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The Salient editors sat down with Andrew Little, Leader of the Opposition, to chat about recent events, Labour’s intended policies if elected, and stuff that affects students. Below are the juicy parts of the second half of the 45 minute interview, including commentary on Labour’s policies regarding corrections, prisons, and tertiary education. The first part was printed last week.
Listen to the full recording here:
We were hoping you could run us through Labour’s policy for corrections. In October 2016 you said that Labour will put 1000 extra police on the front line and that this would cost an additional $180 million a year.
What we’ve got at the moment is the fastest increase in population that we’ve ever had. […] So [in addition to] a rapidly rising population we now have, for the second year in a row, a rising crime rate in what I’ve described as ‘street crimes’ — burglaries, robberies, assaults — as well as an increase in serious assaults, including sexual assaults as well, and we’ve got a lid on police numbers. […] The target police-to-population ratio we used to work to was 1:500; we are now at about 1:530, roughly, 1:528. What that means is that community police stations and rural police stations that used to have a police officer stationed there, don’t, which means response times to incidents and events are a lot slower.
You talk to some suburban communities, particularly the small businesses which operate there, and they say that, ever since the local community police station closed, […] the burglaries and the robberies and the shoplifting has gone up. So that police presence is an important deterrent. So, I’ve committed to us heading back towards that ratio, knowing the general police philosophy is working in the community; build trust and confidence, and work as a deterrent to crime.
In terms of criminal justice measures, deterrence isn’t the most effective strategy. Would the $180 million not be better spent on restorative justice programs and support for those who have offended — on addressing more systemic problems, rather than a band-aid approach?
I think more is needed than just that. I don’t agree that a good police presence in communities isn’t preventative, I think it is. I think in terms of underlying causes, there’s a whole heap of other things we need to do, […] actually accepting that we do have a poverty problem, and a child poverty problem — working on lifting families out of poverty is just as important as anything else that we do. We have a commitment to doing that. […]
Where I would rather reallocate money from is the other end of the criminal justice system; the corrections system. The government just announced, at the end of last year, building an additional, new, $1 billion prison with another 1800 beds — that, to me, is the mark of failure and we know from all of the research that a large proportion of those who go into prison, up to 50%, have a whole heap of underlying problems […] that never get addressed in prison. They do their sentence and they come out of prison ill-equipped to deal with the world as it is, because they were ill-equipped to deal with it the way they were before. And then we wonder, why do we have this high reoffending rate?
I would rather work on that stuff. Actually, the person who has some really progressive views on this is Greg O’Connor. He’s spent a lot of time thinking about prison reform that’s actually going to fix people up, and get them out. […] I’d rather take that billion dollars, that is going into prison, and actually use it on stuff that’s going to work on people, deal with their health problems, deal with their addictions, provide them with some training and skills, set them up with life skills. That’s the sort of stuff I’d rather be investing in, rather than in building more prisons.
So is Labour, if elected, committed to reducing prison numbers down from the 10,000 milestone?
Well, it’s not so much about reducing numbers. […] The commitment has to be, for people who wind up in the criminal justice system, that we have a system that actually addresses underlying issues they’ve got, which are partially or entirely the cause of their offending. So if they have undiagnosed or unattended health issues, let’s deal with that. If there are addiction problems — we have a major problem dealing with addiction in New Zealand, we’ve shut down a whole lot of residential centres which, for many people, are the most affected way of coming to grips with their addiction — they actually have to spend time away from their normal environment as they learn to manage and control their addiction. We don’t have those places anymore. Our mental health services have been so badly run down because we’ve had $1.7 billion dollars cut out of our health services — and we wonder why we have all of those problems? […] Our commitment is to address the multiple causes and issues which underpin most criminal offending, reducing prison numbers that way, and fixing people up so they can get back and lead a decent life.
Māori and Pacific peoples are disproportionately represented in imprisonment statistics. How would you address the underlying issues specifically in regards to Māori and Pacific communities?
This goes back to communities where there is a high degree of poverty; you need to address income issues, you need to address education issues — so an education system that is accessible and relevant to young people and their families. In regions, you’ve got to work on regional economies, encouraging investments that are going to lead to job-creating activities, and give people opportunities. […] If the state does the right thing, it will encourage investment from private investors. [We need] to be working on those community issues and the economic issues that are the drivers of poverty and low incomes; and giving those communities a sense that there is a future.
