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.

Comments (14)

by stuart munro on August 26, 2009
stuart munro

"Sweden was the first nation to ban smacking, back in 1979. Part of the reason for the ban was that it was hoped that it would reduce child abuse. OK, so what does the evidence tell us? What can we learn from the Swedish experiment? In 1996 an important study into child abuse in Sweden was published. It found, among other things, that Swedish data indicated a 489% increase in child abuse statistics from 1981 through 1994, as well as a 672% increase in assaults by minors against minors.The study concluded with these words: "We need better research to understand the complexities involved in parental discipline, including its relationship to child abuse. We need to discriminate effective from counterproductive forms of discipline responses, including the role of different forms of corporal punishment in increasing or decreasing the risk of child abuse. We also need better evaluations of policies designed to change parental discipline, given that the effects of the Swedish anti-spanking law seem to have had exactly the opposite effect of its intention, at least in the short term."A 2005 study came to similar conclusions. It finished with these words: "there is no objective evidence that the overall situation has improved for children in countries that have adopted smacking bans"

From http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/19784.htm sorry it's a secondary source, but it would be rather nice to dignify the debate with a little evidence, if there is any.

by Jonathan Fletcher on August 26, 2009
Jonathan Fletcher

The report cited by Stuart Munro does not support his conclusions.  There is little doubt that making corporal punishment illegal in Sweden has made it a safer place and had positive outcomes for children and young people.  Just read the executive summary of the report stuart cites.





by stuart munro on August 26, 2009
stuart munro

I think you'll find there is one each way. The conclusions aren't mine.

by Andrew R on August 26, 2009
Andrew R

So what was actually voted for/against?  I like the answer that the question is all about ensuring good techniques for correcting parents is legal.  More disturbing is the misrepresentation that is occurring from the referendum's promoters and Boscawen that the vote was that one should be allowed a light smack to correct children.  Of course the question did not include the word "light".  Is now saying that 87% of people support light smacking to correct children really just confirmation that the question was flawed?

by J Keenan on August 26, 2009
J Keenan

You basically have a 45% silent protest vote at what people who would have voted YES think is a poorly worded and pointless referendum sponsored by a right wing (lunatic) Christian fringe.

When you have both Labour and National and of course the Greens acting as a bipartisan bloc for the existing legislation why should I bother to vote YES? Better in my opinion NOT to vote and so to dilute the proportion of eligible voters to votes and there by undermining this referendum's legitimacy.

That is what I did and almost everyone I know who is pro status quo did.

So who are all these angry ignorant NO voters going to vote for? What ACT? Perhaps the statistically insignificant KIWI party?

Every other political party is in favour of the legislation.

by stuart munro on August 27, 2009
stuart munro

Golly - a silent majority.

Who'd have though the old issue would have so much blood in it.

by Craig Ranapia on August 27, 2009
Craig Ranapia

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.

Oh really?  Perhaps Key should take the advice he's received from Police -- which is completely accurate as far as I'm aware -- seriously until he has good reason to believe otherwise.

I know it can seem a crazy idea that politicians should pay attention to factual evidence, but let's try it.


by David Beatson on August 27, 2009
David Beatson

No-one should assume that the 46% who did not vote in the referndum would all have voted "Yes". Many "No" supporters could also have decided it wasn't worth casting their vote given the pre-determination of the majority in Parliament.

Accepting the Police reports as sufficient evidence that the law is working was not good enough for Parliament as a whole. Parliament provided for a review two years after its implementation - and that review should provide the basis for a decision on whether or not  it's working.

by Luc Hansen on August 28, 2009
Luc Hansen

It's very sad seeing old(er) men beg for the right to hit their kids.  My personal experience tells me it is counterproductive.  This experience includes being, as a child, very frightened of a violent father and, to a lesser extent, mother ( I escaped lightly compared to some siblings) and feedback from my own children as adults.

I regret hitting my children when I was a young father.  I now know I only hit them in anger and/or out of frustation.  These were my issues and should not have been projected onto them.

