Five years ago Bill English and Judith Collins described prisons as a “moral and fiscal failure”.

They doubted that any more would need to be built.

Yesterday Corrections Minister Collins announced that English had approved a $1 billion prison building spree.

She said the plan provided for 80 extra beds at Ngawha; 245 at Mt Eden and 1500 at Waikeria.

So what went wrong?

“The difference – apart from that the fact that we are locking up more meth amphetamine people for longer – is that the bail laws have changed,” she says.

“That is a big difference but added to that we know what is coming down the track with the family violence issues.”

Wearing her other hat as Police Minister she says that since the police began campaigning to get people to report family violence they have seen their callouts to family situations jump from 65,000` to 110,000 a year.

“So we’re going to get more of this; it’s going to get worse till it gets better.”

But though it might have been tempting to say that building more prison beds was inevitable now Collins was back in Corrections after her return from the back bench wilderness to which she was exiled in 2014 over her relationship with the right wing blogger Whaleoil,  things have changed.


The past year, or as she precisely points out, ten months, since she was reinstated,  has seen a different Collins face the public.

No longer Crusher, more Cruiser; relaxed and apparently more comfortable. 

“Well,” she says, “second time around. It’s a bit like the difference between being a first-time parent and a second-time parent.

“I think you get more comfortable in your own skin and you think there are things I can change and some things I can’t.

“So  really just enjoy the moment.”

Amnd she derives strength from the enthusiasm of the people who work in her portfolios.

“One of the things I really love about the Corrections portfolio is that they are so consistently optimistic,” she says.

“When  I go round and see them in their prisons or community service and they are always wanting to tell me about somebody who they have helped change their life or else they’ll say this guy has come back and we’re really going to get him this time, Minister.

“We’re going to try this or those things.

“I’m just consistently surrounded by this, and I think, isn’t that nice.

“These guys work with this day in day out and if they can remain optimistic, surely I can.”

But the prisons that she presides over are becoming tougher places; a majority of inmates have gang affiliations and meth amphetamine has carved a hunk out of New Zealand society and placed it behind bars.

She says that New Zealand is being targeted by a meth manufacturing industry in China, India, Malaysia, Mexico and other countries.

“There is clearly a demand for it,” she says.

But she rejects the argument that its use is confined to an alienated, perhaps marginalised sector of society.

“It’s right through society,” she says.

“There are business people taking it; athletes, there’s all sorts of people taking it and its’ not just a criminal element.

“It’s people you might not expect getting caught up in it and once you get caught up in it you get caught up in the gangs and then they start to tax you.

“The Headhunters and the Hells Angels are the primary drivers of this drug coming into the country.

“They are working with overseas gangs to do this.”

This is just another example of the increasing complexity of New Zealand society which sees her  reject simplistic answers to big questions.

Most notably, of course, is her recent statement to the Police Association conference in which she argued that poverty by itself was not a cause of crime.

It almost sounded like Crusher Collins of old; at war with the liberal left and not giving an inch.

But it pays to remember where she comes from. Though her Papakura electorate embraces some of Auckland’s most bucolic lifestyle properties, it also covers a depressed length of the southern motorway suburbs.

“ I see so many people who don’t have a lot of money who are good parents.

“To say crime is caused by poverty, child poverty — utter rubbish!

“It’s so insulting to people. It’s like saying you are poor therefore you will be a criminal.

“No, you won’t. You have choices.”

But crime can strike disproportionately in poorer areas. She is aware of the complaints of the People’s party in Auckland about crime being directed against immigrant families who own dairies or liquor stores.

She says the Police are starting to work with these business people to show them how they might be able to reduce their likelihood of being attacked.

But ultimately the answer will be more police.

And they are on the way.

“The Prime Minister and I have been working on this since June,” she says.

“It’s not just about numbers it’s about what you do with them.”

Will the numbers be released before next year’s Budget?

“It would be worth more than my Ministerial warrant to pre-empt the Prime Minister.”

So the announcement is ready to go?”It’s up to the Prime Minister.”

All of which means, of course, is that the announcement is ready to go but that such is the political sensitivity over law and order and the potential gains that can be made by being seen to address it that Key is obviously holding on to the announcement until he can make maximum impact with it.

That might be around the Mt Roskill by-election where Labour has identified law and order as a major issue within the migrant community there.

But it’s a reminder of just how political the two portfolios that Collins holds are.

As she herself says, if you get either of them wrong, then that could be catastrophic for the Government.

It’s been a remarkable comeback. And it doesn’t look like coming to an end any time soon.