Sometimes things dovetail nicely for conspiracy theorists. Take the bill National passed last year under urgency to clear the way for private prisons. Why, you have to ask, would an issue like that need urgency? The answer lies partly in the Rogernomic legacy of keeping ahead of one's enemies and partly in National's own history.
The previous National government put Auckland Central Remand Prison under private management but when Labour won the 1999 election it refused to renew the contract. Now it's not just an idea but reality. Private enterprise will benefit and for this reason alone: Some ten million people are now being held in penal institutions around the world, according to a report published by the Kings College International Centre for Prison Studies in London last year. More importantly there's quite an increase in the prisoner population - 300,000 since the Centre's 2007edition.
The report lists the countries most addicted to imprisoning. It's findings are based on a rate per 100,000 of the national population (the prison population rate) in 218 countries and territories.
Almost half of the world’s prisoners are in the United States (2.29 million), China (1.57 million sentenced prisoners), or Russia (0.89 million). The report says the United States’ prison total constitutes a rate of 756 per 100,000 of the national population, making it pro rata by far the biggest user of prisons in the world.
However, almost three fifths of countries (59 per cent) have rates below 150 per 100,000. The overall world prison population rate (based on 9.8 million prisoners and a world population of 6,750 million) is 145 per 100,000 - the same rate as New Zealand.
The report also found that the rise in prison populations was evident in every continent and sounded a warning. Rob Allen, the Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, says that given the high financial, social and ethical costs of imprisonment, the data should prompt policy makers in every country to consider what they can do to limit the size of their prison population.
"Excessive use of imprisonment does nothing to improve public safety" he said.
Did we read that right? Because a conspiracist might think our policy-makers seem to be hell-bent on going in the opposite direction. The move towards privatisation of prisons is one issue, but two more seem likely to add fuel to the conspiracists' fire.
First up in the batting order so to speak is the 'three strikes and you're out policy'. Less discretion for judges, more offenders headed to those prisons - and conspiracists might argue that the bottom line begins to look better and better.
Then the final element to this mix - the findings of the working group on tax reform which has just proposed reducing income tax and company rates by introducing new taxes on land and rental properties and increasing GST to 15 per cent. Assuming the Government accepted even some of the group's key recommendations (it's playing coy at the moment), what would some of the long term social costs be?
An indicator called the Gini co-efficient helps because it measures income inequality. A score of 100 indicates perfect inequality and a score of 0 shows perfect equality. According to the Ministry of Social Development, the most recent OECD comparison (from 2004) gives New Zealand a score of 34, indicating higher inequality than the OECD median of 31 and a ranking of 23rd equal out of 30 countries.
New Zealand’s Gini score was below that of the United States (38), very close to those of the United Kingdom (34) and Ireland (33), a little above Canada and Japan (32), and a little further above that of Australia (30). Denmark and Sweden had the lowest income inequality with Gini scores of 23. The 2008 Gini score for New Zealand was 34 (33 in 2007).
The Ministry report added: 'The degree of income inequality is often regarded as an important aspect of the fairness of the society we live in. A high level of income inequality may also be detrimental to the level of social connectedness across society'.
In 1998, an investigation featured in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly had this to say about the US prison-industrial complex:
The lure of big money is corrupting the nation's criminal justice system, replacing notions of public service with a drive for higher profits. The eagerness of elected officials to pass 'tough -on-crime' legislation - combined with their unwillingness to disclose the true costs of these laws - has encouraged all sorts of financial improprieties'. The story described the complex as 'a set of bureaucratic, political and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of actual need'.
So, looking at the interlocking effect of all three initiatives: privatising some prisons; three strikes (more prisoners) and tax 'reform' (more losers than winners), could a conspiracist conclude that all this is all really about making money?
Of course. That's why they're called conspiracists….