; it really wouldn’t take very much to set off a bloody confrontation between the gangs and the Police. And if a police officer, or officers, were killed or seriously injured in that confrontation, how hard would it be to secure public support for arming the Police, and outlawing gang membership altogether?

For all the “goats” out there, the idea of arming the police is no great cause for concern. Indeed, they would demand to know of their “sheepish” compatriots how else the situation might be brought under control. When the number of gang members in New Zealand is roughly equivalent to the number of sworn police officers, they would argue, not arming the frontline enforcers of the law could easily be seen as criminally negligent. 

The “sheep” out there would, naturally, be distraught at the loss of policing by consent. While it remains the firm policy of the New Zealand state, it is still possible to believe that the democratic impulse it embodies remains strong. That respect for basic human rights will, still, in the end, overrule the authoritarian impulses of those who see human nature as something dark, something to be controlled at all costs.

But, as the recommended responses to the Christchurch Mosque Massacres should have made clear to all our “sheep”, the state-sponsored curtailment of citizen’s rights, undertaken from the most noble of motives, of course, is only another deadly tragedy away. 

The “goats”, meanwhile, can rest assured that once the liberals have been policed, and the police liberated, New Zealanders can anticipate tragedies in abundance.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...

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