Former MP Stuart Nash claims Labour Cabinet blocked his gang asset seizure policy

By Jo Moir of RNZ

Former Police Minister Stuart Nash wants laws targeting gang assets to go further - after, he says, he was blocked by his former Cabinet colleagues from doing so.

In March last year the Labour Government passed legislation putting the onus on associates of organised criminal groups to prove to a court they had funded their assets legitimately or face having them frozen.

The changes to the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act allowed police to go after gang leaders' properties, cars, bikes and bling, providing the assets were valued at $30,000 or above.

The justice minister at the time, Kiri Allan, said that lower limit had been based on advice it would make it compliant with the Bill of Rights Act.

On Friday, six of the Comanchero motorcycle gang's distinctive gold-plated Harley Davidsons were turned into scrap metal following a first-of-its-kind court order to destroy seized property.

Speaking to RNZ on Monday, Nash said seizing and crushing the motorcycles was "fantastic" but he wanted to see all assets being taken away from gangs.

"I've always argued as minister of police, and will continue to argue, that there should be no lower limit. There's a limit against that at the moment and I argued against that at the time and didn't win," he said.

"If police have probable cause and know someone's a gang member they should be able to go after them with the full force of the law knowing that Parliament, politicians and the community has their back."

Nash said he went "toe-to-toe" with Allan when Cabinet debated how far the changes should go at the start of last year, but lost when then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins sided with his Justice Minister.

"She believed it was anti-Māori and I thought that was absolute rubbish, because this was not targeting Māori in any way, it was targeting gangs.

"It doesn't matter what ethnicity a gang member is, they need to be held to account by society," Nash said.

The argument for having a lower limit of $30,000 for seizing assets was about complying with the Bill of Rights Act, but Nash said there were times when "society deems it acceptable to forgo basic human rights in order to keep people safe".

He used the example of breath testing as one where basic human rights are ignored for a reason.

"It's actually a breach of human rights when police undergo breath tests because they don't have probable cause to pull anyone over, but as a community we've decided to accept an infringement of our human rights by allowing police to pull people over if it means getting drunk drivers off the road."

The advice from police at the time to him as minister was that there should be no limit, Nash said.

"It makes sense. Why have a limit there that encourages gangs and gang members to hide assets in a way they would argue is under the limit?

"We need to give police every tool they believe they require to go hard against these guys - I don't think there are many Kiwis who would disagree with that," Nash said.

Concern around crime was a much bigger issue than the previous Government realised, according to Nash, who was removed from his ministerial portfolios in March and stood down at the October election.

The former minister turned private sector commercial director said the Labour Government "could have been tougher on crime".

"There's a whole lot of reasons why we lost the election, but certainly crime came to dominate in our second term of Government in a way it hadn't in the first term, and I think it took us too long to get on top of it.

"I don't think as a Cabinet we understood the impact this was having on certain sectors of society ... it was well beyond a beltway issue," Nash said.

In a written response, Labour leader Chris Hipkins told RNZ he had led several changes around gangs and organised crime when he was police minister, and had supported many of Nash's too.

"We did some great work in Government alongside Police in the organised crime space - in fact it led to the images we saw yesterday of gang members' bikes being crushed," he said.

"Cabinet has collective responsibility, which means decisions made are made by us all. It also states those discussions must remain confidential.

"We also removed thousands of dangerous firearms from circulation, increased frontline police numbers and saw the first major investment specifically into officers focused on organised crime. I stand by all of those collective Cabinet decisions which better funded Police and gave them the tools and legislative changes they needed to do the job."

On Sunday the coalition Government announced it would introduce legislation in Parliament this week to outlaw gang patches in public places and give police the power to break up gang gatherings.

Responding to the policy, Nash told RNZ he had looked into it as minister but never pursued it because the evidence suggested it would be "difficult to police and drive gangs underground".

He agrees patches were intimidating but thought there were other measures that could be tried first.

As minister, he spent some time trying to find a solution for drugs being moved through domestic airports.

"It is illegal in New Zealand to have drug sniffer dogs in domestic airports ... in New Zealand it's seen as an invasive search and goes against someone's basic human rights".

Nash's argument was: "if you're not carrying methamphetamine you've got nothing to worry about and all you'll see is a cute lab or a beagle wandering around sniffing bags".

Kiri Allan has been contacted for comment.