John Fox - 5 April 07
Printed in Joy Magazine, April 2007
The campaign against 59 of the Crimes Act, otherwise known as the "anti-smacking Bill", arouses strong feelings. Those who support the Bill draw attention to New Zealand's violent culture, and our damningly high rates of child abuse. It is natural to feel that something ought to be done, even if it is just a gesture; a step in the right direction to prevent tragedies like the Kahui twins occurring and to tackle our culture of violence. We should, we must, do that. But this Bill will not achieve it.
Ms Bradford and the Prime Minister chime together that the Police will use their discretion and leave good parents and families alone, however, the Bill will still put good loving parents on the wrong side of the law and leave them open to investigations and prosecution. In the process it will undermine parents' authority over their children.
Child abuse is already illegal. We have laws which punish family violence already. This Bill would criminalise "reasonable" corrective force such as the light smacking used by thousands of Kiwi parents as a disciplinary technique. The best research available, Dr Jane Millichamp's, suggests that such light smacking (differentiated from beating, or hitting, or child abuse, which is illegal), is not harmful to children, and most Kiwi parents would agree.
The common argument the supporters of the Bill are mustering, is that the Bill will "send a message" that violence against children is unacceptable. But that message is already sent by laws against abuse.
If criminal law "sends a message", it is about the kind of behaviour we as a society find wrong, unacceptable, and criminal. Things like murder, rape, and child abuse come into that category. By passing the Bill, we would be putting light smacking into the same category, something to be prosecuted in a Court.
Our politicians are right to be concerned about family violence, but they should not be passing a law that they do not want the Police to enforce simply to "send a message". There are speeches and soap-boxes and press releases and TV cameras for that. Law is for crime, and for behaviour that is harmful and criminal and should be prosecuted.
Further, the Bill would do nothing to address the root causes of child abuse and family violence. UNICEF has said what some of the risk factors for abuse are: family breakdown, alcohol, drugs, poverty, low education and so on. The Bill does not tackle these risk factors for family violence.
The State and the Police should certainly intervene when there is crime or severe dysfunction, domestic violence and child abuse. There are decisions under the current law that we don't all agree with, and they show the need to improve and tighten the situations where parents can use discipline, but banning all reasonable correction goes too far and good parents should be left alone.
We are all attracted by a vision of the kind of society we can be; a country without violence, where children are safe. But after we have all agreed on the destination, it comes time to chart the path to take us there. Our MPs could have begun a deeper look at why our society is violent, why families and lives are broken, and the risk factors for family violence. Instead, they are choosing to make thousands of parents into criminals and license interference in good families. That is a wrong turn, the wrong path, and the wrong way.