Did Anyone Ask the New Zealand Defence Force?
General Elections are known for policies “plucked from goodness-knows-where” and New Zealand’s
2017 2023 edition is shaping up to be no different. On 13 August 2017 17 November 2022, Prime Minister Leader of the Opposition Bill English Chris Luxon promised, if re-elected, to establish a “Junior Training Academy” Young Offender Military Academy for young serious offenders at the Waiouru Military Camp an undisclosed location (Ed – almost certainly Waiouru). He stated that the camp would be for a small group of around 150 60 youth serious offenders per year who had committed repeated at least 2 serious offenses including serious assault, sexual assaults, aggravated robbery, murder or ram raids. Sixty One hundred million dollars would be spent on the programme (including other external services) over four years. The full detail of the National Party policy is available on their website at http://www.national.org.nz/national_s_plan_for_serious_young_offenders
Unsurprisingly, the policy has been ridiculed by almost every commentator from journalists and political party spokespeople to blogs and even the country’s largest think tank, The New Zealand Initiative. Not only is there no evidence to support this ‘Boot Camp’ style intervention, the facts point in the opposite direction. In 2011, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman published a report (Improving the Transition – Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence – May 2011) which confirmed that these types of programmes (wilderness programmes; boot camps and military style training; mentoring programmes; restorative justice; and Scared Straight programmes) had ‘limited efficacy’.
Neither is the proposal new hence the title ‘Boot Camps
3.0 4.0’. The first iteration ran in the 1970s. The second series of programmes was announced by the National Party in the 2008 – 2010 period. The National Party is now ‘dancing on the head of a pin’ claiming that the evidence against this type of intervention doesn’t count because this particular type of programme hasn’t been tried in NZ before.
Luxon said there was evidence to support the move.
“I’d say the last time we looked at it when we did the 12-month studies after kids had left these kind of programmes we saw a 50 percent-plus reduction in theft and burglary and violent assaults so we know that this is what’s needed,” he said. (Ed – No link to this data provided).
What has been concerning is the lack of commentary on the effect on the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and, in particular, the NZ Army. People join the Army to be soldiers – not jailers, social workers or guidance counsellors. It is conceded that, during the occasional prison officers’ strike, the forces have taken over the keys to the nation’s jails but this is in keeping with their ‘aid to the civil power’ role. It is a far cry from what is now being proposed. The debilitating effect on NZDF personnel of guarding MIQF during Covid responses should be all the warning the government needs not to go here.
In assessing some obvious concerns, priority has to be given to the health and safety of NZDF personnel. Like many other ex-servicemen, I had a family living in Waiouru. There is no way that I would want the sort of young criminals that this programme describes in the same camp as my partner and children. What are the options? Build a wire fence somewhere inside the camp perhaps? That sounds distinctly like the prison environment the programme is supposed to avoid. The Army has had challenges for decades getting people to accept postings in Waiouru. Implementation of this programme will exacerbate that problem. I have no doubt that the same issue will arise when other stakeholder ministries (justice, corrections, social development, health and education) try to post their staff there as well. While considering health and safety, will soldiers on this assignment, as well as routine camp patrols wear stab-resistant vests and carry a range of less-than-lethal weapons?
It is naïve to think that the toughest kids in the country won’t try to escape. Defence Minister Mark Mitchell claimed that Waiouru’s geographic location would make it extremely difficult for offenders to jump the fence. Really? The toughest kids in the country can’t steal a car or a cellphone to call a mate for a pickup? If he wants to give them a geographic challenge, try one of our offshore islands. But that has also been tried and failed.
Staffing this ‘Academy’ is a further unnecessary burden on the Army, which already struggles to fill vacancies in many areas. Remember that we are not talking about private soldiers for this work but experienced NCOs and officers – the same ranks needed to train and lead our own troops, train the Iraqi Army and staff other UN missions around the world. The direct staffing cost is not the only effect. Many more troops will be required for camp patrols and security. This brings up the point of the legal authority that soldiers will need to detain or restrain a youth offender. If it is to be defence-led, what laws govern the Army’s control of non-military staff assigned to the scheme? There are a multitude of legislative hoops to jump through which will likely never happen.
In reality, this programme would probably have to be staffed by former full-time soldiers who have retired and could be brought back in via the Reserve Forces. However, if past behaviour is anything to go by – especially in the case of the Limited Service Volunteer Scheme – the NZDF is unlikely to be fully reimbursed for its costs by other ministries and departments and so the ability to do its core functions will further reduce.
The Prime Minister claims Luxon appears to believe that the ethos and values of the NZDF are key to the turnaround effect sought. Courage, commitment, comradeship and integrity. It’s likely that these young offenders have much of this, albeit aligned with a different view of society and rulebook. However, just think about that moment when one young person identifies with his sergeant and wants to be just like him – to turn his life around. It can’t happen because they already have serious convictions and the NZDF won’t take them. What then becomes of the broken-hearted?
Despite their apparent toughness, many of these young people will be unable to cope medically with the demands of a year of physical training. That hasn’t stopped them, in the past, thumbing their nose at authority and it’s a concern that one or more soldiers will have their careers end ignominiously for ‘straightening out’ a defiant inmate. This may be what many voters want to have happen but it isn’t the way today’s Army operates.
There is a way that the Army’s ethos and values could be combined with the outcomes sought and that is to make use of the vast numbers of contemporary veterans in society – many of whom are struggling to adjust to civilian life. Some of these could be the role-models in a youth offender programme not involving the NZDF but run by the departments that should be doing it – Justice and Corrections.
Such has been the politicisation of senior appointments, it has been a long time since service chiefs confronted ministers about anything. This emphasises a point I’ve made often – the need for a Defence Force Association that can speak publicly on behalf of all service personnel. It is a void in the defence debate crying out for filling. A force for New Zealand needs an outside, independent voice for New Zealanders who give up their freedom to keep other Kiwis safe.
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