Who’s calling the shots? Bye bye surplus

I would love to know who is calling the shots in the National government’s cabinet when it comes to deciding how best to spend taxpayers’ money.  On the evidence of the last few weeks, it definitely isn’t Finance Minister Bill English making the calls.

In October the hapless Minister announced the country’s books were in a healthy state, with a $1.8 billion surplus, which ‘…puts [the government] in a position to be able to make some real choices for New Zealanders…”.

Since then we have had the devastation in and around Kaikoura, for which the repair bill, according to the Prime Minister, is unlikely to come in under $2 billion.

Bye bye surplus.  But despite this, and other pressing needs for public investment, the government has made a ‘real choice’ to press ahead with the construction of a new $1 billion dollar prison.

I can’t imagine the finance minister having been a willing participant in approving that decision.  He is already on record calling prisons a ‘moral and fiscal failure’. If there is any residual commitment to the provision of ‘free and frank advice’ from officials, then it is equally difficult to imagine them having presented a defensible business case for a new 1500 bed monstrosity at Waikeria. Particularly when there are so many better alternatives to our alarmingly high rate of imprisonment.

We know that a lot of inmates in our prisons have mental health issues or challenges. How about diverting an extra $100 million (10% of the cost of a prison) into building capacity to provide services to that under-resourced sector?

We know that alcohol and drug misuse and abuse are major drivers of offending that often lead to prison.  Just about every treatment centre in the country has a waiting list due to lack of capacity – I understand that any person seeking treatment for ‘P’ (methamphetamine) dependency in Auckland is looking at a three month waiting list.  How about another $100 million (10% of the cost of a prison) made available to treatment providers to work on that very real and immediate problem?

The list goes on, of strategies and services that could be invested in to dramatically reduce the flow of people into the ‘moral and fiscal’ failure of prison. Housing, job creation, education; all of which the government pays lip service to but is very slow to offer adequate material support.

The proposed spend on a new prison doesn’t even make good political sense.  The vocal minority that helped fuel the ‘tough on crime’ populism of the last couple of decades, with their simplistic calls for longer sentences as a solution for every of social ill, have certainly lost much of their popular support of late. Mercifully, a growing majority of Kiwis have acknowledged, thanks to more compelling evidence, that these punitive ‘solutions’ simply exacerbate the problem.

There is much more of an appetite now for genuine social investment, for reinvesting the justice dollar away from steel and wire and into measures that will over time enable us to close old prisons rather than build new ones.  I suspect Mr English knows that. It’s a shame that he is not being listened to.