Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Brian Rudman: It's time to retaliate against the blight of tagging

Parliamentarians are in town next week to hear submissions on the proposed anti-graffiti bylaw being promoted by Manukau City.

It provides for, among other things, a $1500 fine for any retailer within Manukau City who sells spray paint to anyone under 18 years and requires spray cans for sale be displayed in a locked cabinet. It also proposes a fine of up to $1500 for convicted taggers.

The fatal flaw is that as long it remains a law for Manukau City alone, it's doomed to fail. All it will deliver is a bonanza in sales for paint retailers just outside the city boundaries in Auckland City and Papakura.

It's not that I'm against the proposed new law. I just hope the MPs have the sense to make it nationwide.

Now no one could ever accuse me of belonging to the law and order brigade. Claim a deprived upbringing, and I'm queuing with the tissues. But there is something insidious about the tagging that blights the exposed walls of Auckland that makes me go all Garth George-ish. It makes me cheer for the taxi driver who, on catching one tagger in action, grabbed the offending can and emptied it down the inside of the offender's trousers.

The utter selfishness of the activity is what gets to me most of all. The way a few non-entities can slink about, trashing the face of a neighbourhood in the dead of night.

A 2004 Manukau City report into controlling graffiti sums up the resulting sense of community helplessness. It notes that a 2003 survey of Quality of Life in New Zealand's eight largest cities ranked Manukau bottom, with only 51 per cent of citizens agreeing they had a sense of pride in the look and feel of their city.

One of main reasons for the lack of pride was the graffiti plague. It's so bad, the city has a Beautification Trust with 30 staff endlessly painting over and otherwise removing, 30,000 tags a month.

Not only is it depressing to look at, it's ruinously expensive to deal with, costing Auckland local government at least $5 million a year in cleanup costs.

Manukau City claims the highest bill at $1.5 million, but the other cities are not far behind.

It's not just a local problem. Just over a year ago, Scotland banned children under 16 buying spray paint. In Australia and the United States, cities and state governments have tried similar legislation.

Chicago even banned the sale of spray paint to anyone. But graffiti continued, presumably fuelled by cans brought in by sly-groggers from outside the city limits.

But even if we go the Scottish way and impose a nationwide age limit on spray can sales, there's still the problem of enforcement. With plenty of taggers apparently over the age of consent, one suspects the age limit will be more of an inconvenience than anything.

Still, an age limit is a start. But I'd be tempted to go further and put paint sprays in the same category as flick knives and replica guns. Harmless enough in law-abiding hands, but too proven a risk to society to be legal.

The alternative is to pin the full costs of the offending product on to the producer - or the user. In Philadelphia a few years back, the paint manufacturers headed off the city's plans to limit spray-paint sales, by offering to supply free paint for graffiti eradication.

I say let's recover the full cost of remedy from the manufacturer, not just the raw material. It wouldn't be hard. All it would need would be for each city to report how much graffiti clean-up cost the community, then the Government could slap a levy on each can to cover it. Either that, or levy the suppliers at source.

Such targeted taxing is hardly new. We do it with cars and dogs and tobacco and alcohol to help cover their costs to the community. And we're toying with a carbon tax to deduct the full cost of burning fossil fuel on the environment.

So why not a similar levy on the taggers' weapon of choice - spray paint. It is equally toxic to our environment. And it destroys it today, not in 50 or 100 or 500 years down the track.

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