Smacking question is clear enough

Smacking question is clear enough

Tue, 18 Aug 2009

Rex Ahdar takes issue with the idea that the “smacking” referendum is ambiguous and confusing.

Unless you have been living in the Fiordland bush for the last few years, or have just arrived from Latvia, you would readily understand the fateful sentence in its cultural context

People should exercise their democratic rights and vote in the smacking referendum.

I believe the objections to it are misplaced.

Some cry, what about the expense? Could not the money have been spent on tackling child abuse? Yes, but the promoters of the referendum are not to blame.

The government was asked to run the referendum in conjunction with the general election, but it said no.

The referendum question might have proved an unpalatable, additional reason for voters not to give Labour and the Greens another term.

It is thus disingenuous for the politicians to cry waste when they had a straightforward opportunity to avoid it.

Besides, $9 million is not a huge amount when considering an important parental practice and, as the abolitionists of smacking remind us, the welfare of children.

If we can spend $80 million per year on possum eradication, we can afford a fraction of this on such an important matter of family governance.

Next, the wording is said to be ambiguous and confusing.

Really? Read in isolation I suppose one could quibble with its meaning.

But unless you have been living in the Fiordland bush for the last few years, or have just arrived from Latvia, you would readily understand the fateful sentence in its cultural context.

The referendum wording is read against the background of the ongoing public controversy over the merits of a law to permit mild corporal punishment of children by their parents.

The real gripe is not so much that the wording is ambiguous, but that it is slanted.


To me, the offending phrase simply sets the context in which a smack occurs.

On the other hand, critics contend that smacking and good parental correction are cunningly linked, implying that the two are part and parcel of the same thing.

Critics refuse to see how a smack can ever be part of good parental correction.

But again, the proponents of the referendum are not at fault.

As the Californian experience of referendums shows, the promoters always try to word the thing in a way that favours their desired result.

Having invested a huge amount of energy to secure the minimum 10% of voters necessary to trigger a referendum, who can blame them? But the real culprit, if any, is the Clerk of the House.

The clerk is the independent statutory official responsible for vetting the wording and ensuring, in the words of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, the question put to voters conveys clearly the referendum’s purpose and is capable only of one of two answers.

The so-called poor wording is the fault of former clerk David McGee QC.

Next, is the current version of section 59 of the Crimes Act working satisfactorily? Have parents who engaged in a light, non-injurious corporal correction (a smack) been prosecuted? The answer, according to Family First’s investigations, is yes.

And those who have not been prosecuted have still undergone the stress of a police investigation, and probably scrutiny by Child, Youth and Family personnel, too.

Why the prime minister maintains the present law is working well (and thus no action is needed) is puzzling.

Looking back, the whole rationale for the law change was suspect, if not illusory.

Abolitionists, led by Sue Bradford MP, continually raised the spectre of the abuser who sheltered behind the section 59 defence and was thereby acquitted of blatant thuggery by a feeble jury.

The celebrated and deliberately vague examples usually cite the father who beat his son with a hunk of wood and the mother who viciously used a horsewhip on her son.

A closer inspection of the facts reveals another story.

The Havelock North father hastily used a thin piece of kindling (a foot long and 2cm thick) on his 8-year-old son’s backside following an admitted incident of stealing by the boy.

This is hardly the ominous piece of four-by-two that is typically asserted.

The Timaru mother did use an 18-inch long and half-inch thick riding crop, but in urgent response to her 12-year-old son’s attempt to hit his stepfather on the head with a softball bat.

On both occasions, the juries decided that the parents’ response was reasonable in all the circumstances.

At best, this repetition of the-abuser-was-acquitted tales is sloppy.

At worst, it is calculated and deliberate misrepresentation.

The smacking defence-justified-abuse gambit is really just a specious ploy to undermine a law that was working satisfactorily.

It is sleight of hand designed to divert attention away from the abolitionist’s real objection, which is philosophical from start to finish.

The previous law did not permit physical abuse by parents to go unpunished.

The social science evidence on the effects of smacking on children does not show that it is harmful.

The Otago University Children’s Issues Centres 2004 report said: “While it is clear from the research that severe and harsh punishment [both physical or other] is potentially very risky for children’s development, occasional physical punishment occurs in many families and may not have long-term negative effects as long as it is used in a climate of warmth and love, where the predominant mode of relating to children is positive.

“To say that smacking is associated with children’s aggression, under-achievement, depression is mischievous.

“The observation that two things are associated [or correlated] does not mean there is a causal connection between them.”

Faced with these inconvenient facts, opponents of smacking are relegated to asserting their personal convictions.

I have no doubt that abolitionists sincerely believe that corporal punishment of children is morally wrong.

They are entitled to their view.

If their liberal sensibilities are offended, let them exercise their own parental prerogatives by adopting other modes of discipline on their children.

I will let them grapple with the question of whether time out (false imprisonment, if an adult was the one being confined), removal of pocket money (deprivation of property) and so on raise no ethical concerns.

Let me, along with the other 83% of New Zealanders who do not share their moral sentiments, choose the form of discipline that we consider is sound. – Rex Ahdar


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *