Here’s the thing I find difficult to understand – that any civilised person should be so upset by the idea of it being against the law to hit children that they would go to the trouble of organising a petition to parliament seeking a referendum on the issue, with the express aim of having that law overturned. Some explanation of the mindset of the more high-profile apologists for a change in the current law is to be found in their connection with, and in some cases membership of the ACT party, the Sensible Sentencing Trust, Family First, the Destiny Church and other conservative political and religious groups. These are people who cannot see beyond punishment as a response to unacceptable behaviour whether in the family or society at large. Their field of vision ranges from hitting naughty children to locking up violent offenders and throwing away the key. Neither response has ever been effective in improving children’s behaviour or in deterring violent crime. Quite the reverse. Equally concerning is the willingness of these groups to dishonestly manipulate public opinion. The Law and Order Referendum, initiated by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, provided a striking example of the ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’
Style of survey and was deliberately designed to offer respondents Hobson’s choice. It read: Should there be a reform of the justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences? Three questions but only one available answer – either Yes or No. So if you were in favour of ‘greater emphasis on the needs of victims’ and ‘providing restitution and compensation for them’ – as I am – you also had to be in favour of ‘minimum sentences’ and the brutal Victorian concept of ‘hard labour’ for all serious violent offences’. Which, needless to say, I am not in favour of. Ninety-two percent of respondents apparently were. But most thinking people would have realised that the referendum presented impossibly conflicting options within the one question and would not have responded at all. In an interview I did with the Sensible Sentencing founder on Radio Live a couple of years ago, Garth McVicar agreed that the Law and Order Referendum question was so flawed as to be meaningless. One might have thought the advocates of smacking – essentially the same people – would have taken care to ensure that the same mistake would not be repeated.
But the ‘Anti-Smacking Referendum’ has again been deliberately phrased to bamboozle respondents. It reads: Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand? This is the equivalent of asking: ‘Should doctors recommend an exclusive diet of McDonalds and KFC as part of a healthy weight loss programme?’ McDonalds and KFC cannot be part of a healthy weight loss programme. And it is open to serious doubt whether smacking can be part of ‘good parental correction’. If they are to have any validity at all, the language of referenda questions must be neutral. To make the ‘Anti-Smacking Referendum’ neutral, the word ‘good’ has to be deleted from the question. Even its title is misleading since there is no reference at all to ’smacking’ in the Act. The word simply does not appear. Bradford’s bill was designed to prevent abusive parents using Section 59 of the Crimes Act to escape penalty. Its purpose was clear: To abolish the use of reasonable force by parents as justification for disciplining children.
The wording of the current Act reflects this:
Nothing in the Act or in any rule of common law justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction. And it includes the following clarification: To avoid doubt it is affirmed that police have the discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent of a child, or person in the place of a parent of a child, in relation to an offence involving the use of force against a child where the offence is considered to be so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution. That is precisely what the police have done. Well, in the end it comes down to whether or not you think it should be legal to hit children. ‘Smack’ is such an innocuous word. But you cannot ’smack’ a child without ‘hitting’ or ’striking’ the child. And the word includes a range of possibilities – from the ‘tap on the bum’ which the proponents of the referendum would have us believe a smack means, to the volley of frenzied thumps which most of us have observed from frazzled parents on the street, in supermarkets and on buses. Indeed, one of the best arguments against smacking is watching a parent smack a child. Generally the child is squirming or struggling to get free.
The parent restrains the child by holding onto its arm with one hand, while using the other hand to paddle its bottom. Usually the child is crying or screaming. It is not an edifying sight. But it is instructive. Smacking invariably means that the parent has lost control. Reasoning and constructive communication have been abandoned in favour of physical force. I suspect most parents feel bad after they have hit their child.And, as a parent of five children and grandfather of ten, I understand very well the stresses that can impel the most loving father or mother to strike out. We should be careful, as the Act allows, not to prosecute the parent who on a rare occasion lightly smacks a misbehaving child. But that is very different from the state legitimising or sanctioning the smacking, hitting, striking, corporal punishment – whatever synonym you prefer – of children by their parents. That is a very slippery slope. Proponents of a change to the law want a ‘light slap’ to be legal, but the term defies definition and the police and the courts will be faced with the same impossible task they faced in defining ‘reasonable force’. At present children are protected in law from all corporal punishment in 24 countries. They include Spain, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Finland, Sweden – and New Zealand.