Terror in Chch

‘I’d rather not breathe the same oxygen as him’

Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister and a politician with (to put it charitably) a spotty record when it comes to anti-immigration rhetoric, had this to say in the wake of the Christchurch mosque atrocities: “After 1pm on the 15th of March our world changed forever, and so will our laws.”

He was referring to our gun laws, but many New Zealanders might wonder whether Peters’ admirable sentiment could be extended to another area of legislation.

In short, precisely what are our options when it comes to convicting a mass killer of foreign citizenship but having them serve the sentence in their own country, and thereby avoiding having to pay or care for a creature so undeserving of even our meanest hospitality?

Maybe one of our instant poll-loving media outlets might consider canvassing Kiwis on this very issue: “Should an Australian national be found guilty of the Christchurch mosque massacres, should New Zealand taxpayers foot the bill for that person’s potentially lifelong incarceration?”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not ruled out deportation as a possibility. With the accused due to reappear in the High Court on April 5 (having already been charged with one count of murder the day after the massacre), she was understandably circumspect.

"I don't want to go too far down that track while we're obviously in early stages, she said. “Charges have been laid, we can expect additional charges … so there's obviously a process that needs to be gone through here. But I can say I am seeking advice on what will happen thereafter."

Strictly speaking, deportation is not the same as transferring a prisoner to serve a term, or the remainder of a term, in their home country. The latter is generally based on humanitarian or compassionate considerations – hardly likely to apply in this case.

Normally a foreign national convicted of a serious criminal offence would be deported after serving their sentence. But already it has been suggested that life without parole or preventive detention could be applied in this case. Assuming the person eventually found guilty is relatively young and fit, that could be quite a lag with quite a price tag.

It’s commonly estimated that a prisoner in New Zealand costs between $90-100,000 per annum. Not sure about you, but I can think of better ways to spend, say, $5 million than clothing, feeding and protecting for the term of their natural life someone who shoots children. We could spend it on – oh I don’t know – looking after traumatised survivors, maybe. Or identifying white supremacist scum before they apply for gun licences, or buying back for destruction military-style semi-automatic weapons ... anything constructive, really.

For the sake of our sanity, let’s not get into any debates about bringing back the death penalty and confine our discussion to options that might only require a bespoke interpretation of current law.

In the case of Australia, of course, there is form and context here. The most contentious aspect of trans-Tasman relations for Ardern’s coalition government has been Australia’s hardline deportation policy on Australian-domiciled New Zealand citizens with criminal records. In the past few years, around 1500 Kiwis – a technical definition, given many of them haven’t set foot here since early childhood – have been booted back across the ditch, no questions asked.

Resisting deportation has seen these weirdly stateless Anzacs chucked into Australia’s notorious immigration detention centres, locked down with asylum seekers, refugees and the other wretched recipients of our closest ally’s tender mercies.

Australia has also refused since 2013 our offer to take and resettle a yearly quota of refugees currently languishing in the disgusting offshore camps on Manus and Nauru – the argument being that those lucky souls would use New Zealand as a “back door” to Australia. It’s all about Australian domestic politics and its bi-partisan reliance on xenophobic fear-mongering for electoral advantage, so any logic or reason we apply seems to fall on deaf ears.

Given all this, as well as its track record of cultivating a uniquely toxic culture of race-baiting and intolerance, how likely is it that Australia would willingly accept responsibility – practically and morally – for what it may have exported here? Conversely, how likely are New Zealanders to trust Australian justice rather than demand it be seen to be done here?

We should remember that the last celebrated case of early prisoner transfer involved the Rainbow Warrior conspirators Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur. They were already in French custody on Hao Island in French Polynesia when Mafart was returned to France because of “illness” and Prieur because she was pregnant. Neither served the ten years handed down by our courts.

It left a bad taste and a lingering resentment, but I’m not sure it’s sufficiently recent in our collective memory to influence attitudes now. I’d be genuinely interested to learn where public opinion falls on this question, and would happily accept the majority verdict. Personally, I’d rather not be breathing the same oxygen as anyone capable of what happened in Christchurch. But Jacinda Ardern’s pledge in parliament that “we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name” will do for now.

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