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Hipkins Admits Labour 'Too Slow' To Respond To Retail Crime Concerns

Hundreds of migrant workers are believed to have been exploited following the introduction of the accredited employee work visa in 2022. Photo: RNZ / Blessen Tom

Labour leader Chris Hipkins has admitted his party was "too slow" to respond to retail crime concerns in its six years in power.

The former prime minister believes his party's failings on retail crime ultimately cost it support from the country's ethnic communities that contributed to its defeat in the 2023 general election.

However, Hipkins rejected claims made by the National Party during the campaign that Labour was soft on crime.

"I don't believe we were soft on crime," Hipkins said. "But I do accept that increase in violent crime has been a very real issue for our ethnic communities.

"When a teenager steals a car and drives it through the front of (a dairy owner's) shop, they're not just driving it through the front of their business, they're driving it through the front of their home.

"(The dairy owners) are there often 24/7. They put their life and soul and heart into their businesses," he said.

"(The ethnic community) wanted to hear more from us on crime. ... We were too slow to respond to that concern," he said.

"As we saw the spike in youth offending and the way that was affecting small businesses, particularly the ethnic community, I think we were too slow in coming out with new solutions to that problem."

Hipkins defended his government's circuit breaker programme to stop youth re-offending, although didn't specifically reference it by name.



"Our focus was on having fewer offenders in the first place because if we have fewer offenders, then we have fewer victims," he said. "In fact, I found huge compassion for these kids even in businesses affected by their crimes. In addition to asking us to make their business premises safe, the owners were also asking how we can give these kids a better future. That's what we were focussed on.

"In many cases, the criminal justice system had been failing these kids, leading to them being on the escalator of repeat offending. I was very focussed in the last year and a half of our government to break that cycle sooner."

Hipkins claimed some of the things his government had introduced to tackle youth offending were "actually starting to work".

During his time as police minister, Hipkins said government agencies had compiled a list of 96 repeat young offenders in order to find out as much as they could about their behaviour.

"Of the kids we put intensive support around, about 80 percent of those kids didn't go on to re-offend.

"To me that's the lesson. It's not going to be something like boot camps. It's a nice bumper sticker ... but it's going to be more complicated than that."

Migrant exploitation

Speaking about the beleaguered accredited employer work visa that Labour introduced in 2022, which many believe opened the floodgates to migrant exploitation in New Zealand, Hipkins refused to say the policy was wrong.

"I am not willing to concede at this point that it was the wrong policy, but I am absolutely willing to say, and the evidence has shown this, that the implementation of that policy was flawed," Hipkins said.

"The idea of having an accredited employer work visa where you have to meet certain standards to be able to bring in workers, I think, that's still conceptually good. But in implementation, things like self-declaration (by potential employers) were flawed."

Hipkins defended Immigration New Zealand, refusing to throw the agency under the bus for the spike in exploitation allegations that arose once the AEWV scheme was introduced.

"Let's be a little bit fair to the Immigration New Zealand team here," he said. "They were under huge pressure as the borders reopened after Covid-19 to get people into the country faster."

Parent visas

Labour, National and ACT made immigration promises on the campaign trail that targeted migrant parents and grandparents.

Recognising this to be a key issue for ethnic communities, Hipkins vowed to support the introduction of long-term parent visas.

"The National Party component of the current government has committed to that," he said. "We need to give them some time to implement it."

When asked if Labour would introduce a member's bill on long-term parent visas if the government failed to do so, Hipkins promised to "look into it".

"If they don't, then of course we would certainly be willing to promote that," he said.

Amnesty for overstayers

Labour had promised in the election campaign to offer a one-off regularisation programme for individuals who have overstayed their visas for at least 10 years.

Many believed the promise was hollow given the party's low polling numbers at that time. Some also questioned the timing of Labour's announcement, asking why it didn't introduce such a policy when it held a majority government.

Hipkins was non-committal on whether the party still stood behind such a programme.

"(The campaign pledge on offering a regularisation programme for overstayers) was the right thing to do when we announced it, but I am not going to announce our 2026 election policy now," Hipkins said. "It would be irresponsible for me to do that given the current government hasn't committed to it. It sends the wrong message to the system.

"We will have a clear policy (on overstayers) before the election. But now ... is not the right time to do that."

Dairy cow on pasture

Chris Hipkins says the dairy sector is key to concluding a free-trade agreement with India. Photo: RNZ / Sally Round

India ties

The former prime minister said his party supported entering into a free-trade agreement (FTA) with India - on one condition.

"What's the major value of an FTA for New Zealand?" he asked. "It's in the dairy sector. If India wants to talk to us about that, we are open to that. They were certainly very clear with me when I was prime minister, that they didn't want to go there. So that's going to be a big stumbling block for New Zealand.

"I don't think you could sign up to a comprehensive free-trade agreement from a New Zealand perspective without dairy being in there."

Hipkins said New Zealand's dairy sector was a key part of the country's overall trade earnings.

"We have never been willing to sell out the dairy industry in our free-trade negotiations, and I think it would be a bit unfortunate if the current government started to do that," he said.

"They should be certainly trying to get access for the dairy sector into India. That would be huge for New Zealand, and it would actually help to diversify our trade. So, it would be very disappointing if they don't.

"But we're also going to be very constructive in the way we approach whatever arrangements they enter into."

The coalition government has not made any public comments on whether dairy could be excluded in an FTA with India.

Trade Minister Todd McClay was asked if he would be willing to exclude dairy in his negotiations with India after his visit to the South Asian nation in December.

"Having been a previous negotiator involved in the negotiation to form the coalition government, it just doesn't make any sense to be talking about these things in public," McClay told RNZ at the time.

"But ultimately, what we've said is everything has to be back on the table if we are to do justice to the people of India and the people of New Zealand."

Where there's a national consensus on foreign affairs, Hipkins expressed support for improving relations with India.

"New Zealand and India want to have a more positive relationship with each other," Hipkins said. "It won't happen overnight, but we can build it over time.

"And if the current government is focussed on this, I am quite supportive of such an initiative. I would love to see a direct air link between our two countries.

"These are the things that can happen quickly even if we are not getting all the way to an FTA."

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