Amicus Curiae: Mythbusting the Unlicensed Maori Driver Controversy

Elizabeth Murray, Leading Contributor

Since yesterday there has been a chaotic stream of media commentary and public outrage on the directive issued by Counties Manukau District Police instructing officers in that district to give traffic compliance to unlicensed Maori drivers instead of immediately giving them a fine. Instead of stimulating discussion of the relative success of such directives in promoting greater safety on our roads, media commentary has reduced the matter to questions of race. The media has heavily editorialised the situation; provoking controversy by framing  it as a ‘racist policy’ which gives preferential treatment to some drivers on the basis of their race.

The NZ Police Traffic Compliance policy indicates that any driver can be given ‘compliance’, which allows them 60 days to remedy the problem with their offending, rather than imposing a fine or prosecuting them. The aim of the policy is to fix the problem of dangerous cars or unlicensed drivers being on the road, thus aiming to make New Zealand roads a safer place. This is often preferable to them being given a monetary fine, which does not address the underlying problem of high-risk drivers being on the road.

As explained by Superintendent John Tims (District Commander of the Manukau District Police), the policy of compliance offers individuals the chance to rectify their offending and keep them out of the justice system. He states he would much prefer to work together with offenders, especially youth offenders, to fix their license or car problems, rather than give them a fine. Superintendent Tims argues that issuing fines rather than looking at the root of the problem produces a number of negative flow-on effects. Not only do the unsafe drivers still pose a risk to other road users, but if they are unable to pay their fines they will end up in Court, and should they lose their license, they are less likely to be able to find employment.

Only if the problem is not fixed within the sixty day period will a fine be issued.  This policy has been in place for more than 10 years in New Zealand.

The specific policy being discussed by the media was a directive issued 18 months ago from the Counties Manukau district. It states “All Maori drivers detected driving without licenses or in breach of license conditions given compliance and referred to community based driver license training. Failure to comply within a two month period will result in an infringement being issued.” Superintendent Wally Haumaha has repeatedly defended the policy, stating that it was never exclusively for Maori. It is at the police officer’s individual discretion to implement this directive as they see fit, whether the person is Maori or non-Maori. The only difference between this directive and the police’s usual policy of compliance is that it expressly mentions Maori in the wording of the directive. It is this aspect of the directive that has been seized on by various media outlets and the public, resulting in this policy having been discussed in racial terms. Police Commissioner Mike Bush has acknowledged that the directive could have been worded better and that they will change it to more accurately reflect the actual purpose and effect of the directive, which is to reduce traffic offending and road fatalities.

The specific focus on Maori offenders is in response to the over-representation of Maori in high-risk traffic offending and fatalities statistics. It is not to give preferential treatment to a specific ethnic group, but rather to acknowledge the targeted attention that needs to be given to a certain group to reduce overall offending.  The Ministry of Transport have found that Maori drivers account for 41% of high-risk drivers; far exceeding their proportion of the population. The specific focus on Maori comes from the broader police “Turning of the Tide” strategy, which aims to reduce Maori offending on the roads more generally. As Superintendent John Tims explains, the policy’s ultimate goal was to reduce offending and crashes on our roads by reducing the offending and crashes caused by the group with the highest proportion of offences and crashes. The directive does not preclude the police from applying their discretionary power to issue compliance to individuals of other ethnicities. The ultimate goal is to engage with the community to ensure the police and the community are doing everything they can to ensure both the roads are safer and opportunities are available for everyone.

Opponents of the policy have called it “racist” and allege that it is discriminatory towards other ethnic groups. This has little founding in our law. The Bill of Rights Act 1990 does protect everyone from freedom of discrimination based on race or ethnicity. However, in both the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Act 1993 it is accepted that government and other public bodies may tackle issues related to certain racial or ethnic groups differently, if acting in good faith. The effect of this is that it is not discriminatory to target a race or ethnic group in a certain policy differently if the main aim is to improve the welfare of that group. This is arguably achieved by promoting greater public safety. A policy such as this is not a racist policy. It is no more than a method of the police targeting the most at-risk group and doing their best to alleviate the problem and ultimately reduce offending and fatalities. Furthermore, fundamentally it is not discriminatory because compliance is available to everyone, regardless of race, despite the unfortunate wording of the directive (and the incomplete reporting of the issue by the news media).

It is regrettable that the media have decided to neglect the laudable equal justice goal behind this policy of reducing both the high proportion of Maori traffic offending and also the number of fatalities on our roads in the name of race-baiting in order to create sensationalist headlines.

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