Thursday, 5 April 2007
Sunday Star Times
Luke, chapter six, verse 27: "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you." Love and good, enemies and hate - verily, a battle was taking place in the household of Simon Barnett's lovely home in Christchurch. The scripture written in marker pen on a whiteboard in his kitchen told his family to stand firm.
Barnett, 40, and his wife Jodi have four beautiful daughters - Lily, six, Isabella, eight, Sophie, 11, and Samantha, 13. The girls attend Christian school Middleton Grange. They are tall and tanned and have really good manners. Isabella has a pet chinchilla, a rodent that looks like a filled sock, called Gorgeous. Lily said to her dad the other day, "I like living in Sumner. It's so relaxing." Their house is across the road from a lagoon, where pied stilts and royal spoonbills roosted at high tide on Friday afternoon. Were the two eldest girls going to watch America's Next Top Model on TV that night? "We're not allowed to," they said.
The afternoon filled with golden sunlight. It lay warm on the tennis court and the Oamaru stone of Barnett's home, which also has an indoor heated pool. The man of the house has done well out of a career as the breakfast host on More FM in Christchurch, and the presenter of light entertainment TV shows What Now?, Wheel of Fortune, Face the Music, Telebingo, Celebrity Treasure Island, and, last year, Sing Like A Superstar: "That was really bad. You win some, you lose some!"
Totally nice guy, happy family. But there are demons in his head. They wear Labour Party red, and wave the Green Party's rag. A government-backed bill introduced by Greens list MP Sue Bradford seeks to abolish parental force against children. It may become law this week. Barnett fully expects it will. As a staunch and vocal opponent, though, he believes the new law will be thrown out after the next election. His favourite Bible verse (Proverbs, chapter 13, verse 12) is: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick."
Barnett has emerged as the unlikely lightning rod for public opposition to Bradford's bill. "That's what I think, too!" He said he always wanted to be liked. But now he has received emails calling him "a rapist and a child abuser" from one person, and "child basher" by another. Love thy enemies: Barnett spoke at a public meeting in Cathedral Square on Wednesday, and was abused by a man who he said pushed a Maori Party placard in his face.
Despite the thumping rain, more than 2000 people attended Wednesday's protest rally. Barnett had a Martin Luther King moment -during his speech, he kept chanting, "I have a dream!" A New Zealand without child abuse. A New Zealand where the wicked are punished. But a New Zealand where responsible, loving parents can smack their children if they choose, and not fear arrest under Bradford's proposed law change.
How did he come to act as MC at the Square? "A young guy called Andy Moore asked me to. Never met him before." Moore is 20. On his blog, he lists Gladiator among his favourite films, and The Bible as his favourite book. At a public meeting in Rangiora recently, Moore barracked Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove, and handed out petitions against the bill given to him by former United First MP, and evangelical Christian, Larry Baldock.
Barnett said, "I often wonder, `Why am I doing this?' I suppose I've felt for a long time that this government hasn't been working for families. They've been working against families with some of their legislation. And this last piece of legislation just won't work to stop child abuse in this country."
What other legislation acted against families? "Well, prostitution law reform. But I'm very aware this government would have you believe the only people who are the real opponents of this bill are Christian fundamentalists, or as Dr Cullen said the other day - I'll get the quote, because it's important... where is it... I've got so much paperwork on this... here we are. Dr Cullen said, `This bill is opposed by religious fanatics and extremists, as well as other various forms of strange people.' I just think that is extremely arrogant, given that the Colmar Brunton poll had 83% of New Zealanders were against it."
Barnett also variously quoted Helen Clark, Sue Bradford, former Alliance MP Laila Harre, Greg O'Connor of the Police Association, a CYF report, and a Swedish law expert. Yes, he said, he was in danger of becoming a single-issue bore.
"I'm by and large a guy who's fairly placid. I did go on a walk for Make Poverty History last year. I'm into better trade deals and things like that. I watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth on DVD, and that fired me up for a moment, but then I saw his power bill was like $30,000 a year, and that made me cool off on his opinion. That's the kind of guy I am. But I can't see in all conscience how I could ever support this anti-smacking bill. This issue has got me really steamed up."
HE GOT steamed up. "If the Greens are so committed to protecting children's rights, then how come they're so adamant they want to decriminalise marijuana? I feel the family is being undermined all the time. It's a hard enough job to parent as it is. But if this government is so concerned about child welfare, what about all the party pills? How come they're freely available to kids? Truancy is an enormous problem. There's street bashings every day.
"How come the government were opposed to putting the drinking age back to 20? How come the government voted against harsher sentences for paedophiles and child porn? It's so hypocritical. It's almost too hard to bear."
It was too hard to bear. He saw the demons arriving at his house, past the security gates, their shadows on the Oamaru stone: "People now have the government actually coming up their driveway, knocking on their door, and saying, `We know better than you how to bring up your children.' I take that as an affront for a guy who's committed his life to being the best parent I can be.
"I think what's happened with this whole debate is that it's not about child welfare, it's turning into an argument about who parents better -parents who smack, or parents who choose not to. That's what a lot of people are inflamed about. I don't think you can ever win that argument. I've got four really stunning kids, incredibly polite, academic, and I've smacked every one of them on occasion. I should be allowed to parent how I want to parent."
He told a story about giving his daughter Sophie a smack when she was three - she had let go of his hand, and run across a busy road. "I knelt down beside her and said, `I told you not to let go of daddy's hand.' A car had just missed her. My heart was racing. I wasn't angry at her; I really wasn't. I was like, `I can't believe you so disobeyed me.' So I smacked her hand. And it was hard. She cried for about 15 seconds. I said, `I'm sorry I had to do that, but you must never ever do that again.' And to this day she hasn't."
What a horrifying thing for a parent to witness. But the point of his story was the punishment. "I know. Bradford says, `Don't worry, you won't have the police on your doorstep if you smack your child.' But I'm not prepared to take her word for that."
He said, "Something occurred to me just before. Don't lose that thought, Simon... Oh yeah! It's this: I don't believe this government actually likes authority apart from their own. I don't think they want any authority in the home, because everything we're seeing is taking away parents' rights to discipline their children. It's trying to encourage equal rights for children, and that can never be the case -children can't have the same rights as an adult. It's a unique relationship between a parent and child. Otherwise you're just the tallest person in the house, aren't you?"
Where would it end? "I think this will be the proverbial straw. People will not forget this." Barnett grew up in a Labour household - "My grandfather was a lecturer at Canterbury University in history and economics. He taught Bill Rowling" - and voted for the party until the last election, when he switched to United First. Next time? National, to throw the government out. John Key, as the next prime minister, would hold a referendum on the child discipline law, and the public would throw that out too.
He didn't have to reach for paperwork to arrive at that future. Simon Barnett had a dream.