Boot camp like public flogging

Humiliating callow youths has always been good sport for their elders and betters, and when it serves the sly dual purpose of getting away with bullying while gleaning praise for altruism - as in "I may be flogging you, but it hurts me more than it hurts you" - it must feel marvellous.

No wonder, then, that boot camps appeal to factions in this government's coalition who believe that all slackers (especially young ones) need to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get a grip and bite the bullet, an exercise so complex and demanding that few are qualified to even attempt it.

As a concept, this has a long history, from putting offenders in the stocks and throwing rotten vegetables at them, to fulltime solitary confinement with only the Bible for company; from public executions and eviscerations and ducking stools to floggings still pined for by older men in living memory, in a nationwide campaign once known as Bring Back the Birch.

You can imagine the despair when not only capital punishment but also corporal punishment in schools was made illegal.

We've plainly gone to the dogs since. I expect the meth epidemic is a direct result.

Disciplinarians have to be born, not made, because their logic is baffling.

Why would people feel better about themselves after enduring hideous haircuts, forced marches, bad food and cold showers? How would you learn self-discipline by having discipline forced on you by others? For that matter, how exactly would being forced to use a flying fox while your classmates jeered imbue you with that most trite of all expressions, self-esteem?

And when, in real life, would you ever need to go on one of the wretched things?

Yet such experiences, often risking young people's lives, are par for the course in schools, which are forced to devise ever more ingenious ways to nurture the backslapping jocks of the future.

Psychopaths have self-esteem, and loads of it.

That's how Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik has the gall, currently, to complain that the coffee is cold in jail, and he can't get moisturiser.

If charging through the bush with guns, clicking your heels and raising your arm in a fascist salute on demand did a power of good in the world we'd know about it by now, and he'd be the poster boy.

Like Opposition politicians, I'm intrigued at the Government's reluctance to tell us how well its boot camps are doing. The results are being kept from us on the slithery ground that the recidivism figures must be kept secret on privacy grounds. It's slithery because statistics don't name individuals.

Almost $350,000 has reportedly been spent on military-style camps for young offenders, with more planned for next year at a cost of $36,000 for each participant. In a previous incarnation, two "concept camps" run at the end of 2010 showed all but two of 17 teenagers went on to reoffend.

The current incarnation is a nine-week programme for 15 to 17-year-olds that includes a wilderness camp, education and drills. The last we knew the reoffending rate was 88 per cent for such adventures, greater than the more usual and less energetic supervision with residence orders measured over five years.

The $36,000 for each young person may not sound like much to boot camp aficionados, but it would certainly buy tertiary education for each offender, catch- up education for those who didn't get enough NCEA credits to be eligible, trade training, or a pleasant lifestyle for a year during which they might think of better things to do than be nasty.

Pointless drills and scary wilderness experiences are calculated to make them even more resentful and less respectful of their elders, even if they do learn to do acceptable heel clicks.

There may be good intentions here, and some people may believe that what made them succeed in life was the ability to march at the peep of a whistle and shout, "Yes, sir!" But I don't know anyone like that, and I don't want to. Surely our best hope is to treat people, however young they are, and however crazy or nasty they're acting, with respect as a starting point, and work from there.

The Press