Stick that could yet beat Clark

Stick that could yet beat Clark

The smacking bill passed with a hefty majority in Parliament, but it has left a deep schism through middle New Zealand. Politicians from both major parties are resolutely refusing to make it an election issue, but it just won’t go away

By EMILY WATT – The Dominion Post | Friday, 24 October 2008

The ironic thing about the so-called anti-smacking law is that it may just cost Helen Clark the election. This, despite the fact that both the major parties seem to be trying to ignore it on the campaign trail.

No matter that National also backed the bill when it passed in May 2007 with a healthy majority 113-8.

And it appears to be irrelevant that it wasn’t even Labour’s idea, but a bill that was championed by Green MP Sue Bradford.

For disillusioned Labour supporters already grumbling about the nanny state, the smacking legislation was a step too far. Helen Clark – childless herself – was suggesting she knew more about raising their kids than they did. It was meddling, pure and simple.

Soon after the law was passed, Labour’s support, which had been sitting comfortably at 40 per cent, dropped while National’s grew. Up to 120,000 Labour party faithful may have decamped as a result.

The law was built on a bedrock of good intentions: an attempt to reduce the appalling child abuse statistics, the desire to provide children with the same protection from assault given to adults, and to change the law after several high-profile cases, including one involving a mother acquitted by a jury of “disciplining” her son with a horsewhip and cane.

As Canterbury University associate professor in law John Caldwell points out, it is not an “anti-smacking” law at all, but lists four circumstances in which smacking is acceptable, including when it is part of the normal daily tasks of good parenting and preventing a child from using disruptive behaviour.

“I’ve personally been a bit baffled about why it’s continued to be called the anti-smacking law,” he says. “I think there’s widespread misapprehension [about the bill].”

Yet its passage was preceded by months of vitriolic debate that drove thousands of opponents, led by the Destiny Church, to descend upon Parliament to defend their right to smack their children.

It raised hackles in the House, too. Gordon Copeland quit United Future over the issue – then missed the vote and had to have his vote recorded later.

Though police insist officers are using a “commonsense approach”, opposition has remained staunch.

Opponents presented 390,000 signatures to Parliament this year and have forced a referendum on the law asking: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”

Miss Clark has done her best to kick the problem into touch by refusing to hold the referendum on election day. She says there was no time to prepare, and it is likely to be put to a postal vote next year.

Political commentator Chris Trotter says the law has had a devastating effect on Labour. Based on polls conducted around the time of the law, he estimates that between 100,000 and 120,000 Labour party faithful have deserted, mostly for National, because of it.

“The anti-smacking legislation, I think, really hit people where they lived. It really did feel as if the state was coming in the front door and telling parents how they should raise their kids.”

The National Party, which also supported the bill’s passage, seemed to have escaped untarnished in the fallout.

After leader John Key helped to work out a compromise clause with Miss Clark, his party learnt its full support to the bill. Mr Key received kudos for a masterly political breakthrough.

He has ruled out changing the law if he becomes prime minister unless there is evidence of good parents being prosecuted. But he told the Family First conference last month that he would consider changing the law if the referendum results were strong.

Ms Bradford says opponents of the bill purposefully muddied the waters by focusing on smacking rather than abuse of children. She believes about half the country was supportive of the bill.

Miss Clark did not go down the legislative path blindly. She would have known how deeply unpopular the bill was, but has said it was an issue she simply couldn’t turn away from.

Trotter says the prime minister has always been rigorous at looking at the big picture, “but on this one, she let her heart rule her head”.

“But if she goes down because of that, she’s gone down for something worth going down for.”


National leader John Key and Labour leader Helen Clark were both asked in The Dominion Post’s readers’ questions whether they would look again at the law on smacking if the referendum was in favour of change.

John Key:

“The purpose of putting up the compromise position that we did was to ensure that the law would be administered as we thought was appropriate, which is to give parents some leeway for lightly smacking a child. Inconsequentially smacking a child was something that the police would not investigate. So our view is, as long as the police continue to administer the law as the compromise intended, and we don’t see examples where good parents are criminalised for lightly smacking a child, then we think the law’s working.”

Helen Clark:

“It seems to me that, when Parliament votes 113 to 8 for something, that’s near unanimity. I think Parliament as a whole was exercised about violence in the family and wanted to send a strong signal. Parliament did not want to send a signal to the police that matters of little consequence should be dragged before a court and the reality is that they’re not being dragged before a court.” She added that there was a high level of ambiguity in the referendum questions.


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