Human rights and public fright, Anne Opie

The Quiet War on Asylum
Tracey Barnett
Bridget Williams Books, $5.00,
ISBN 9781927131909 (EPUB), 9781927131916 (KINDLE), 9781927277983 (PDF)

The Punitive Society: Falling Crime and Rising Imprisonment in New Zealand 
John Pratt
Bridget Williams Books, $5.00,
ISBN 9781927277270 (EPUB), 9781927277287 (KINDLE), 9781927277294 (PDF)

These books centre on the right-wing political rhetoric supporting shifts in New Zealand’s policies and practices affecting two highly marginalised groups of people. Tracey Barnett writes of past and present policies and recent legislation seeking to regulate those people (refugees cum asylum seekers) fleeing often internationally generated conflict and/or highly repressive political regimes, from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Burma, Somalia and Sri Lanka; John Pratt writes of the development of punitive penal policies over the last 25 years.

The Quiet War on Asylum is a focussed book, reviewing major issues raised by New Zealand’s changing response to refugees and asylum seekers. Barnett brings together interview and observational material from her contacts with refugees who have been resettled in New Zealand, refugees who remain in limbo in or outside of official refugee camps in Asia, and asylum seekers incarcerated in Australian detention centres. She outlines the tortuous, lengthy, and inevitably haphazard processes involved in becoming selected as a “quota refugee” by a particular country (approximately one per cent of refugees are ever resettled). She is very critical of how our government’s 2013 legislation both reduces the numbers of refugees accepted from camps themselves, and how it mirrors the punitive and much critiqued Australian approach. She comments that John Key’s use of Australian politically generated terms (“queue-jumpers”, “illegals”, “mass arrivals” and “criminals”) to describe asylum seekers who might (just conceivably) arrive by boat on New Zealand shores, misrepresents the issues and undermines New Zealand’s past support of human rights, written into the international conventions of which it is a long-term signatory. This language encourages and panders to public anxiety, fear and hostility towards strangers, those millions of hugely disadvantaged and traumatised others whose lives have been destroyed by international and local conflicts and who must flee their homes because of well-grounded fears of persecution and/or death.

Barnett argues that this legislation authorising the harsh treatment of any boat people who might survive the Tasman crossing damages New Zealand’s internationally significant reputation “as a world leader in the treatment of asylum cases, especially lauded for its community-based approaches”. The government’s position has been greeted with deep concern by national and international organisations. Such concerns are, however, seemingly overridden by the government’s belief that tough, harsh measures – defining asylum seekers as dangerous rather than as people in dire straits whom New Zealand can assist – help demonstrate New Zealand’s trustworthiness and readiness to play along in the military “sand box”. After a long period in outer darkness (the result of our nuclear-free policies), New Zealand is now back at the table, participating in sharing military intelligence as a member of the Five Eyes alliance, that highly conservative, risk-oriented Anglo-American group of countries. There is no publicly available evidence that the government attempted to assess the intangible costs, including the damage to the country’s reputation, of our membership of this intrusive intelligence and surveillance community.

Pratt’s book on penal policy reports on the changes to New Zealand’s penal policies from the 1980s onwards, emphasising their contribution to the now very high imprisonment rate, maintained at an annual cost of over $1b; in 2011, the minister of finance described these outcomes as “moral and fiscal failures”. A further unhappy result is that, in 2013, New Zealand’s incarceration of 194 prisoners per 100,000 of the population parallels the imprisonment rates in Gambia and Namibia, and far exceeds rates of imprisonment per 100,000, for example, in countries in Western Europe, the UK and Australia. New Zealand now unenviably finds itself at the top of the wrong international league tables.

Pratt has published extensively on penal populism as the driver of New Zealand’s high rates of incarceration, despite the falling crime rate since 1986. He defines penal populism as the imposition on and the acceptance by government of the will of those who regard themselves as marginalised and, believing their needs to be overlooked by the criminal justice system and governments to be too soft on crime, demand a much more repressive approach, a demand to which governments have adapted to win votes (he does not suggest that some ministers may themselves sympathise with and actively support this approach). Pratt sets out the significant shifts in governments’ approaches to offending, beginning with the forward-thinking 1981 Penal Review Policy Committee’s recommendations: supporting, where possible, the use of community-based measures; rejecting the use of mandatory sentencing; and highlighting the need for prisoners to be able to do “productive” work in prison. There are light years between the political climate that enabled the production of these recommendations and the punitive 1999 referendum questions on penal policy issues; the referendum was supported by 91 per cent of voters (in an election in which just under 90 per cent of the eligible population voted) and led to a range of subsequent legislation which substantially complicated ex-prisoners’ attempts to re-integrate into society and gave victims an increasing weight in sentencing and parole decisions.

Pratt argues that penal populism has gained power here because of, for example, a “decline of deference” and the rejection of expert knowledge; the absence of a bi-cameral parliamentary system; the rise of lobby groups; and the loss of security accompanying the advent of neo-liberalism. However, this linking of the loss of deference, the lack of an intellectual community, the rejection of expert knowledge and governments’ support of punitive policies, needs a much more detailed account than is given here. How does Pratt explain New Zealand’s acceptance (and indeed generation) of expert knowledge in non-criminological domains, or take account of the politics of knowledge and the authority given only to certain modes of disciplinary knowledge? Moreover, his explanatory account needs to address other significant issues, such as ministers’ changing relationship to their ministries’ advice and role in policy development since the introduction of neo-liberalism. What is missing from this book is a fuller discussion of responsible government, although this issue appears to be central to his concerns.

A responsible government, as I think Pratt in part implies, would consult the breadth of international and national knowledge to guide its deliberations, seeking advice from public servants; the judiciary; researchers; knowledgeable and experienced NGOs, familiar with outcomes of penal policies and the shape of good practice; and prisoners and ex-prisoners, those whose lives have been intimately affected by government policies and practice and who are increasingly internationally understood as able to contribute valuably to policy development and critique. The major objective would be to achieve substantive knowledge-based and whole-of-government accounts of social issues, together with their environmental and economic outcomes. The processes of open policy development would include attention to how each discipline and methodology results in particular modes of knowledge generation, so producing a distinctive account of the social world foregrounding particular policy approaches. Analysis of intended/unintended outcomes of such accounts is crucial if new policies are overall to contribute to that core democratic imperative: the development of well-rounded, informed citizens. Importantly, achieving this outcome depends on governments providing the necessary public leadership to develop and sustain a dialogue between themselves and the public, a dialogue to which the contribution of a well-informed, thoughtful, articulate and critical media is vital.


Anne Opie’s From Outlaw to Citizen: Making the Transition from Prison in New Zealand was published in 2012.


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