Guest Post: Politicians and Gangs

A guest post by Mikenmild:

The recent post on ‘Taxpayer funded gang violence’ reminded me that Kiwibloggers might appreciate a little bit of background on politicians and gangs.

Gangs have been the subject of public concern and political attention since, well, forever. Gangs of disaffected youths were causing concern in Auckland in the 1800s. Perhaps we could look more closely at gangs in the modern era and, more specifically, how our politicians have related to New  Zealand’s two most prominent gangs.

Political reaction to, but also engagement with, gangs has been steady since the 1970s. Politicians have always been concerned about criminal gangs, particularly those that seem to represent a challenge to current social structures. The 1970s were a difficult time, as New Zealand society began to change rapidly while politicians faced economic problems for which no easy solutions appeared. The problem of gangs received new attention.

During the 1972 election campaign, Labour Leader Norman Kirk and his deputy, Hugh Watt, both promised to ‘take the bikes off the gangs’. No such thing happened, Kirk commenting that ‘it was not as easy as I thought’.

Critical of Labour’s lack of resolve, the 1975 National government soon had an opportunity to flex its muscles. In early 1976 a Mongrel Mob member was shot and killed after he and others attacked a police station in Taumarunui. Swift law changes targeted using a car in commission of a crime, tried to disrupt gang meetings that could lead to violence, and expanded police powers to stop and search. There is little evidence that these law changes hampered gang activity in any way.

So began a cycle of attempts to crack down on the gangs. This cycle has been periodically interrupted by attempts to address gangs as a social, rather than criminal, issue. During the 1980s, the government addressed the issue with work schemes intended to address the employment and social problems that underlaid the attraction of the gangs’ largely criminal activities.

Rob Muldoon famously developed a relationship with Black Power members in Wellington in the late 1970s. One incident involved him drinking with gang members at the Royal Tiger tavern and a subsequent party. One observer of Muldoon thought that his relationship with Black Power reflected his ‘concern for the ordinary New Zealander, the invisible battler, the underdog, the social casualty – provided they were seen to be making an effort…In a way I think he also saw them as a kind of Rotary Club, an association of support and fellowship with arcane rituals’. Over 100 hundred Black Power members performed a memorable haka as Muldoon’s coffin was carried from his funeral service at Auckland Town Hall in 1992.

The measure of political consensus over the social approach in the 1980s quickly unravelled after some serious criminal offending, in particular a very nasty gang rape at a Mongrel Mob ‘convention’ in Auckland in 1986. The work schemes were stopped. Support for the social approach was replaced by a familiar pattern of politicians such as John Banks, Mike Moore and Phil Goff deploying harsh and flamboyant rhetoric about cracking down on gangs.

In office, politicians have introduced a range of measures, attempting to address gang fortifications,wearing of patches in public, and tighter conspiracy laws. Most have failed. Ironically, one law change very damaging to gangs was the liberalisation of liquor laws, which severely impacted the popularity of illegal bars operated in many gang clubhouses.

This stuff is ancient history now – who even remembers anything before 2001? Perhaps some commenters might like to continue the story through the Clark, Key and Ardern administrations.

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