As regards the oft-quoted Sweden, all Swedes I have met could not believe that we still hit our children.  Mind you, they also think Peter Singer is a terrorist!

Now I am the proud father of an 11mth daughter.  I cannot imagine hitting her.  Or even being angry at her actions.  Children do what children do as part of growing up.  They should not be punished for that.  Their brain is still developing.  Let them develop.

Finally, I see that Larry Baldcock now wants "only"  to allow "light smacking".  Isn't that what David Tua wants to give Kevin Barry?





by stuart munro on August 28, 2009
stuart munro

Congratulations Luc, if your parenting skills are sufficient to get by without resort to smacks. But forgive me if I refuse to criminalise a person who administers a smack to the hand or bottom of a misbehaving child.

If you overrule a parent's judgement of appropriate punishment you become responsible for the result, for the parent can no longer be. It does not seem to me society at large is ready for the increased responsibility. If anything its interest in and capacity to care for other people's children is declining.

by Luc Hansen on August 29, 2009
Luc Hansen

Hi Stuart, correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that no parent has been criminalised for the acts you described.

My youngest son, one of two, no daughters until now, turned 37 a few minutes ago.  I like to think I have learned a little in those intervening years.

There was a similar outcry when parliament prohibited corporal punishment in schools.  Are you old enough to remember that?  Do we even argue about that now?

And as regards your last sentence, Stuart, sorry, but I think the opposite is true.


by stuart munro on August 29, 2009
stuart munro

Interesting Luc - I was one of a generation that had corporal punishment in schools, it finished slightly after me. In the schools I attended it was not abused.

Teachers are now trained in a variety of methods of classroom control to enable them to get by without corporal punishment, and it may be said that they are not always successful. A feature of modern NZ is the number of problem students diverted to the correspondence school because they are unmanageable. Might some of this have been avoided by the use of corporal punishment? I suspect that some might have.

Parents however, are not trained. They use what they have encountered and understood themselves. In some cases this includes safe and appropriate corporal punishment. If a parent uses it appropriately then parliament should not intervene.

As regards the declining caring capacity of modern societies, NZ is a spectacular example with the social and economic malaise that has followed in the wake of the destruction of the decent society. Since you seem to be unaware of this, you should do a little browsing at Statistics NZ, or read Robert Putman's Bowling Alone, because the decline in social participation is global.


by Luc Hansen on September 21, 2009
Luc Hansen

Stuart, apologies for the delay in replying.  I have only just noticed your posting above. We would appear to be of about the same generation.  I remember being in the queue for a caning in 6th Form (for fighting a bully much bigger than me) when our new, relatively young DP came by and told the teacher "we don't cane 6th formers anymore."  Phew! That would have been my first caning.

Was corporal punishment abused in schools?  It certainly was in Morrinsville College by the odd sadistic bastard who went looking for opportunities.  Sado masochistics, obviously.

Your point about parents not being trained is highly relevant, and I have complained about this and been ridiculed for it amongst my peers for a long time.  We should teach parenting in schools, and my wife tells me some training is available, although not core curriculum: in my opinion it should be compulsory, which means, of course, funded.  Therein lies the rub.

In his article, David mentions the legal view that the law as it stands is " fuzzy."  I have done a couple of law papers in my time and fuzziness seems to me to be inherent in our legal system.  Why else would we pay our lawyers so much?  And I am afraid to say David's suggested remedy would just produce more fuzziness.  Let's be cut and dried about it: if you are seen hitting your kids, be prepared for the consequences.

By the way, my wife is a senior secondary school teacher who is fervently against the return of corporal punishment in schools.  And my ex brother-in-law, then a prominent primary school principal, and who opposed banning corporal punishment, admitted later he would not support its reintroduction.

I think your last paragraph is a bit off topic, but I will say this: in general, things are not getting worse.  That is a misconception.

For some, like the lawbreakers we caringly nuture to offend and duly lock up, maybe, but for most of us, especially the European "us," for sure, things have never been better!

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