Hard News by Russell Brown


The Arguments

The relevant question about the CYFS Watch poster who wants to hurt Sue Bradford isn't "Is this the sort of person who opposes her bill?" Because, clearly and overwhelmingly, it isn't. Rather, it should be: "Is this the kind of person you would trust to define reasonable force?"

A foundation of the argument against the removal of the Section 59 defence is that every parent knows the difference between a simple smack and an assault. I think that's patently untrue. I'm not talking about the Delcelia Witika sort of assault - that's something else - but about the far larger number of kids who cop it hard because their parents believe they are within their moral and civil rights.

Perhaps we do need to remove the official sanction that allows that to happen. Other countries have done it without the sky falling or innocent folk being hauled in numbers through the courts.

I'd be dishonest if I said I was completely comfortable with Bradford's bill. On principle, I'm wary of laws whose enforcement is a matter of prosecutorial discretion. On the other hand, I'm obliged to pay attention to the moral argument Bradford makes: is there in fact a good justification that we should sanction - in whatever detail - an act against a child that we would not sanction against an adult?

One argument I will not countenance in any way at all is the one that seems to motivate the bill's most vocal opponents - Biblical justification. No, no and no again. No more than I would indulge a man who believes his religion allows him to keep his wife in line with a loving smack.

Not everyone who opposes the bill believes this, of course. There are parents who regard smacking as bad practice who still don't wish to see the risk of it being classed as assault. Again, we come back to the boundaries that aren't as clear or universal as they might seem.

So, on balance, I think the bill is the right thing. It specifically doesn't stop parents using force to ensure the safety of their child or others. It does remove a defence for parents who believe in smacking as a cornerstone of correction, but it won't result in the odd smack being criminalised. It removes a defence that has seen unacceptable actions against children successfully defended in court, and probably, dissuaded police from acting in other cases. I think it will move the goalposts about the social acceptability of such actions.

I'm also inclined to pay attention to child welfare agencies such as Plunket and Barnados, who are far closer to the problem than I am. When I asked the Family First spokesman on The Panel yesterday how he explained the unanimous view of those agencies that the bill was necessary, he answered: "government funding".

In other words, that those agencies were saying things they knew to be untrue about child welfare in order to get money. Like all conspiracy theories of its kind (another example is the belief that cancer doctors ignore miracle cures because they are in thrall of drug companies), it is a means of both avoiding the actual argument and of denying the deep professional commitment of those involved. That's not good enough. And it certainly wasn't good enough to change my mind.

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