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Dr Muriel Newman

Change the Law Prime Minister

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The public have spoken. 87.6 percent of New Zealanders want the law that has banned smacking changed. They want to go back to the common sense situation that existed before Parliament saw fit to pass Sue Bradford’s repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act into law.

Over 1.6 million New Zealanders participated in the referendum. That is a 54 percent response rate, far more than the 40 percent who voted in the last local body elections. This response is almost the same as the turnout in the referendum which led to a change in New Zealand’s voting system from First Past the Post (FPP) to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).1

During the 1990 election campaign, in response to growing public concern over the voting system, the Leader of the National Party, Jim Bolger, promised to hold a referendum, pledging to hold a binding referendum at the 1993 election if there was majority support for change. On the 19th of September 2002, the promised referendum was held with voters first asked if they wanted to change the voting system from FPP, and then if they did, to indicate which voting option they would prefer: MMP, the Single Transferable Vote (STV), Supplementary Member (SM), or Preferential Vote (PV).

Some 55 percent of registered voters took part in the referendum and an overwhelming 85 percent voted to change the electoral system. 70 percent of voters favoured MMP.

This referendum result with a 55 percent response rate and an 85 percent majority vote was deemed to be conclusive enough to trigger the second referendum which changed New Zealand’s voting system. In fact, at the time, Mike Moore, then leader of the Labour Party said of the result, “The people didn’t speak on Saturday. They screamed.”

Well, Mister Key, the public have once again screamed! They do not want to be given “comfort”. They do not want a compromise. They want the government to stop telling parents how to raise their children!

The old Section 59 of the Crimes Act was very clear in its intent. It said that parents could smack their children for the purposes of correction, but they could not assault them. That meant that any parents who used unreasonable force against a child would be prosecuted for assault. And over a twenty year period, there were indeed only a handful of cases where a Section 59 defence was successfully used.2 In other words, in the vast majority of child assault cases, the parents were appropriately prosecuted for their offence. That is the hallmark of a law that was working.

And that is the underlying problem with this issue. The law was not changed because it was not working well. The law was changed because a Green Party MP decided to force an agenda being run by the United Nations onto New Zealand. Philosophically she believed that the ban on corporal punishment being promoted by the United Nations was superior to the laws of New Zealand when it came to how families raise their children. Sue Bradford couched the smacking ban as being a way to stop child abuse in New Zealand. While the public saw through that, our representative politicians chose instead to ignore it as it suited their political interests at the time. They passed the ban into law with a huge Parliamentary majority of 113 votes to 8. New Zealand remains the only English speaking nation misguided enough to have imposed a total ban on smacking.

In his response to the referendum result, the Prime Minister has said the law will not be changed unless it can be shown that good parents are being prosecuted for light smacking. Well, since the smacking ban was imposed, the police have already investigated over 200 complaints and made 13 prosecutions. Many good parents and grandparents have been subjected to gruelling investigations by the Police and Child Youth and Family (CYF) for such minor acts as pulling or pushing a child. These enquiries, which can drag on over many months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees, can have a devastating effect on the family especially if children are removed into foster care.3

But more serious than the direct impact it as had on these unfortunate few is the demoralising effect it is having on all parents. This new law totally undermines parental confidence and authority, as any report of any potential use of force of any sort against a child that is made to the police, CYF or the school, by any bystander, any disgruntled child, or any vexatious friend or relative – without any proof whatsoever – can instigate mandatory investigation. That means that if the law had existed in the days when Mr Key said that he smacked his own children, he – along with hundreds of thousands of other good parents and grandparents – would be regarded as criminals in the eye of the law. Further, any busybody could have reported him to the Police, to a teacher, or to CYF and unleashed an investigation – with its associated mountain of worry and stress – for no good reason at all.

And that is what is happening all around the country right now. That’s why 1.4 million New Zealanders have voted for the law to be changed. They can see the wedge that has been driven between parents and their children. They can see children becoming more badly behaved, as parents lose their confidence and stand by helplessly. And when they see that the parents of more difficult children are simply giving up trying to control them, they worry about what will prevent today’s delinquent child from becoming tomorrow’s criminal.

