August 4, 2009
New Zealand has a proud history of being the first to change legislation to improve the well-being of its citizens.
We were the first to give women the vote, the first to ban nuclear armed and powered warships from our waters and on June 21, 2007, the first English-speaking country to give children the same protection under law from assault as adults.
These actions define us as New Zealanders and tell the world about our values. They make me proud to be a New Zealander.
As a paediatrician working in child protection, I knew of many cases where the old Crimes Act Section 59 defence of reasonable force had been misused and of cases where police chose not to prosecute assaults against children, knowing the “reasonable force” defence would be claimed.
This is no longer possible with the new Section 59.
Since the law was changed we have seen research published demonstrating that adult attitudes towards hitting children have changed.
Police have used their discretion to not prosecute trivial or inconsequential assaults, as the new Section 59 allows them to do.
This is exactly what the legislation was intended to do. And yet the aim of the proponents of the referendum is to force the Government to bring back the defence of reasonable force.
Of course the question is misleading. Smacking is not good parental correction. It can and does escalate in some houses to serious assaults.
Most of the parents I have met who seriously assaulted their child believed they were disciplining them and doing them good. Children who are subjected to moderate or worse hitting as part of parental correction do suffer psychological and physical harm.
Children whose parents use other positive parenting techniques do better than children of parents who hit.
The question also includes a value judgment – how can something “good” be bad?
And finally, parents are not being criminalised for a light smack, as referendum proponents would have you believe.
Paediatricians’ clinics these days are filled with children with problem behaviour. While not all of it is the result of poor parenting, better parenting would help to reduce the numbers of children we see with the physical and emotional scars of abuse.
In a society that values children, we owe it to them to do everything we can to reduce violence in their lives and increase the use of positive parenting skills among parents.
So what are we to do with this question? We could simply ignore the referendum as the colossal waste of time and money it is, but this could be attributed to simple apathy rather than support for protecting children.
We could protest the question by ticking Yes and No, but this would be recorded as a spoiled vote, along with those filled in incorrectly.
Or we could vote Yes, and send a clear message to the Government that we believe in protecting all children from assault.
The Prime Minister has said he does not want to change the law because it is working and he has better things to do, like getting the economy out of recession. I agree. I do not want our parliamentarians wasting time on this issue.
A large Yes vote is the best way of putting this issue to rest once and for all.
So I am voting Yes in the referendum. If you don’t want our politicians wasting any more time on this, if you believe the law is working as intended, and if you believe children have the same right to be free of violence that adults do, you should do the same.
Dr Russell Wills is a paediatrician in Hawkes Bay with a large child protection practice and is the clinical director of Maternal, Child and Youth Services at Hawkes Bay District Health Board. He is also spokesman for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand on the referendum issue.