Here we go Again

If we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to unsuccessfully grapple with present and future social problems. The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calls these problematics ‘wicked problems’. They are complex. Answers to them exist but we need to korero to define the problem and develop effective policies based on evidence. The initiatives announced today by ministers Hipkins and Allan fail to address the core problem

That we have a problem with gang member gun crime is undeniable. A policy response is certainly called for. But a successful response requires quality problem definition. We have not put our collective minds to the issue of NZ gang membership and gang crime since the Roper Report in 1987.

Chris Cahill from the NZ Police Association repeats the ‘hit gangs in the pocket where it hurts’ mantra, calling for greater opportunities for Police to “seize ill-gotten gains and hence remove the incentive to join gangs”. Really? Young people, especially young men, join gangs simply to enrich themselves financially? I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

The most recent New Zealand academic publication on gangs “Outlaw Bikers and Ancient Warbands. Hyper-Masculinity and Cultural Continuity1 written by Dr Carl Bradley BA. MA, PhD (Nga Haiuti, Clan Donald) suggests gangs are an age-old issue.

Today in the South Pacific gangs arise from colonialism, neoliberalism, and socioeconomic inequality. Recently, in the High Court, Whanganui, Justice Ellis, J., sentencing four young men for their parts in the gang-related death of a tribal whanaunga, citing a cultural report I had submitted, put the drivers as these:

Gangs in New Zealand—and in particular indigenous gangs such as Black Power and the Mongrel Mob—have too long and too easily been condemned as the cause of a raft of social ills when, in reality, they are symptoms of much deeper problems, many of which stem from our history as a country. I agree with that. For many Māori that history means colonisation, land loss, loss of the reo, marginalisation, compounded later by urban drift. In turn, those things have led to a broken connection with land and with community, the breakdown of whānau, and a loss of identity. Poverty in every sense of the word, but particularly—the reports point out—poverty of spirit2

The proposed omnibus amendment bill to address shootings in public places, to increase search powers to find and seize weapons, to respond to gang convoys, to seize cash and to prohibit cash payments for specified goods conflate several issues under the label, ‘gang’.

Language is important. As Andrew Little might say the term ‘gang’ is simply a label and as a useful word it is ‘debased’.

It is applied seamlessly to misbehaving youth, through to victims of abuse in state care, through to individuals and groups involved in organised crime. The common denominator in the eyes of most NZers is that they are all likely to be perceived to be brown skinned.

The gun crime initiatives could equally apply to a white power terrorist or even to the ACT gang who have deeply held views on the right to own and use firearms. The vehicle impoundment regime could apply to the Destiny church motorcycle gang protests or ‘Freedom’ or ‘Groundswell’ gang convoys. The enhanced cash seizure powers and prohibiting cash payment for specified goods is primarily relevant to organised crime regardless of who commits it.

Chris Cahill says we need to de-politicise the issue. He got that right.

The evidence for sound policy is available. I have read several recent academic theses from writers with lived experience. I know policemen and women who have insight. I work every day with intelligent pro-social gang leaders. I believe that we have the knowledge and goodwill even in marginalised and alienated communities to resolve this ‘wicked problem’. We must. Aotearoa must become the best place in the world to be a child even if mum and dad are affiliated to a gang.


Time to korero

Denis O’Reilly M soc P
Chairman Consultancy Advocacy & Research Trust



1 Bradley, C (2021) Outlaw Bikers and Ancient Warbands. Hyper-Masculinity and Cultural Continuity Palgrave Macmilliam

2 In the High Court of NZ and Whanganui Registry i te Koti Matua o Aotearoa Whanganui Rohe CRI-2018-083-1481 [2022] NZHC 278. The Queen v Damien Charles Fantham-Baker, Sheldon Toni Rogers 24 February 2022 Sentencing Notes Ellis, J. [at 40]


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