Hard News by Russell Brown


Making it up on smacking

On the radio this morning, Conservative Party leader Colin Craig said that he was seeking a change in New Zeaand's smacking law to bring it into line with the law in Australia -- which, he said, was reformed at the same time as ours and had resulted in a decline in the abuse of children.

The first and most obvious falsehood in Craig's line is that "Australian smacking law" doesn't exist. Corporal punishment by parents is regulated under individual state law -- usually with the proviso of "reasonable force" or "reasonable chastisement". In three states there is actually no legislation specifically governing corporal punishment by parents -- the defence is in common law. It really looks like a mess.

Needless to say, the law that doesn't exist was also not reformed in 2007. There is no Australian law for us to adopt, as per his party's platform. Craig is simply making it up.

A report last October found that rates of child abuse in Australia had risen nationwide, reversing a general downward trend in the last several years. The Australian government's own Institute of Family Studies also says that substatiated cases of child abuse are down from a sharp spike in 2006-2007, but are rising again and remain nearly twice as high as they were in 2001.

But we should be cautious: those statistics include multiple forms of abuse and the number of cases noted is likely to be influenced by other factors.

In this country, new MSD data indicates that fewer parents are being investigated for hitting their children and other surveys have suggested the social acceptability of smacking has diminished since the Section 59 defence was removed from our law. But reports last year had abuse cases up by 32% over five years -- a trend blamed by District Court judge Carolyn Henwood not on "excellent policy" but a failure to back up policy with action.  A Child Poverty Action Group study of CYF data last year found that abuse was strongly correlated with social deprivation. Reform has not eradicated abuse and was never likely to.

As Nicole Skews' brave column yesterday for The Guardian Australia says, the kind of change we're talking about is generational. It's about not doing to your kids what was done to you. That can't happen overnight.

What can be said is that in July last year the Royal Australasian College of Physicians called last year for a law change outlawing physical punishment of children, and it was a call supported by the Melbourne Age newspaper, among others. Last month a report from UN Committee on the Rights of the Child calling for Austraia to do the same thing prompted a response from Prime Minister Tony Abbott who declared that removing defences for hitting children would make Australia a "nanny state".  So that's the conversation they're having.

Here, a would-be MP whose ability to garner niche support may be telling in this year's general election is getting headlines by proposing that New Zealand defaults to Australian reforms that didn't happen to an Australian law that doesn't exist. Odd world.

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