Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On Sam Lotu-Iiga, Winston Peters Needs No Corrections

Another day, another somewhat less than ideally phrased Winston quotation that's been seized upon by the media.

This time, it's his assertion that Minister of Corrections Sam Lotu-Iiga has "got a slightly better understanding [of some of the issues in his portfolio] than many people think".

Due to his ethnic background.

Now before you all jump in and pour scorn upon Winston for what, on the surface, might seem to be a suggestion that there's an axiomatic correlation between being Polynesian and a criminal mindset ... consider this.

What if Winston had said he, himself, had a better understanding of some prisoners' mindsets by virtue of being Maori.

It's pretty much exactly the same claim. It's just that due to self-reference it does a bit of a better job conveying empathy rather than suggesting criminality.

And considering that one of the supremely important issues we grapple with in our Corrections system (and, for that matter, with the police) is the genuine and undeniable realities of structural racism ... I definitely feel that part of the response to this issue is empowering the perspectives of people from the demographics in question.

To put it in context: Sam Lotu-Iiga is a Minister of the Crown. He's got reasonably good name and facial recognition.

And yet, if we were to wind the clock back ten or twenty years while simultaneously downgrading his warderobe ... Sam could well have found himself in a situation wherein an employee of the state - or, heck, even a member of the general public - could have made unwarranted and unfounded assumptions about him and how he should be treated, based purely on his ethnicity.

Something rather unlikely to have happened to his predecessor in the role, Anne Tolley.

Or, phrased more simply: white people often have problems grasping the issues around structural racism. Which, when you're dealing with pretty much the archetypal exhibit-A of same within our society ... is probably not a huge plus.

What Winston was saying, in part, is that with Maori and Pasifika demographics *wildly* over-represented in our prison and criminal justice stats, having somebody FROM one of those ethnic backgrounds running the show might enable greater progress on FIXING those issues through possessing a greater understanding and empathy with those we're trying to help.

Now, to go even further ... we already recognize that a Maori perspective can be useful if not vital in the Corrections system, as represented by the Mauri Tu Pae rehabilitation program, for instance. This integration of tikanga Maori kaupapa has a proven track-record of reducing offending, and serves to demonstrate how useful incorporating such an ethnic consideration can be. Something similar exists for a more narrow range of Pasifika offenders with the Saili Matagi scheme, as well.

Indeed, it was launched by then-Minister of Pacific Island Affairs Sam Lotu-Iiga. So evidently, in that instance, he was able to use his background positively within the Corrections sphere.

In any case, while it might not have been the *greatest* choice of phrasing on Winston's part - it would nonetheless appear to be a reasonable and viable implication for him to draw.

Although personally, I would have been considerably less complimentary:

"Coming from a party of crooks, liars, thieves and fraudsters ... of COURSE Lotu-Iiga will have a greater degree of connection with the criminal mind. He's surrounded by 'em on a daily basis."

If that sounds harsh, it's because I disagree a little with my Chief about his take on this issue.

Yes, SERCO taking over Mt Eden Prison happened on somebody else's watch.

Yes, Anne Tolley deserves EVERY BIT OF POSSIBLE OPPROBRIUM heaped at her feet about how this has been done, the fact it was done in the first place, and how it seems set to continue to play out.

But as NZ First Corrections spokesperson Mahesh Bindra has pointed out, the bad decisions haven't exactly stopped under Sam, either.

Recently, it was announced that National would be adding an extra hundred beds to Mt Eden - continuing to fill to well over capacity an already hugely understaffed and outright dangerous prison. In addition to that, even after the Government takeover of Mt Eden, there has reportedly been no serious shakeup and improvement in staff-to-prisoner ratios - or an end to SERCO's fundamentally deficient management practices.

In other words, nothing's really changed except the name on the door - and the number of prisoners being negligently managed.

And that's not good enough.

I respect Winston for being up-front and principled enough to defend a man thrown in the utter deep-end of a mess not of his own making ... but I also feel most strongly that whomever's responsible - and that means both Tolley AND Lotu-Iiga - needs to be justifiably held to account.

Fortunately, as demonstrated by Darroch Ball in the House last week (and, obviously, by Mahesh throughout his Parliamentary career) - New Zealand First is doing EXACTLY that.

[my thanks to Andrew Paul Wood for his assistance with this piece]

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