New Police Minister Ginny Andersen in Opposition's sights

By Giles Dexter of RNZ

Police Minister is a tough gig: focusing on social issues leads to 'soft-on-crime' criticism while going too hard can look like populism. 

With four ministers in eight months it's ended up a hot-potato portfolio for Labour, and the latest appointee Ginny Andersen has only been in Cabinet since February - raising a few eyebrows. 

She evidently wanted the role and says she's more than capable of steadying the ship, but the law-and-order focused opposition will be eager to test her mettle in an election year: she will have her work cut out for her. 

Stuart Nash was Labour's police minister from 2017 to 2020, overseeing police during the firearms reforms, the Whakaari White Island response, and first few months of the Covid pandemic. 

Jacinda Ardern changed tack in her second term - bringing Poto Williams into the role - but by mid-2022 the opposition was landing too many "soft on crime" blows. Williams - soon to announce her retirement from politics anyway - was shuffled out in favour of Ardern's Mr Fix-it Chris Hipkins to take a much harder line.

But Hipkins was a natural successor as prime minister when Ardern resigned in January, and chose to take police full circle - back to Nash, who had coveted the role.

Nash's second stint lasted less than two months however, after his cavalier approach to Cabinet rules was exposed. The fallout from his indiscretions eventually led to his dismissal from Cabinet entirely and continues to bedevil Labour

Few from Hipkins' front bench seemed keen to step up after Nash's resignation, but Ginny Andersen - the MP for his neighbouring electorate of Hutt South - who he'd only just elevated to Cabinet with the Seniors, Small Business, and Digital Economy and Communications portfolios - put her hand up. 

Andersen has a decade of experience as a police policy manager and chaired the Justice Select Committee, but also shares similar priorities to Hipkins.

Retail crime is one, and is well complemented by her Small Business portfolio. One of her first major photo-ops while wearing that hat was to activate a fog cannon to promote the government subsidy. 

"To have the Small Business Minister and the Police Minister being the same person, it enables me when I was out in Henderson last week to meet with those small business owners - they feel like they are on the front line of crime," she says.

She promises to keep a close eye on the fog cannons and additional safety features programmes. 

Youth crime statistics released last week show 1416 young people were charged in court in 2022 - up from 1335 in 2021 - and Andersen says she's keen to target the underlying drivers of crime like family violence and mental health. 

"Youth offending is a difficult area, I will say that ... programmes like Kotahi te Whakaaro focus on that 10 to 13-year age group where we've seen hardcore repeat risk offenders and gives them very quick wraparound services. It's working very well, I'm keen to find out if there's areas we can roll it out further."

This kind of approach appeals to left-aligned parties like the Greens and Te Pāti Māori, but risks welcoming the "soft-on-crime" barb from the likes of National and ACT. 

National's Police Spokesperson Mark Mitchell remains unconvinced the Labour approach will have a real effect, telling RNZ the profusion of recent young offenders will only find a way around new retail defences. 

"If they have bollards up and it's harder to do a ram raid you will see them go to aggravated robberies, and that's what we're seeing." 

He says yet another body in the hot seat will also have taken a toll on the agencies - primarily the Police Commissioner, his executive team, and the Police Association - because of the need to brief the new minister. 

Police Association president Chris Cahill agrees the lack of stability is it's far from ideal - but says the role requires a passion and so far he seems pleased with Andersen's level of enthusiasm - and her plans for more police visibility.

It would require more cops. Andersen says she's committed to meeting the 1800 extra police officers promised by the government in 2017, aiming to reach that milestone this June. Officer retention is part of the equation, and the government reasons that could be helped by keeping them safer. 

The Tactical Response Model, launched by Hipkins, Andersen and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in Upper Hutt on Wednesday, follows a smaller trial begun in 2021 as a result of the murder of Constable Matthew Hunt. It promises more scenario-based training and intelligence support for high-risk events like traffic stops. 

Coster says the trial - which aims for minimal use of force - showed some of the best results he's ever seen for a new policing approach, but acknowledged frontline staff are also facing an increasingly hostile environment. Mitchell says that's symptomatic of an increase in gang numbers and firearms availability. 

Andersen sidestepped questions over whether the government is to blame, and spoke about wanting to avoid any tit-for-tat election year politicking. Now into her second week, she's largely avoided that so far - along with (barring an accidental pie theft on her first day in the job) too many negative headlines or missteps. 

But Friday brought one of her first big hurdles. Having declined an invitation to a public meeting last Sunday in cyclone-striken Esk Valley, she was set for a visit on the ground - around the time of writing - with some of the residents left angered over frustrations with the police presence - or lack thereof

That meeting had been attended by Nash in his capacity as local MP, who acknowledged police "in the very early stages ... didn't quite get this right".

Andersen has needed to get up to speed quickly, and Nash's inglorious exit from Cabinet will have meant he wasn't able to give much of a handover. 

"It's been a pretty quick transition and that happened when it was a recess week so I pretty much had to hit the ground running," she says.

She clearly intends to stick it out longer than his latest tenure lasted - but between the portfolio's instability, her relative freshness, and a heightened focus on law and order this election, National will be keen to ensure she ends up a placeholder.

She'll need every tool at her disposal if she's to survive such a gauntlet.