Child discipline referendum will not give clarity

July 17, 2009

Press Release: Caritas Aotearoa

Caritas says child discipline referendum will not provide clarity.

Catholic social justice agency Caritas says the upcoming referendum on child discipline will not provide clarity on the issue. “Funding for the referendum could have been better used on family education,” says Director Mike Smith.

Caritas supports the 2007 amendment that was eventually made to Section 59 of the Crimes Act, and wishes to see the legal status quo maintained, regardless of the referendum outcome.

The debate leading up to the law change was always about balancing child protection and family subsidiarity – the ability of families to make decisions for themselves without undue government interference.

“Caritas submitted in 2006 that Catholic social teaching required that both be taken into account. In our opinion, that meant giving greater protection for children, and also defining the threshold for prosecution,” says Mr Smith.

“The final wording of the amendment regarding police discretion not to prosecute for ‘inconsequential’ acts met our concerns. It was also in line with the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference 2007 statement on the issue: Children are precious gifts, which also sought a solution between polarised extremes of the debate at that time.”

Mr Smith says the upcoming referendum will not provide clarity on the question of child discipline, because it is possible to support the 2007 amendment while voting either Yes or No to the referendum question: Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

However, Caritas recognises that in the political context of the referendum, a ‘Yes’ vote is seen to be a vote for the status quo, while a ‘No’ vote is seen to be a vote against the 2007 amendment.

“In this context, we recommend a ‘Yes’ vote, as we believe the status quo is close to the position that we recommended to the Select Committee. However, the wording of the question is so ambiguous, many New Zealanders who support efforts to reduce violence against children, may in good conscience still feel obliged to vote ‘No’. It will be hard to understand what the outcome of the referendum may mean,” says Mr Smith.

He says Caritas will be writing to the Prime Minister and other relevant politicians, expressing concern that the ambiguous nature of the question will result in an outcome that cannot be understood as either supporting or opposing the 2007 amendment.

“We will make it clear that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, we support the 2007 amendment to the Crimes Act. This was the best compromise able to be found at the time which increased child protection, while also taking into account the subsidiarity of families and preventing unnecessary prosecutions.”

Mr Smith says protecting children from physical violence requires action in many other areas, including parental education on alternatives to physical punishment. “In the best interests of families, we would like to see parents able to increase their knowledge of options they have to control their children’s behaviour. That’s where funds could have been better used.”

  • Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand is a member of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 164 Catholic aid, development and social justice agencies active in over 200 countries and territories.

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