I wasn't going to say anything about the so-called 'anti-smacking' bill, because I am sick of hearing about it. I think I might have been sick of it before I even heard of it, who knows? But it is impossible not to hear about it. It seems to haunt the media like the ghost of old Hamlet, or the notorious hob-goblin that . Enough, I say! Repeal section 59, because it is the only way to lay this unquiet spirit. If we don't repeal, it will rise again.
I am entirely in favour of the repeal of Section 59. But every time it is debated or discussed, something pecculiar happens. If some one advocates its repeal, I find myself arguing against them. Then someone demmands it is retained, and I launch into an internal tirade about why it has to be scrapped. The reson for this is simple - both sides of the argument seem to be inhabited by idiots, incapable of summoning a good reson in support of their position. Most of them are just plain wrong, either through stupidity or wilful dishonesty.
Sue Bradford's private members bill seeks to repeal Section 59. Let's look at Section 59, first of all. It reads as follows: "Every parent or person in place of a parent of a child is justified in using force by way of correction towards a child if that force is reasonable in the circumstances."
Bradford's bill is intended to excise this, so parents will no longer be able to justify their actions with a defence of 'reasonable force' if they are charged with assaulting their child. That is all. It does not mean that every lightly administered slap will result in parents being jailed, or even charged, just as they are not currently jailed or charged at police discretion. Police will investigate a complaint made - but they do this anyway. If I see you slap your child in the suprmarket, and I am sucha hopeless busybody as to complain to a police officer about it, he will investigate the incident, whether Section 59 is repealed or not. The police officer will have the same discretion to charge the parent as they do now, and in cases of trivial smacking, they won't charge, just like they would not charge. The only difference would occur if a charge was laid - and whether or not Section 59 is on the books, that would require more than a typical smack. Then a parent won't be able to claim they thought the force used was 'reasonable' - it will be at the discretion of the court. But (to re-iterate) a parent who lightly smacks a naughty child is no more likely to end up being charged if Section 59 is repealed, than they are now.
So the endless stream of people on TV and the radio claiming that this bill will 'criminalise good parents' are talking nonsense, knowingly or otherwise. I was not surprised to see the usual suspects, the inhabitants of rightwing thinktanks and pressure roup howling their opposition to the bill. I was somewhat disappointed to see Bill English joining in with this, but I suppose he has a job to do. Polls were taken showing that 84% of New Zealanders supported a parent's right to smack a naughty child - no mention of the fact that parents will be just as safe doing so when Section 59 is repealed, as they are now.
Given the hysterical but inaccuracte nature of the opposition to Bradford's bill, one would have thought the argument would be over and the bill passed by now. Alas, not so. No matter how pathetic and shoddy the arguments put forward by the pro-Section 59 faction, the Repeal faction always managed to stoop to some new low to make their case look weaker than the (non-existant) case of their opponents. First of all, Sue Bradford offered her opinion that her bill would lead to a total ban on smacking. This was duly seized upon. Bradford's opinion, of course is irrelevant. What matters is what is on the statute book. Bradford might believe her bill will convert the moon into cheese, but if that is not what the law says, it doesn't matter. Then Labour masterfully weighed into the debate, forcing all their MPs to vote as a block in favour of repeal, which simply gave the clamouring hordes more ammunition, and damaged Labour's image further (another part of their masterplan to lose the next election, perhaps?). Finally, jus twhen it seemed that common sense might prevail, Helen Clarke started claiming this bill would ban child abuse, at which point any chance of serious discussion was lost forever.
The pro-59 camp state, rightly, that repealing section 59 won't stop savage thugs brutalising children. Coral Burrows would still be dead if Section 59 had been reprealed before her despicable swine of a step-father brutally murdered her, because scum like him don't care. This sort of argument was effectively used to make the repeal camp look hopelessly stupid and bumbling, and, frankly, they deserved it. Of course the repeal of Sction 59 will not stop the unspeakable murder and abuse of children, no more than it will criminalize caring parents who lightly smack their children. Neither extreme will be toched by the repeal, the abusers because they will simply ignore the repeal, and the responsible parents because no police officer would charge them, just like they elect not to charge now. The only people who would be affected are those in the gray area in between - the one who think thrashing a child with a cane for spilling a drink is 'reasonable force' - the sort who's behaviour all those responsible parents who will NOT be criminalised by repeal, would find shocking and abhorrent.
So please, please, put away the toys and lets be sensible about this. Repealing Section 59 will not criminalise everyday parents. It will not stop vicious thugs from being vicious thugs. But it will force those inbetween to reconsider where they stand, and what they do to their children.
ADDENDUM - 4/4/07
When the repeal of section 59 is passed (and it will be, sooner or later) the only noticable consequence will be this; a sharp increase (a spike or surge, to borrow from George Bush) in the number of complaints laid with the police about children being smacked.
What will have caused this? Not, contrary to instinct, the repeal of Section 59. That will only come into play once the complaint has been laid and followed up by the police, and charges laid.
What will cause the increase in complaints will be public ignorance; the fact that people don't understand how the law is being changed, and how this will affect them.
As a stay-at-home father, I am a member of a coffee group, which meets weekly. At the last wmeeting, this topic came up. Not one of the others present understood what the change in law actually meant to them as parents. They all seemed to be under the impression that the bill set out to ban smacking entirely. I explained this was not so, and what the bill actually entailed, and what differences this would mean compared to the current situation (short answer, none, unless you are a parent who beats their children so savagely that a police officer would consider it assault).
How can it be that a bill can be so widely and vocally debatded, and somehow people are left off knowing less about it than before?
The answer is in the populist button-pushing of the right, and the craven complicity of the mainstream media in New Zealand. The fact that the repeal bill is almost universally referred to as the 'anti-smacking bill' is an example of how the rightwing opponents of the bill have set out to deliberately misrepresent the bill, appealing to the perfectly natural fear of responsible parents that they are somehow going to be criminalised.
In doing this, the National, and those allied with National, hope to embarrass the government. In this they are suceeding very nicely. The government is starting to look very foolish indeed. But by setting out to scupper the bill, campaigning on lies and misrepresentations, they are leaving children at risk, the middle group I mentioned above. National and its allies should be ashamed of their opportunism, trading the health of children for political gain.