In his first substantial act ahead of the September 23 election, Bill English yesterday moved to neutralise the political risk around the debate over rising crime.
New Zealand First called for 1,800 new police last August and Labour has also promised an extra 1,000 police if elected, adding to the pressure put on English by his own former Police Minister Judith Collins, who asked for more staff in the last Budget round, but was knocked back by English.
The new PM told an audience of Rotarians in Auckland yesterday he held back from announcing the extra 1,125 police staff last year because he wanted tangible targets in place to measure their success.
The extra police staffing, which would see 880 more cops in uniform and 245 extra non-sworn employees by mid 2021 at a cost of NZ$503 million over four years, had been mooted by Collins last year.
English made the announcement the centrepiece of his State of the Nation lunchtime address.
Collins’ pre-announcement, and a further concession from Paula Bennett that 66 of the 880 had previously been announced, took some of the sting from the government’s first big election year initiative. It mimicked the Labour and New Zealand First pledges to play the police numbers card this year.
The implication that something had to be done as crime had begun to rise again under National, (for the past two years according to English after five years of falls) was not shirked by the PM and Minister at a press conference after the speech.
English said the police organisation and processes had been going through big changes and "now it is time to commit resources to keep ahead of any further crime in the future."
He painted the move as part of the government’s social investment approach, spending in a targeted way now to prevent bad outcomes in the future.
Asked if this was the same increase in police numbers that Collins had suggested before losing the portfolio and, if so, why the months of delay in announcing it, the PM said the initiative had not been ready back then.
After the May 2016 Budget provided more funding for police pay rises, attention had turned to the need for more personnel. However Ministers and the police executive needed to be able to show the value of another NZ$503 million and 1,100 more staff.
“Everyone has to know what they are doing and why," English said.
He said police now had challenging performance targets to reach to justify the spend: higher attendance at burglaries, seizing more assets from organised crime, reducing deaths from family violence and reducing reoffending by Maori.
There was no mention by English, Bennett or in the supporting documents provided at the lunch of the effects on the extra police numbers if the police failed to meet the new targets.
English said once the analysis of the spending and benefits had been completed, it had been an "easy choice" to include in his year-opening speech.
Bennett tried to head off any criticism that the National-led government had let the police headcount fall over its latest term and was now simply restoring past staffing levels. She said National had added 600 police since 2009 and the equivalent of a further 350 police had been gained by efficiency and technology measures.
English gets personal
English’s speech was otherwise matter-of-fact. He’d promised it wouldn’t focus on creating a ‘vibe’ and it didn’t. He’d also pledged policy substance, but the police announcement aside, it was more a generalised English philosophy and personal background.
His social investment approach of targeting the inter-generational cycle of welfare dependence and poor social outcomes has been well rehearsed.
One line from the speech saw English sum up his tough love attitude, his desire to challenge and reassure New Zealanders simultaneously: “I believe in the capacity of all New Zealanders to improve their lives in some way, large or small. And I believe in the generosity of this country to help them to do it.”
Generosity. It is an interesting word, with a mix of both charity and ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ running through it.
Recalling the economic upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s, English said people in a small trading country like New Zealand needed to continuously adapt in small steps.
“Hiding from economic reality then eventually required drastic and damaging change and would do so again.”
English listed the risks to global trade as the biggest threat to New Zealand, and the ‘complexities and tensions building up in world politics’ as developments of concern. “A newly assertive Russia and China, the ongoing refugee pressures around the Mediterranean, Brexit, a new US President and rising nationalism.
“All the political leaders I met [in Europe last month] were focused on these developments because their long-held assumptions about how the world works are being tested.”
- Many thanks to Newsroom's Tim Murphy, who contributed the above report for this newsletter from Auckland. His analysis of the speech is at Summer Newsroom.
In other economic news...
ANZ reported job ads fell 0.2% in January from December in seasonally adjusted terms, but were up 19.6% from a year ago in three month average terms -- the strongest annual growth in five years.
Have a great weekend and look out for some chunky reads below.