S59: Right bill, wrong time

31 03 2007

If you’re a Kiwi, then you’ll have heard about s59. My feelings on this have been mixed from the very beginning, and can’t be taken as a good gauge of the mainstream. Also, I simply haven’t been paying that much attention to the matter. I know the rightie blogs have been all over this, but then this definitely plays to the “family values” crowd. I’m naturally of the opinion that family matters should be kept private, but I know there are times when the government definitely has to “butt in” and investigate allegations of child abuse. If there’s anything Once Were Warriors taught us, it’s that.

Now, as I understand it, the bill doesn’t criminalise smacking any more than the law already does; it simply removes the legal defence that prosecuted parents have of claiming “reasonable force”. I believe there have been a few cases where parents have done so and actually got off, despite having whipped their kids with riding crops. But like I said, I’m not a parent and haven’t been paying that much attention.

But Christ Trotter has, and he writes in today’s Dominion Post that the government should pack it in:

Withdraw your failed bill, Sue

We have failed. The opinion polls released this week confirm that fact with crushing finality. It is now indisputable that four-fifths of the electorate is opposed to Sue Bradford’s “Anti-Smacking Bill”. No one’s really surprised. The poll results were just another couple of stalks in the veritable blizzard of straws in the wind that has been blowing for weeks on this issue. The Left already knew the voters weren’t convinced. Why? Because it simply hasn’t bothered to convince them.

Consider the last great successful battle against against ingrained public prejudice: the legal emancipation of gay and lesbian New Zealanders. How was that achieved? By a private member’s bill, yes, but was that all? No. The fight for gay and lesbian rights had been going on for years before Fran Wilde introduced her Homosexual Law Reform Bill to Parliament in 1985.

The struggle against homophobia had gone on in students’ associations, unions, government departments, private business, and on the streets. There were journals and newspapers devoted to the cause. And, in the mainstream new media, a constant barrage of letters, feature articles and documentaries steadily chipped away at public ignorance.

The gay rights movement had its own icons, its own heroes, and even its own “Gay Pride” week on the nation’s university campuses. Fran Wilde’s bill came at the end of a multi-faceted political campaign for change – not at the beginning.

Nothing on this scale has preceded the campaign to end violence against children. Certainly, there are lobby groups devoted to advancing the rights of the child, but their efforts have almost exclusively been devoted to securing the backing of decision-makers especially MPs. No one, to my knowledge, has set out to secure the backing of the public in the way that gays and lesbians did.

And now that failure to win over at least a substantial minority of the public, before proceeding to the legislative phase of the reform process, is generating a backlash of extraordinary power.

In a way that few, if any, of the bill’s supporters anticipated, the notion of criminalising the “correction” of children has awakened fears and resentments from the very deepest recesses of the New Zealand psyche.

It’s more than the New Zealand public can deal with right now: those conflicted emotions toward parents and siblings; those painful childhood memories of sudden and inexplicable violence; those overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame. All the unacknowledged pathologies of family life which Sue Bradford’s bill requires New Zealanders to recognise and address – it’s too much. They want the bill out of their faces NOW!

And, in a curious way, they’re right. Because the sequencing, when you think about it, is all wrong.

How can we ask people battling to keep a roof over their heads; people holding down two minimum wage jobs to put food on the table; people struggling to pay mortgages, rates, power bills and school fees; people so tired they forget to talk to their kids, make love to their partners, or keep in touch with their family and friends, to do what Sue is demanding? To somehow locate the calm centre of their beings; that strong and secure sense of self which is the key to constructing loving and non-violent relationships?

Is it really fair, in a society which never stops doing violence to them, to suddenly demand that parents stop doing violence to their children?

This legislation needs to be withdrawn, immediately. And its supporters (among whom I include myself) need to acknowledge their failure. Not just their failure to build a mass movement against the violence done to children, but their failure to sustain the movement which their parents and grandparents built to end the economic and social violence daily inflicted upon working families.

You cannot help the kids if you will not help their mums and dads.

By refusing to recognise the sheer magnitude of the opposition to this bill, the Left has forfeited the electorate’s trust. Sadly, withdrawing the legislation is now a necessary precondition to rebuilding public confidence in progressive politics.

Because, mark my words, if we do not acknowledge our failure and set about reclaiming the trust we have lost, it will be given to others.

Passing this legislation now, over the objections of four-fifths of the electorate, will not settle the matter. The people will punish the Left and themselves by voting the far Right into power.

And how will that help the children of New Zealand?

[Text from NZ Conservative]

When you’ve lost Chris Trotter, you’ve lost the final rubber.

Like Chris, I support the bill. I also think there’s been an awful amount of demagoguing on the subject, and (it pains me to admit it) from both sides. Saying that it will cut down child abuse seems a stretch (although I haven’t read the studies that bolster this, I’ve had them described to me as borderline inconclusive; and they are also few in number). Still, this is nowhere as objectionable as claims that the bill will lead to the mass criminalisation of all parents across the country.

However, my main objection to the bill has always been: why this bill? And why now? If the Greens want to rack up a substantive legislative success, why this piece of social engineering? Not that there’s anything with social engineering (it depends on the policy), but I voted Green because of the party’s sane and sensible energy policy.

Over and above this, Chris’ point about the utter failure to educate the public about this law is spot on. The lack of a parallel message / framing campaign is scandalous, especially when you consider how quickly the right latched onto its simplistic memes and then hammered away at them for all it was worth.

I’ve bemoaned this in other arenas, but where are the left’s spin-meisters? Are we so averse to the dark arts of PR that we don’t have the slightest clue how to get the message out?

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