There was a tense clash between National Leader Simon Bridges and a Mongrel Mob representative at a meeting called by the Opposition Leader in Tauranga last night to highlight his party’s proposals to crack down on gangs.
Around 200 mainly Pakeha people crammed into the Tauranga Yacht Club for the meeting which was watched over by several uniformed police and private security guards. Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell was also in the audience.
And Bridges claimed there were a number of gang members in the room.
He called the meeting after the four recent deaths of people believed to be involved in gangs in Tauranga.
Louise Hutchison identified herself as the public relations liaison for Waikato Mongrel Mob.
She asked Bridges why he had not accepted an invitation to join Dame Tariana Turia and Sir Pita Sharples to meet with the gang last year.
“Instead you decided to go on to social media and really make a mockery of the powerful things that are happening an hour and a half away,” she said.
“There are answers an hour and a half away.
“There is a leader over there that has transformed his life after 33 years of a prison stint.
“We know what Bill English said; that prisons are a moral and fiscal failure, so I encourage you, Simon, to come and visit us and see what is happening there and not to use it as a political agenda.
“If you really want to win the election it is maybe something you could consider coming and looking at.”
But Bridges was having none of it.
“I’ll give you this,” he said.
“I accept that in your Waikato mongrel mob patch there will be some good that’s being done, but I ask you, and you can answer or not if you really want to; well, I’m not going to believe you, by the way.
“Why is it that your Waikato Mongrel Mob chapter is growing exponentially in numbers.
“Why is it that the methamphetamine numbers in Hamilton and the Waikato are going through the roof and continue to rise and rise?
“Why is it your leader won’t give back the illegal guns he has in the hundreds? (this was greeted with widespread applause)
“So why is it that police intelligence makes it quite clear that there is still a whole lot of illegality and drugs and violence going on as a result of the chapter you are representing today?”
Hutchinson replied: “You’re totally wrong. And that’s why I invite you to come over and see it for yourself.”
At that point, the audience started chanting “sit down”. She didn’t, but while she was being drowned out, National’s Justice spokesperson Mark Mitchell grabbed a microphone. Mitchell had already treated the audience to a lengthy outline of his own police career and suggested that as a future Justice Minister, he would be in charge of “police, courts and justice.”
“I had a young lady come out of prison that lives in my constituency,” he said.
“She became a victim. She got involved in the gang scene when she was very young when she was 14.
“And she suffered horrendously inside that environment; she had five children.
“And she suffered rapes and serious assaults so serious that she almost died.”
Facing Hutchinson, he said: “You know who I am talking about.” Mitchell accused Hutchinson of taking the woman to the Waikato and reconnecting her with the gang so that now she was back in prison.
So please don’t start lecturing me about the Mongrel Mob,” he said.”
“If you want us to come at me with Sunny Tau or whatever his name is name is, we’re happy to do that if he is going to come to us and say we are going to hang up our patches; we are going to stop the inter-generational harm and we’ll help them exit the gang culture and rejoin society.”
Bridges argued that one of the main problems with gangs was their involvement in the methamphetamine trade.
A number of questions asked about the importation of methamphetamine and how it was able to get through customs.
Bridges blamed Tauranga’s port.
It’s a great asset for the city; it’s a big part of why the city is growing; it’s our best port,” he said.
“But the reality is a heap (of methamphetamine) is coming through there.
“ There is an environment where there are a lot of contractors on that port, and quite a number of those contractors are associated with members of the gangs.”
Other speakers also called for him to come and meet with gang members who, they said, had turned their lives around.
One Maori social worker who ran a remand centre said what we feared most was what we understood least.
He said gangs were like many other groups of people; some were good, some were bad and he agreed that drugs, particularly methamphetamine, was a big problem in the region.
“But the gangs meet a social need for those who have been alienated in some form or another,” he said.
“I implore you to sit down with these guys and talk to them.”
But again Bridges said no.
“ Call me cynical. Call me a bad guy. I’m not going to sit down with a guy I know is a patched gang member because I do not believe they are like you coming from an authentic, sincere place,” he said.
“I know the game members in this room.
“The people they sit down with sell methamphetamine.
They have illegal guns in the hundreds, probably thousands in this city.
“They do violence.
“And so I’m sorry, we can try and pretend that a korero and a sitdown is going to solve it.
“But if you want to stop the growth, you are going to also have to do the hard stuff.”
That hard stuff starts with a proposal to ban gang patches in public; something Bridges said would be done overnight when National gets into government.
Getting tougher over the proceeds of crime would also be at the top of the agenda.
“That’s not a difficult law,” he said.
“I could write it this evening probably if I really wanted to.
“Bit of a bush lawyer these days.
“But I could have a go at it so that shouldn’t take long.”
However he conceded establishing his Task Force Raptor, the special police unit designed to harass and crackdown on gangs, might take a bit longer.
“You need quite a suite of skills and expertise that takes months, possibly, if I’m honest to do it well, years,” he said.
He also addressed social investment — the signature social policy of the English Government, which sought to identify the social factors which led to people ending up in prison (or gangs).
“But that’s generational stuff,” he said.
“If it was easy Helen Clark would have done.
“John Key would have done it.
“Even Bill English, he was the closest to it, I think, would have solved it more than he did.”
So social investment sounded like it was being pushed into the background while the spotlight was being turned on the “tough stuff”. Bridges knows his Tauranga audience well, and they constantly clapped and voiced their approval when he talked tough.
This seemed to give him new confidence; his speech was forceful, coherent, and unlike the sort of courtroom dictation speed, he seems to prefer in the debating chamber.
But the “tough on gangs” roadshow is designed for the provinces; it’s part of the campaign to try and occupy NZ First territory. It’s not for the cities where gangs are mostly invisible and where by the time we get to the election, it is likely the economy will be the main issue. Unfortunately for Bridges, it does not succumb to the easy answers that gangs do.
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