Saturday, August 22, 2009

Smack in the face does not cause pain

Sometimes I can get really annoyed by spin. One piece of spin is annoying today. Before telling you about it, let me explain, for overseas readers, a minor drama in the body politic of NZ. Until a year or three ago our criminal law code permitted the defence of reasonable force in respect of parental correction of children. Sadly some cases of correction which went to court let parents off the hook who used physical instruments such as a plastic pipe to beat their children. So pressure mounted to reform the law and one of our politicians called Sue Bradford led the charge and, with other politicians fearful of being branded 'supporters of violence', a change was passed which outlawed smacking as part of parental correction, though permitted reasonable force not applied for corrective purposes (e.g. to drag a child away from a fire, or a fight with a sibling). Along with the law change a clear message was given that police were encouraged to overlook 'light smacking' when reported to them and not proceed to charge parents.

The fact remains that, in the words of the law, smacking parents could become criminals. So pressure mounted the other way with a petition gathering sufficient signatures to force a (non-binding) referendum on the question, "Should a smack, as part of good parental correction, be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" In the run up to the referendum we had the usual suspects mounting the usual misinformation in a campaign to ask people to say 'yes' to the question. The misinformation, in my view, is the line that says smacking is 'hitting' children. This neat equation between one aspect of parental discipline, effective in many parents' experience, and the actions of abusive and violent criminals plays one category of life against another. It's intriguing in NZ, rugby mad that we are, that no politicians would dare to miscontrue tackling, rucking, and mauling, violent though these actions are, as criminal actions!

Last night the results of the referendum were announced. A stunning 87.6% of respondents (in a 54% turnout, very good by NZ voting standards) said "No". Smacking as part of parental correction should not be a criminal act. If ever there was a smack in the face for our politicians this is it. But do they feel the pain?

One politician in particular does not, Sue Bradford the leader of the charge to reform is impervious to this massive rejection of her reform. According to,

'Ms Bradford said she had expected a majority "No" vote. She believed some people were so confused by the question they accidentally voted the wrong way. "Because the question is so flawed, the result is flawed. It's not a clear indicator to the Government of what it should do, if anything."

Other voters had told her they had scrawled abusive comments on their ballots instead of answering the question, which could have spoiled their votes, she said.

She accepted some people were still uncomfortable with the law, but said it should stand because "it's a law about protecting our most vulnerable citizens".'

This spin that the question was 'so flawed, the result is flawed' is particularly annoying. It implies that most NZer adults are stupid. (It's on a par with Democrat politicians in the States these days casting all opposition to Obamacare as the result of either extreme right-wingers or people susceptible to the lies of extreme right-wingers. Duh.)

We are not stupid. We know when the wool is being pulled over our eyes. Living Down Under we still understand what is the Right Way Up! Not to worry, as we say here, this smack in the face has nevertheless caused no pain to Sue Bradford!

Why mention this on Anglican Down Under? Well there is the slightly embarrassing fact that church leaders (including our archbishops) encouraged people to vote 'Yes'. 11.8% respondents agreed with them. I wonder what they are thinking now? In the case of ACANZP, my humble suggestion is that we reflect on whether we might have polled a wider range of Anglicans before committing our church to the line taken by our archbishops. Whichever way one does the maths on 87.6% saying "No", it is significantly bigger than the percentage of Christians in NZ who are conservative, at least in the sense that they read the Bible as supportive of physical correction of children (about 5% of the general population, in my estimate), and it will have included a significant number of Christians who failed to heed the lead of their leaders. This will have included many Anglicans who are not confused about the value of smacking as part of parental discipline yet who are just as committed to ending criminal abuse of children in NZ as church leaders are.

Postscript: an excellent series of points is made by David Farrar of Kiwiblog in this post, an excerpt reproduced below (italics mine):

"[Prime Minister John Key's] own view was that the law was “working as it is now”.

But on Monday, he would take to the Cabinet “options which fall short of changing the law but will provide comfort for parents about this issue”.

There will be a lot of interest in these. However I believe that the law should be changed. The reason is quite simple.

The criminal code is there to reflect the views of the public on what is and is not acceptable behaviour. And almost every provision in the criminal code would have 99% of adult New Zealanders say this should be a criminal offence. 99% say it is wrong to murder, it is wrong to rape, it is wrong to beat someone senseless, it is wrong to steal etc etc.

But here we have 88% of adult New Zealanders (who voted) saying this should not be a criminal offence. If Parliament does not heed the views of voters on this issue, then we have an awful precedent where Parliament is sits as rulers rather than servants of the people, imposing their private criminal code, rather than society’s.

I’m not an advocate that Parliament in every circumstance should do what public opinion wants. The referendum on the number of firefighters was a classic case. Economic issues can be similiar as the public can vote for cutting taxes and increasing spending without the responsibility of having to balance the budget.

But when it comes to our criminal code, I find it hard to offer up a reason why Parliament would insist on criminalising something that not only lacks majority support for being a criminal act, but in fact has massive and sustained opposition.

The public understand this issue. Hell, it has been debated for two to three years. They know exactly what they voted for. The percentage who spoilt their ballot papers was a miniscule 0.3%.

There is a simple solution to all of this. The Borrows/Boscawen amendment/bill. It will in fact provide greater protection to children (as it significantly lowers the level of acceptable force for non-correctional situations) but remove the insulting differentiation between smacking for preventing disruption and for correction."

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