After a year of huge ups and downs, Andrew Little is preparing for yet more change. He speaks to Shane Cowlishaw about his new ministerial roles and how he will make his mark.
Justice Minister Andrew Little is stone-faced when asked whether he believes justice was served in his own recent brush with the law.
“I couldn’t possibly comment but yes, we’ll see.”
Of course, it would be inappropriate for the newly minted Minister to comment on the verdict of his defamation battle with Earl and Lani Hagaman but he is betrayed by the slight curl of a smile on his lips.
With the election (and his resignation as Labour leader) behind him, Little is settling into his Beehive office and tackling a huge workload.
Alongside Justice he is also in charge of the security agencies plus the goal of re-entering the Pike River mine.
All are important, but Justice was where his first announcement was made.
Agreeing to increase the compensation paid to Teina Pora was a swift, calculated move to try and set the tone for where the Government was heading.
“It was good to get Teina Pora done pretty quickly, I think it was one of those lightning rod things and symbolic for us too. If it’s wrong we’re going to put it right.”
Not all the decisions he will face will be that straightforward, however.
A growing problem that the new Government simply can’t ignore is the burgeoning prison population.
Already at record levels, the 10,500 people behind bars are straining the country’s finances and a $1 billion prison is due to be built to cope.
The future of that facility is currently in limbo, as officials and Ministers try to figure out a way to cope with demand while avoiding such a massive spend.
Prison numbers have been tracking up for some time, but the recent surge has been attributed to stricter bail laws that have seen remand numbers climb.
New Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis wants to look at the Bail Act to see this can be reversed, but Little says it’s not on his agenda.
Little spoke in support of the bail changes when they were made in 2012, in the wake of some horrific crimes. He still believes that was the right decision.
“I guess I go back to the public concern at the time was about public safety and we still need to make sure that somebody who commits an offence, particularly a violent offence...if they are clearly a risk then you do want public safety to be considered.”
But he is unequivocal that the status quo is not working, with violent crime on the rise and recidivism rates steady despite more people in jail.
After becoming Minister he has been shocked at how fast officials are expecting the prison population to rise, he says.
“The projections for the prison population were pretty alarming and I think we were all taken by surprise by that. They assume at the current rate, after they build this $1b prison, they’ll be looking at building a new prison every two to three years. That’s truly alarming.
“We carry on doing what we’re doing and we’re going to be needing to build a new prison every two to three years. Now what the hell is the good of that? What a waste of money.”
Prisoners were not getting the help they needed while those eligible for parole were missing out because the courses they were required to do were not available. To change this, Little says, will require a change of thinking. Exactly what form that will take we will have to wait and see.
Court changes coming
Recently, there has been some disquiet amongst the judiciary.
Chief Judge Dame Sian Elias gave a speech in August that had many in the justice sector nodding their heads.
In carefully couched words, Elias spoke about a raft of threats to the quality of the justice system including a move to encourage early guilty pleas and the devolution of power away from judges.
The relationship between the Justice Minister and the judiciary is an important one.
Yes, judges are public servants. But they sit in an echelon above most others, in a separation from the state that is essential.
Maintaining that relationship is key, and Little says that while he had yet to meet officially with Elias and her kin, he will do so soon.
Regarding her comments Little agrees there were some “very fair points”, particularly around ramming people through the system quickly and the trend to offer a lower charge to get a guilty plea.
“I do wonder whether the volume of cases that are going through that there are probably things that people have pleaded guilty to that they’re not guilty of...I just think that there’s a real risk that does happen and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has happened.
“I totally understand it because it’s incredibly stressful for some people, but sometimes justice takes a bit longer, just like Mainland cheese.”
He also has concerns about the civil side of the justice system and the fact that it favours wealthy individuals.
He’s keen to fix that, and will review the current courts and tribunals, alongside legal aid changes made by the previous government and how Community Law Centres are faring.
Pointing to Christchurch earthquake insurance claims where class actions had been the only affordable option for many, Little wants the ability for people to defend their rights to be affordable.
“There’s a whole heap of things where you’re done over, your consumer rights or contractual rights, unless you’re incredibly wealthy you don’t get to assert your rights, and that’s wrong.”
One area of the sector that will likely soon see reform is the Family Court.
Labour pledged before the election to immediately review the Family Court, which has long been plagued by claims of unfairness despite reforms in 2014.
Little puts the review near the top of his priority list, citing massive delays and the failure of the recent changes that aimed to have fewer people before a judge but had in fact led to the opposite.
He is also highly concerned about child uplifts and the increase in urgent without notice warrants issued, which were raised in a series of articles by Newsroom earlier in the year.
Graphic footage showed young children being forcibly removed by police from a parent’s home, often during the night.
“It shouldn’t be happening, I was absolutely horrified...I know the police officers who were sent in to do it were in a difficult position but you cannot say they were acting in the best interests of the child, it was a breach of the Care of Children Act to treat those children in that way.”
Little does not believe that the Act needs to be changed, but he would look into whether a reminder or clearer statutory signal needed to be given to authorities.
“Picking up a child and removing them from a warm, loving home when the child is clearly in maximum distress simply is not good enough.”
The previous Justice Minister, Amy Adams, had also asked officials to look at why the number of 'without notice' applications for the urgent removal of children had increased.
No issues with Chinese influence
One thing that Little is not concerned about is any perceived growing influence of China in New Zealand.
Before the election a joint investigation by Newsroom and The Financial Times revealed National MP Jian Yang was a member of the country’s communist party and taught at one of its top spy schools before becoming a New Zealand citizen.
Yang did not declare his full background when applying for citizenship, but in a press conference told media he had followed all the rules and was not spying on his adopted country.
The growing soft influence of China in the Pacific has raised concerns among some academics and in Australia moves are afoot to introduce legislation to address areas such as Chinese donations to public universities.
When questioned about the issue and Yang, Little will not reveal if he had received any related briefings but says he has no concerns.
“There’s nothing here that’s alerted me to any Chinese nefarious influence in institutions like universities...I know there’s often the line about political influence but our donations regime is pretty transparent.
“That’s a legitimate public debate right now because it's [Yang’s background] been revealed, he said he didn’t know he was teaching spies? I can’t recall what his defence is, he’s made it into Parliament because the National party wanted him to be there, people are going to have to form an opinion themselves.”
Asked if Yang should have been allowed to stand for Parliament or if he should have been granted citizenship, Little says he does not have enough background to comment on the latter but was more comfortable with the National MP being an elected official.
“He’s a New Zealand citizen, that entitles him to stand for Parliament. There’s a variety of backgrounds. Sue Bradford, who was a regular radical protestor, took on the police, took on the establishment, she became an MP.
“I’d be very worried about saying there were criteria beyond citizenship that we should add to about whether you can stand for Parliament.”