1.4 million people know that a light smack as part of good parenting is not harmful, and they know that if they do need to discipline a child in this way – usually as a last resort – they should not be treated like social pariahs or criminals.

The anti-smacking law has been hugely unpopular from the start. The public have seen through Sue Bradford’s agenda – they have always known the law change would not stop child abuse, and they also know that Sue Bradford’s view of the world is not something they wish to have imposed upon themselves and their family. John Key and National will be making a fundamental mistake if they, like Labour, choose to ignore this fact and place political expediency above public will.

The introduction of the anti-smacking law in 2007 signalled the beginning of the slide in popular support for the Labour Party that ultimately led to their election defeat. In supporting the National Party at the 2008 election, most voters believed that they would see an end to nanny state Government. After all National had railed against the nanny state often enough in opposition.

Voters also thought that in supporting National they would be supporting a government that valued the family, respected democracy, and trusted the public. National has already shown it is prepared to respect democracy by repealing Labour’s Electoral Finance Act, which had severely undermined New Zealanders’ democratic rights to free speech during an election year. It needs to show that stake in the ground was based on principle not politics.

That is why Cabinet’s response to the referendum result will be the biggest test yet of John Key’s premiership.

In spite of the reassurances of politicians, banning the smacking of children was never going to stop child abuse – everyone knows that people who beat and kill their children take no notice of the law. As you read this, Police in Palmerston North have launched a homicide inquiry into the death of three-year-old Kash McKinnon. She is the fifteenth child to have been fatally assaulted since the anti-smacking law was passed.4

It’s time government got real about the cause of child abuse in this country, and stopped tinkering with socially driven agendas promoted by the likes of Sue Bradford. Without a doubt this government needs to turn its focus onto the causes of family dysfunction that is at the heart of this country’s horrendous child abuse crisis.

In May the Families Commission – a $9 million government agency that many believe is a waste of taxpayer’s money – published a report “Healthy Families, Young Minds and Developing Brains: Enabling all children to reach their potential”, which I thought might provide some guidance on ways to reduce child abuse and disadvantage.5 I asked Professor Richard Whitfield, a British child development expert, who has had considerable experience in this area, if he would firstly review the report for the NZCPR, and secondly make some suggestions for further action. Prof Whitfield, who is this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, with his article Healthy Families, Young Minds and Developing Brains- – Enabling all children to reach their potential explains:

“I have visited New Zealand professionally on 19 occasions since 1974. Over that period, I have watched, with some sadness, what is an internationally very important test-tube democracy of a wonderful young country, having extensive natural and human resources, catch more than its fair share of the stultifying speak of ‘political correctness’. Sadly that tends to mean the death of common sense, if not some fear of truth, as the limits of what is publicly discussable shrink, along with the extension of bureaucratic legislation that cramps initiative within limits that are now crucial for a decent social ecology.”

With regard to the content of the report, he says, “Without doubt the neurological development and nurture of young children and the maintenance of optimum brain functions later in the life-course are vitally important issues. This Report does a more than adequate job on the relevant neuroscience, and provides a useful glossary.”

But he is critical of much of the report: “There are several glaring omissions from this Report, as much if not more the responsibility of the researchers’ paymasters. Amongst these are firstly, barely a mention of family structure as a related variable concerning stress and trauma: the whole complex and delicate arena of divorce and separation, parenting alone, mother-father relationships and their sufficient stability for children’s well-being. Secondly, no attention to the number of ‘carers’ that young children can seriously attend to if they are to gain a sense of secure attachment, and so grow the neural circuits that prompt trust in the wider world into which they are born. Thirdly, there is no reference to well-proven cycles of emotional affirmation and deprivation.”

Prof Whitfield concludes his review by explaining that the report is so politically correct that it seems “a near total waste of Kiwi taxpayers’ money”.

The point is that until politicians and policy makers recognise that children are more at risk in single parent families and that the Domestic Purposes Benefit is a key factor in encouraging the formation of such households, New Zealand’s child abuse crisis will continue unabated. While welfare is obviously not a factor in every child abuse case, it is significant in most. This is the sort of issue that the government should have been focussed on all along rather than undermining good parents who are trying to do their best to raise their children well.