Political leaders like John Key and Phil Goff may think the new law on “parental correction” is working, but an overwhelming majority of voters do not. Words of comfort will not make the issue go away.
John Key has come home from an uplifting weekend in Sydney to a hornet’s nest.
The smacking referendum decisively contradicts his view that the new law on parent correction is working. More than 87% of the voters think that “smacking, in the context of good parental correction” should not be grounds for criminal prosecution.
The postal ballot achieved a response from 54% of eligible voters – enough to say it provides a valid indication of voters’ views – and the hefty“No” vote was well in line with polling conducted at the time the law change was being considered in 2007, and earlier this month as the referendum papers were going out.
Key and the bill’s primary author, Green MP Sue Bradford, may say that the new section 59 of the Crimes Act does not criminalise the good parents who occasionally give their children a light smack to stop bad behaviour. The police may not have successfully prosecuted a single case against a parent who is charged solely and simply with smacking a child. But the voters are not convinced.
If the Prime Minister believes the law is working, why does he think the police and CYFS need further political guidance? Furthermore, why consider issuing this guidance before Parliament conducts its scheduled review of the law in October? Perhaps, because he has doubts that it will continue to work, and, sooner or later, a case will come to court that exposes its deficiencies.
Key’s prospects of calming the anxious and angry voters by giving some comforting instructions to the police and CYFS are minimal. This law is not going to stand the test of time, but the lobbies formed to defend and attack its provisions will.
Section 59 is a hastily cobbled-together compromise that was designed to avoid an embarrassing deadlock in parliament that would have been converted into an even more embarrassing party-splitting mess at the last election. It secured the support of 113 MPs, with only seven opposed – and everyone was mightily relieved, albeit very temporarily.
The contradictions that riddle the new Section 59 have been well-exposed in an op-ed piece for the New Zealand Herald by emeritus professor of law at Auckland university, Jim Evans.
Evans points to the fuzzy line it draws between a parent’s use of reasonable force for the prevention of harm, damage, offensive or disruptive behaviour [permissible] and for correction [not permissible]. He asks: where does prevention stop and correction start? He dismisses as a “sop” the section’s reaffirmation that the police have discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent where they consider the offence so inconsequential that there is no public interest in the matter. His advice: “parents, don’t get on the wrong side of officials”.
The police and CYFS are on a hiding to nothing. Sooner or later, they will overstep the fuzzy line in enforcing the section’s prohibiton against the use of reasonable force for corrective purposes, or by going easy on a smacking complaint that is subsequently followed by the serious abuse or injury of a child. To err is human, and hindsight is the only perspective that offers perfect judgment. There is, however, little forgiveness in politics.
One look at the two-fisted victory dance performed by Kiwi Party leader and anti-section 59 petitioner Larry Baldock tells you that the Kiwi Party-Family First NZ–Focus on the Family coalition is not going to rest on its laurels after its referendum win.
They have zealous people-power, the funds [including US conservative Christian dollars], media-savvy publicists, and endurance, and now a respectable measure of public backing. MPs are already reported to be feeling the post-referendum heat.
So, what should John Key do?
First, he should call in the warring parties to talk about moving their focus from a squabble over smacking to a serious effort to reduce New Zealand’s appalling rate of child abuse and homicide and the even larger problem of general domestic violence.
Both parties have indicated that here they have common ground. Take these two quotes:
“Whatever proposals the Cabinet considers… they must focus on the need for real action on New Zealand’s shameful levels of serious child abuse,” says the Yes Vote coalition spokesperson Deborah Morris-Travers. "It is time to stop squabbling about the right to smack children and get down to serious action to stop child abuse.”
“Family First NZ says that irrespective of the result of the referendum … there will be no celebrations from their perspective until the child abuse rates start to fall,” says that organisation’s national director, Bob McCroskie.
Key should use the referendum result to challenge both parties to rise above their difference over the rights and wrongs of administering a light smack and step up to the more urgent tasks of reducing child abuse and domestic violence where there is both the public and political will to make progress.
Second, Key should stop being so adamant in his claim that section 59 is working, and wait until Parliament receives and considers the review it has asked the Ministry of Social Development to provide.
Third, he should be prepared to consider an amendment to section 59 that might satisfy all parties – one stating clearly that legal parental correction does not include the use of force that results in a child suffering any form of physical injury or sustained distress.