Garth George: Referendum no answer to parental worry

By Garth George

I received in the letterbox this week official notification of the citizens initiated referendum to be held at the beginning of August and marvelled again at the absolute futility of the whole business.

This referendum will cost the country something like $9 million, will tell us nothing we don't already know and, being non-binding on the Government, will end up in a pigeonhole somewhere in Wellington. And such is their contempt for the referendum that Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff won't even vote in it.

The stupidity surrounding the whole business is of even more concern. If the law is an ass, then Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, as amended by Parliament a couple of years ago, is a whole herd of them.

The original section 59, which allowed the use of "reasonable force" in correcting and disciplining children, had been on the books for 40 years and had caused not the least concern.

Until Green MP Sue Bradford got it into her head that that fragment of law was somehow the cause of the epidemic of child abuse and decided it needed to be changed.

In the end, after accepting a watered-down version put forward (and voted for) by the National Opposition, Section 59 was amended in the face of widespread opposition from the community, which remains to this day.

It was supposed to be a conscience vote, but Labour, terrified of losing the support of the Greens and, as it often did, ignoring public opposition, whipped its troops into line to support the amendment.

The result is a piece of legislation that is as ridiculous as the referendum question we are about to have put to us. Section 59 now provides that parents can use force against children to prevent harm or to stop a child's "offensive or disruptive behaviour", but cannot use force for "correction".

How dumb can you get? If you smack a child to prevent harm or to stop offensive and disruptive behaviour, what else is that but correction? And if some say that it isn't what the hell do they mean by "correction"?

In any case it seems logical to me that if a parent uses mild physical punishment as correction, then the harm or the offensive or disruptive behaviour probably wouldn't happen in the first place.

The whole thing is nonsense, and the worst of it is that it puts parents in a quandary about what to do when confronted with implacable recalcitrance.

Take the young mum in the supermarket the other day whose child packed a towering tantrum and in the process swept a whole lot of goods off a shelf.

She tried her hardest to reason with the child but couldn't smack for fear of being reported to the police. In the end she left the supermarket in confusion, upset and hurt at the censorious stares of other customers whom she believed considered her a bad parent.

Under this ridiculous law she was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. But, unfortunately, the referendum will do nothing to solve that dilemma for parents because the dumb question being asked, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?", will receive a huge majority of "No!" votes from parents.

Why? Because they don't ever want to be put in a position of having to answer to the police or some official from Child, Youth and Family because they were seen (or reported as) administering mild physical discipline to a child.

Mr Key this week told reporters that while the referendum was an expensive exercise, that was the price of democracy. Rubbish.

It is the price we taxpayers are paying for National's about-face on the section 59 amendments, which brassed off a large number of voters who were, and remain, angry and disillusioned at having to account for the way they bring up their children.

Mr Goff, who as Minister of Justice back in 2002, initially steadfastly refused to give in to the agitation of what quickly became a small but vocal minority demanding the repeal of section 59, said this week the referendum question was badly worded.

He is right. What, for a start, is "good parental correction"? He said the question should be "is the law working satisfactorily?" That is just as dumb because the answer from voters could also be nothing else but a resounding "No!"

The aim of the law was, after all, to deal with child abuse. It hasn't, and it never will. There are just as many child killings and abuse cases as there were before the amendments to section 59 were passed.

So while we concern ourselves with an expensive yet worthless referendum we are diverted from trying to find a real cure for this suppurating sore on the face of our society and simply leave it to fester.

- NZ Herald

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