Gareth Morgan and crime experts are urging National to lock up its boot camp policy and throw away the key.
The party unveiled its hardline new youth crime policy on Sunday, including fines for parents of kids caught wandering the streets at night and an army-run boot camp in Waiouru for the worst youth offenders.
"These are tough kids - 150 out of hundreds of thousands between 12 and 17 who already have a track record, who have committed very serious offences at a very young age," Prime Minister Bill English told The AM Show on Monday.
The cost will be around $100,000 a year for each kid - about the same as putting them in prison. Overseas reports and our own Department of Corrections say boot camps don't work, but Mr English says those studies are "talking about a different group of kids".
"These are kids who are going to prison… there are no tougher kids in New Zealand than these 150. No tougher kids. These aren't just kids who've got off track - they are on their way to adult prison. That's where they go if the military training doesn't work."
Mr Morgan, who heads the Opportunities Party (TOP), told The AM Show it's a ploy to win back voters flocking to New Zealand First.
"Why is he making a big deal of this with Indian people in the background of his photoshoot? It's pretty obvious, isn't it?"
While there has been a recent spate of attacks on dairy owners, particularly in Auckland, crime has been trending downwards for years. Mr Morgan says prisons themselves are "schools for crime", and while keeping youths away from them is a good idea, military training won't help.
TOP says it can reduce the prison population by 40 percent in 10 years. One of its key policies will be extending the Youth Court to cover alleged offenders up to the age of 20.
"We know the Youth Court system works. It's just evidence. Special alcohol and drug abuse courts, they work. Restorative justice programmes… they work. So why don't we just use everything that works?"
Mr English and Mr Morgan do agree that prisons aren't the answer.
"The evidence prison works is pretty limited," says Mr English. "A lot of them quite like getting in there because they make more contacts, they learn more criminal skills."
Which is why he's okay with spending the same amount, per person, on putting them into boot camps instead.
"There's always hope. That's why you can't just give up."
'A short, sharp shock' that doesn't work - expert
University of Canterbury sociologist Jarrod Gilbert and author of a book about Kiwi gangs, Patched, says similar plans have failed in the past.
"We know quite clearly the effect of such boot camps are quite minimal, and in certain instances actually have a negative effect on young people," he told Newshub.
"We tend to just make young crooks a bit stronger and a bit fitter, which does no good at all."
He agrees with Mr Morgan that it's an appeal to people's hearts, rather than heads.
"The public listen to it and go, 'Well, that seems to make sense - give these kids a short, sharp shock.' Unfortunately the evidence is they have very limited effect or the unintended consequence of actually increasing crime."
'Dog whistling about boot camps a bit late'
Even NZ First has taken a swipe at the boot camp policy.
"It's in a rush to herd them into the army and hide them, but dog whistling now about boot camps won't save National," said leader Winston Peters.
Instead, NZ First wants to "put them into paid training in the Defence Force where they would improve their literacy and numeracy and learn a trade".
"They'd have something to focus on, and wouldn't be wandering the streets looking for trouble," says Mr Peters.
"By 18 they would be work ready and valuable to our workforce."