The Referendum About Hitting Kids

Diversion, as every parent knows, is a useful ploy in good parenting. You divert the angry child’s attention away – with a game, or another activity – from the thing that would otherwise lead to a violent confrontation. Basically, you change the subject. How ironic then that the entire smacking debate has now evolved into a golden diversionary tactic for the Key government for any public concerns about its wider activities. With luck, the government could string this issue out for its entire first term in office. OK, so you don’t like PPPs – but where do you stand on the smacking issue ?

Don’t get me wrong. Legitimising violence against children – even the so called ‘loving’ kind of violence that supposedly does them so much good – is a serious thing. However, it seems bizarre that New Zealand should be spending more energy on whether children can be properly disciplined than on whether they get enough food to eat, or can read properly, Reason being, this dispute has little to do with the wellbeing of children. It is all about parents, and their freedom to do as they see fit and proper. Hitting your kids is seen by many as a basic property right.

If it chose to play hardball, the government would be under no compulsion to comply with the wishes of the 88% of the 54% of the eligible population who didn’t want to see – in real life – the science fiction scenario of good parents getting hauled off to court for a tap on the arm. Along the way, the referendum deliberately begged the question it was purporting to test – in that under no current law, and under no current police practice, are good parents being criminalized for the reasons we have just spent $9 million to denounce.

Ah, but now the public has spoken. And regardless of the irrelevance of what it has said, politicians will feel the need to respond. This could, or should, pose a dilemma for the Key government. Key himself was heavily involved in shaping the compromises that made the current law possible – and during 2007, he won a lot of political kudos for doing so. Plainly though, a big chunk of the population doesn’t like the current law, Despite the fact that there is a distinct possibility that it has already shifted perceptions of good parenting away from smacking.

The crucial factor is that the most hotly aggrieved members of the public are seen to be part of the National Party’s electoral base, so they cannot be ignored completely. Nor can it suffice to remind them they have already been rewarded, with the appointment of Christine Rankin to the Families Commission. They want more.

Thus, the dilemma. How can the government basically do nothing, while still placating a large number of the voting public? Well, last time it did very well indeed out of focusing on Police guidelines. It could try that route again. It could tell the Police to exercise Extra Super Duper Size Discretion in future about smacking complaints, rather than just the Family Size Discretion they’ve shown so far. That might be enough.

Reportedly there is also a Bill sponsored by John Boscawen of the Act Party already written and ready to go that would legalise smacking for the purposes of correction. That could be a fallback position, if needed. Why not usher that Bill into Parliament (see, we are listening to what the public has said) and then quietly kill it at the select committee stage, when the idiocy of trying to define the relevant terms will become apparent to (almost) everyone ?

Another useful stalling device could be to wait for the Ministry report on how the current law has been working. This evaluation was promised to be carried out when the original law was passed. Let the current law and the Boscawen Bill be measured against its findings, and it will become obvious which option has more merit. Unfortunately for the MPs likely to comprise the relevant select committee, this route would undoubtedly expose them to ferocious lobbying by Larry Baldock and his minions.

In the end political machinations, and not common sense, will carry the day. Unfortunately, that is usually the result when blind ideology is allowed to contaminate the process of making law.


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