The Working Futures Plan includes a policy aimed at New Zealand students which would provide three years of free, post-secondary education. Could you talk us through some of the specifics of this policy.
It will take up to two terms to implement, given the money available. It is trying to be as flexible as possible, but it is about accepting that the future world of work is changing. People will need a higher level of base skills than is probably the case at the moment — most people will need retraining, new education, new learning throughout the course of their working life — and this gives us the opportunity to support that.
Is there the potential for this policy to be expanded to cover those who wish to pursue further study?
We’ve limited it to three years because we think that’s the most affordable at the moment. I think, if you ask me what’s ideal, it is tertiary education generally being freely available, at least the tuition. […] This is an important starting point to reflect what we know about a universal set of changes about the way work is going to be done. It doesn’t matter what you do — the technology that is being used now, and in order to get the most out of the job, requires a high level of skills and training. Could we do something further down the track? Anything’s possible; I can’t make that commitment, but obviously there is value for those who do formal tertiary study like a university degree to do postgraduate study.
A burning question, one close to our hearts, is what will happen to existing student debt? Last year the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations held a campaign marking student loan debt reaching $15 billion — is this level sustainable?
No. We are thinking very hard about it, […] we’ve looked at ways we can deal with kind of debt write-offs. One of the things we are looking at is a scheme where, certainly, if you work in the public sector or in hard-to-recruit areas, that you get some sort of debt write-off. We want to look at something that also applies equally to the private sector as well […]. We have to think through this. There is a cost to trying to eliminate as much of $15 billion as you can over a period of time, and we do have to be conscious of that. I don’t want to be seen to be making promises that I know, in the back of my mind, are going to be hard to keep. So we’ve got a bit more work to do on that, but that’s something I’d like us to consider at some point.
Under the current regime, students have to pay interest on their debt once they leave the country. Is this something that Labour would seek to change?
We’ll have a look at all of those things, there is no definitive Labour policy on that, but I think that anything that reduces the debt burden — when the student loan system was introduced, no one envisaged […] graduates spending such a huge proportion on their income on either renting or buying a house. Things have gotten out of proportion, and student debt is now limiting the choices people are able to make. […] We need to be looking at that, but we have no specific policy.
Another significant issue at the moment are the Indian students who sought sanctuary at Auckland Unitary Church. The NZ Herald reported last Thursday that you made a last ditch appeal to Minister Michael Woodhouse to stop the deportation — we were hoping you could provide us with an update on this?
It looks like the immigration officials have turned up to the unitarian church this morning to start to remove the students. I rang the associate minister Mr David Bennet who deals with appeals to ministers on Friday. I wrote to him first thing Monday. I still haven’t had a reply to that letter. I was in touch with his office this morning. When I get back to the office I expect I’ll make a phone call to make one last verbal plea for compassion for those students, but time is rapidly running out as we speak.
There is some concern that international students pay very high fees but are not provided with the same quality of education as domestic students — a common phrase is that international students are ‘cash cows’ for the underfunded tertiary sector. What is Labour’s view of the treatment of international students?
The thing that really brasses me off about these students [the Indian students who have faced deportation] is that the tertiary institutions which they have studied at have got the fees, and have completely washed their hands of any responsibility for the students. That cannot be right. When it comes to agents in other countries recruiting students for tertiary institutions here, the tertiary institution here needs to take responsibility for what those agents do. The real beneficiary is the tertiary institution — they get the money. We want to properly regulate those agents, and hold the tertiary institution responsible for what agents do. In terms of the quality of education, we have the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) whose job is meant to be monitoring the quality of education. We want to be monitoring the TEC to make sure that they are actually doing their job, to make sure that the students’ experience is actually available to them.
How do you justify the fee imbalance? Is this something that could be rectified with increased funding?
I think that universities will all say they need more, they certainly do need more, and they go and market themselves to full-fee-paying students on the grounds that they are only funded up to a certain level. You don’t want to deprive students the opportunity to study here, even at full cost; I think the important thing is to make sure what they are getting is the same quality of experience that domestic students are getting. […] They ought to get the same quality experience, and its the tertiary institutions job to deliver that.
Lastly, to answer a burning question for our readers, what’s your favourite colour?
I suppose I’m meant to say red, but my favourite colour is actually a muted orange.