May 12, 2009
The cards are stacked! The shape of the question in the Smacking Referendum makes sure of that. “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” It’s rather difficult to say Yes to that. It suggests we support the idea that “good parents” might be “criminals” if they give their child a “smack” as part of “correction”.
After all, it never hurt us when we were growing up, at least not most of us. And we got far worse – strapped or caned at school, given a hiding at home (“your father will hear about this when he comes home”), and look what fine and responsible citizens we have become as a result!
So the cards are stacked in this referendum. The numbers voting “No, good parents should not be criminals”, could well be a majority.
But suppose a different question were asked. Suppose the question was “Should parents who seriously assault their children, causing physical and emotional injury, have a lawful escape from the consequences of their actions?” It’s hard to imagine a majority would say Yes to that proposition. Yet it’s precisely because that sort of thing was happening that the move to change the law came about. Child abusers could rely on the escape afforded them under the old Section 59 to go scot-free.
I was part of the public debate when the law was changed. I was part of a deputation of church leaders who handed Helen Clark a statement saying that we supported the law change because we thought there should be an end to legally condoned physical abuse of children. The vast bulk of New Zealanders would say there should be an end to any physical abuse of children. The law change is an important step to achieve that.
The new law has had no dire consequences. Police have a discretion not to prosecute when an alleged offence is “inconsequential”. There have been a few prosecutions where children have been assaulted in a more serious way. But no evidence whatsoever that large numbers of “good parents” are being dragged before the courts and made “criminals”.
More positively, the debate has aroused renewed attention to what good parenting really means. Co-operative problem-solving approaches between parents and children can lead to deeper relationships and an atmosphere of love and trust rather than one of fear and punishment. It is also saying that children are people too. It is illegal to physically assault an adult. Why should it be OK with kids?
For me one of the most significant features of the debate when s59 was being changed was that although a majority of New Zealanders opposed the change, there was a solid consensus for change among the organisations who actually knew at firsthand why the change was essential. These were groups like Barnados, Save the Children, Plunket and Unicef – people who day by day were on the front line dealing with some of the tragic consequences of the message the old law sent. Popular opinion can be out of touch with reality, and this case was surely one such example.
Our children are too precious to damage. Each one is special in the eyes of God and the whole community. To vote Yes in the coming referendum does not mean we are saying “Yes, good parents should be criminals”. It is saying something of far greater importance. It is saying “Yes, we believe it was right to close a legal loophole for hurting children”. Let’s keep it that way.
Richard Randerson, CNZM, was appointed 2000 Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland. He is also Vicar-General, from 1999, and Assistant Bishop from 2002 of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.