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Simon Power

2 August, 2009

National's Justice Agenda: Keeping our Word

It’s been 60 years since the National Party first won office.

Unfortunately, it’s been nearly 10 years since the National Party last held it.

In between, we were privileged enough to hold the Treasury benches for 38 of those 50 years. That privilege was earned by Prime Ministers and parties who recognised the value of a promise kept.

Much of our effort over the past nine months has been fulfilling those pledges made to the electorate.

In the justice portfolio alone, Prime Minister John Key laid out eight commitments for the first 100 days in office. Eight pieces of legislation to introduce between 18 November and 26 February.

My staff counted down the days on a whiteboard. The Christmas holidays were just an irritating distraction.

But by Day 100 we could say we had introduced legislation to enable police to issue temporary protection orders – to protect victims of domestic violence by removing those who pose an immediate threat to them. 

We could say we had introduced legislation to expand DNA sampling of suspects and to match those profiles to crime scenes – to help resolve hundreds of cases that might have otherwise gone cold.

We could say we had introduced legislation to deny parole for the worst repeat violent offenders – to send the message that offenders who continue to commit serious acts of violence will take full responsibility for their actions.

By Day 100, we could say we had introduced legislation to increase sentences for participation in an organised criminal group, and make it easier for Police to intercept gang communications and remove gang fortifications – to disrupt and demoralise the gangs.

We could say we had introduced legislation to levy all offenders – to fund assistance for victims of serious crime who have nowhere else to turn.

By Day 100, we could also say we had already passed some bills into law.

We had reversed the 2007 changes to the Bail Act, tipping the benefit of doubt back in favour of public safety for borderline cases.

We amended the Sentencing Act to make it clear to the courts that the punishment should be more severe when someone offends against a child. Actually, that was one I added to the PM’s list.

And finally, we passed legislation to repeal the undemocratic Electoral Finance Act.

All in the space of 100 days. Well, 92 to be exact.

We kept our word.

And it’s the same across every other portfolio. Following the standard set by our Prime Minister, this is an active government.

But that’s not where it ends. Having built up the momentum, we need to keep it going.

As promised at the election, we’ve just passed legislation extending the jurisdiction of the Disputes Tribunal – making it easier and cheaper for individuals and businesses to resolve civil claims.

In the space of an afternoon in April, we introduced and passed legislation that closed a loophole in the conditions of extended supervision orders for child sex offenders.

We’ve also picked up on unfinished work from the previous government. Legislation that should have been passed.

Like the bill that makes it easier for the Crown to seize the assets of those they suspect of profiting from significant organised crime. A law that could have the biggest impact in the fight against the manufacturers of hard drugs such as P. To make sure crime doesn’t pay.

Or the bill that makes it easier for victims to get legal aid for representation at coronial inquests – to avoid a repeat of the situation where the widow of Karl Kuchenbecker received an invoice in the mail.

I'm pleased to say we have also driven reform in other areas that had been left dormant, by updating our search and surveillance, anti-money laundering, and privacy laws.

I was very pleased to be able to announce last week that National will remove the partial defence of provocation for murder. A law which effectively puts the victim on trial. Something that should have been acted on at least two years ago.

But, as a newspaper editorial noted last week, the previous government “was too busy at the time removing people’s election-year rights”.

The previous government’s unfinished business reminds us of the danger governments face when they lose the momentum for reform. And when they lose the perspective to know what matters.

Our election policies in the justice portfolio were designed to be targeted in nature.

Responding to gaps in the system. Injustices. Injustices that threaten public safety, or victims’ rights.

The common thread that binds our initial reforms is the need to protect the vulnerable. However, we must continue to be vigilant and responsive to new risks

Over the past 60 years, our party has been unfairly accused of being complacent in government. Concerned only with maintaining the status quo. But that ignores the legacy of previous National governments in leading change in the justice realm.

The National government of the 1960s, for example:

  • Established the first Ombudsman in the English-speaking world.

  • Reformed family law.

  • Initiated race relations and human rights legislation, and

  • Introduced modern penal policy, particularly concerning the rehabilitation of prisoners.

National has modernised the justice system before, and I intend to continue this tradition.

So let me state very clearly. We are here to make a difference. We are already making a difference.

One of the initiatives that continues to resonate with me is the victim compensation scheme, funded by the offender levy.

After four years, $13.6 million will be available to help victims of serious crime with costs they can’t meet through other sources. Through no fault of their own. It’s $13.6 million more than they get now. I’m really proud of that policy.

You should know that we are also reviewing victims’ rights and services, with opportunities for public input over the next few months.

I, for one, make no apology for any policy that elevates the status of victims relative to the offender – even if it happens to inconvenience those who have an institutional interest in the court process.

We should be restless for change as long as injustices remain.

I’ve already announced proposals to tune up the court system to provide speedier justice for victims and offenders alike. That has been coupled with a fundamental review of legal aid, to maximise access to justice, while minimising any excess in the justice system.

Last week I announced I was considering changes to the way sexual violence cases are heard in our courts.

This is not about tilting the field in favour of the complainant, as some have alleged.

It’s about restoring something I told last year’s conference that I believed should be the cornerstone of the justice system. Fairness. That means continuing to advance the cause of the vulnerable.

To build on this theme and the changes we have already made to the Sentencing Act, I’ve asked the Law Commission to review whether the penalties for crimes against children are appropriate.

I don’t pretend that this will solve the problem of child abuse. It won’t. But the justice system must provide a stronger response than the status quo. And it’s a start.

Child maltreatment and neglect was identified as a factor in future offending at the Drivers of Crime Ministerial Meeting I co-hosted with Dr Pita Sharples in April.

I want to build on the remarkable consensus evident at that meeting to forge new policies. That will have the express purpose of stopping crime from occurring in the first place.

I am determined that the next steps in addressing the drivers of crime will not take the form of a strategy, a taskforce, or an action plan. When it simply calls for action.

I was interested to hear the participants at that meeting conclude that alcohol isn’t so much a driver of crime, as it is a lubricant.

We want to hear from the public before we consider which of the Law Commission’s proposals to reform liquor laws we might pursue.

But I can say that reform is coming in this area, and we will be tackling this issue as a single package of change. Rather than the ad hoc manner in which it has been addressed in the past. The impact of alcohol on offending is something that can no longer be ignored.

Our reform programme recognises that justice policy should strike the appropriate balance between reason and emotion.

If decision-making is ruled by our visceral reactions, then we may feel better for a short time. But we risk replacing one injustice with another.

If our decisions are made in an isolated atmosphere of academic detachment then we risk failing to recognise injustice when it appears. We must act with an open mind and an open heart.

And above all, we must act.

  • Simon Power
  • Justice