The government stands accused of sending mixed messages in its war on P-producing criminals following revelations senior Mongrel Mob and Black Power members were flown to Auckland at taxpayers' expense for a secret hui with a minister.
At least one drug kingpin, with convictions for manufacturing methamphetamine in a multimillion-dollar drug operation, was among those present at the meeting at Te Puni Kokiri's Auckland office in March, which Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples opened by telling the 16 assembled gang heads there were "new rules here – respect", and asking about their gripes in getting assistance from government agencies.
Sharples also congratulated the gangsters on decreasing gang violence. "I need to thank you for that. I want to acknowledge that. Parliament sure hasn't. They say `I'm not talking to a gang member'," he told the hui.
"Why are we fighting whakapapa against whakapapa? There's so much enemy that is not brown."
More than $6200 was spent on the hui, called in response to concerns about gang and community violence, including $4980 on airfares and $820 in petrol vouchers for the gang leaders from around the country. Details of the secret meeting, at which Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira was also present, were released to the Sunday Star-Times in response to an Official Information Act request.
Sharples' soft stance in backdoor engagement with the gang hierarchies, described in Te Puni Kokiri documents as "leaders of hard-to-reach communities", appeared sharply at odds with the government's public hard line.
Nine days ago, Prime Minister John Key announced a major cross-departmental assault on methamphetamine, declaring war on the patched gangs that "are at the forefront of the distribution of P", and vowing to use "the full force of the government's arsenal" against the drug.
He said in a speech: "My message to gangs is clear: this government is coming after your business and we will use every tool we have to destroy it. We will be ruthless in our pursuit of you and the evil drug you push."
The question of how to deal with gangs is only the latest issue on which National and its support partner seem significantly out of step, following a bruising week dominated by headlines about Sharples' support for Maori Television's bid to broadcast the Rugby World Cup.
Asked yesterday whether Sharples' hui with the gang leaders was consistent with the government's crackdown on P, Key said through a spokesman he had been unaware of the meeting and would have to find out from Sharples what his intentions had been.
But ministers might from time to time engage with gangs if that's to deliver outcomes that eliminate criminal activity.
Labour law and order spokesman Clayton Cosgrove said the government's behind-the-scenes overtures towards gangs undermined its hardline public stance, which Labour supported.
"The government's talking tough in public, and on the other hand, behind the scenes, its ministers are meeting with gang leaders, using taxpayers' money to do it. They don't do that in public of course, it's taken an OIA to prise that out of the system," he said.
"It's not on. The only thing Mr Sharples does in meeting patched gang members is to somehow legitimise them."
Denis O'Reilly, a Napier-based Black Power spokesman and anti-P campaigner who was one of the delegates present, said Sharples' meeting with the gang leaders was "completely consistent" with the government's avowed war on P.
"There's always been a public face and a private face in these things," he said. Sharples had an influence with the men, whom he addressed "as Maori leaders, not gang members".
"That's not to say Sharples had everyone nodding their heads in agreement. It was more like being called into the headmaster's study."
While gangs were heavily involved in the meth trade, Sharples' intervention would have encouraged the "small but influential group of players" in their midst who were gradually turning against the drug in a broader questioning of the gang lifestyle.
However, the work was slow going and there were no guarantees. "People tell you one thing and do another. I get equally delighted as I do disappointed. Sometimes people, due to economic reasons or whatever, go back to survival; they do what they know. If someone could turn a quick buck would they do it? Highly likely."
Sharples has worked with gangs since the underworld wars of the 1970s, although it was his first meeting with them as Maori affairs minister. The work was part of a whanau social assistance package designed to help ensure marginalised families were receiving all the assistance to which they were entitled.
He would not respond to interview requests regarding the hui, but has previously said the only effective approach to gangs is to engage and divert them into more constructive activity.
Defending himself against criticism for his outreach to gangs, he has said he does not condone their lifestyles.
"They [gangs] are Maori. They are our children and our nephews, whether we like it or not. While we don't think gangs are a good lifestyle, it doesn't mean to say we turn our back on our own children."
Issues raised by the gang leaders at the hui included the fears for their children in education, concerns about the prison system, and negative public perceptions towards gangs.
- Sunday Star Times