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Chris Ford: The Phillip John Smith escape- why National flubbed a major chance to change things

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Phillip Smith.

The daring escape of convicted killer, fraudster and paedophile Phillip John Smith last week brought glaring discrepancies in our justice, corrections and border control systems to light. And one of these aspects could have been fixed by National years ago.

This follows revelations that officials advised the National Government of loopholes in the passport system two years ago. These flaws, reported in the New Zealand Herald ultimately saw Smith, using his birth name Traynor, apply for a new passport while in custody. And it turned out that he had succesfully applied for a passport as well under his actual name.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I'm not part of the hard line law and order brigade at all. For one thing, I do believe that prisoners nearing the end of their sentences should have opportunities for limited release as part of their re-integration plans. However, Smith's escape horrified me as it did other New Zealanders on many levels. For me, I found it unfathamoble for one thing that, for example, New Zealand passport holding ex-student loan holders who haven't discharged their onerous loan burdens can be arrested at the border and yet a felon like Smith can leave our country with few questions asked. Besides, and speaking as one who has recently renewed their passport - and to one of the supposedly higher tech and more secure models - how could the newer passport (which he presumably used) be so easily obtained by a prisoner? And one with a record as long and as serious as his is?

It is also ironic that a government fixated on attempting to stop jihadis from leaving for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq can't even prevent a convicted felon - and one still serving a sentence - like Smith from leaving our shores. All this from a National Party which has long represented itself as the party of law and order.

At this point, I must admit that, yes, any bureaucratic system is not immune from failure and that clever criminals, like Smith, will always try and get around loopholes. But the point I and others wish to make is that the Government could have acted on the advice of officials some years ago to change the passport laws so that what Smith did could have been largely prevented. It's one thing for a prisoner to escape within New Zealand given they can be re-captured more easily. It's another thing though when a clever conman like Smith can escape the country entirely and effectively mock the system in doing so.

Therefore, the Nats are somewhat lucky that Smith was recaptured quickly. Given that Brazil has long been a haven for criminals like Ronnie Briggs and has a police force with a reputation for corruption and even killing street kids, our police were lucky to receive the co-operation they did. Otherwise, Smith had reportedly the wherewithal to go into hiding in Rio by disguising himself which would have made it harder for our authorities, let alone the Brazilian ones, to re-capture him.

But the Nats still have questions to answer about why they failed to heed official advice to change our passport laws. And this comes on top of embarrassing revelations courtesy of Justice Ministry briefing papers to new Justice Minister Amy Adams that the justice sector is way underfunded - and that includes Corrections. Therefore, I  want to know how much these funding cuts contributed to Smith's successful escape attempt and whether these could contribute to similar escape attempts being made?

While Smith is ultimately responsible for his absconding from the law, National currently is the responsible party overseeing our justice and border security systems. Everyone from responsible officials through to the responsible Ministers should be held accountable by a full and independent public inquiry into this episode.

John Key has said there will be a full public inquiry - great. However, how wide will this inquiry range? Will they really apologise for having flubbed the chance to stop Smith's escape years ago? And it is a further irony that they will rush through laws to stop alleged New Zealand jihadi passport holders from travelling to the Middle East when they have taken no action for the last two years that could have stopped our passport system from being rorted by convicted, time-serving felons like Smith. Oh, by the way, the Government has reserved mutliagency cooperaton for targeting beneficiaries who supposedly go on holidays too rather than white and other collared crims who leave no questions asked.

All these questions need answered by the National Government.



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