Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Mob rule no substitute for democracy

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Brian Rudman. Photo / Supplied
Brian Rudman. Photo / Supplied

Don't be fooled - the smackers' campaign is not an issue of constitutional importance.

Child, Youth and Family Services reports about 13,000 New Zealand youngsters are abused each year.

How humiliating to live in a country where $500,000 is being spent encouraging people to march up the main street of our biggest city demanding the right to beat their kids.

It could only happen in a country with one of the worst child murder rates in the developed world.

Instead of parading up Queen St this Saturday, waving their wooden spoons and looking for bottoms to belt, Colin Craig, the organiser and bankroller of this crassly named March for Democracy, and his supporters should be holding a candle for each abused child.

Tragically, the turnout would have to be massive to achieve that.

Child, Youth and Family Services reports about 13,000 New Zealand youngsters are abused each year. That's investigated cases.

The former Children's Commissioner Cindy Kiro says the true rate is likely to be much higher. Last Saturday, the Herald reported that almost 1800 children whose abuse or neglect was detected by social workers last year were re-abused within six months - that's five a day - often by the same parents or family members.

Despite this horrendous culture of abuse, Mr Craig will process up Queen St with his merry marchers to demand that their ancient right to smack their children be restored. Will the penny never drop that he'd be doing more for democracy - and the kids of New Zealand - if his $500,000 went into something as simple as parenting lessons - or support services - for at-risk young parents.

Asked if he smacked his 4-year old daughter, Mr Craig concedes that "on occasion I've found it necessary to give her a little flick on the hand, yes". No doubt he does it with love, and it hurts him more than it hurts her and blah blah blah.

Thankfully, Prime Minister John Key and his Labour opponents are staying firm in their support of the so-called anti-smacking legislation they jointly supported back in 2007.

Despite the populist hysteria whipped up by the pro-beaters at the time, they backed Sue Bradford's private member's bill removing the anomaly from the law books that allowed parents to do to their children something that would have resulted in assault charges if they had done it to each other, or to another adult.

The smackers are now endeavouring to disguise their campaign as an issue of high constitutional importance, broadening it into a debate about the need for Parliament to listen to the voice of the people through referendums. Even the Sensible Sentencing Trust, which is normally baying to punish any instigator of violence, is on side.

The organiser of the ambiguously worded anti-smacking referendum of earlier this year, Larry Baldock, set the benchmark for hyperbole in September when he announced plans for yet another referendum, this one on whether or not such votes should be binding.

"If we do not seriously address these constitutional issues now, our children and grandchildren may be governed in a way our forebears never imagined possible when they resisted oppression on foreign battlefields to protect our liberty."

This despite the fact that binding referendums have never been a part of the Westminster system of democracy our forebears fought to defend.

Also lurking in the wings is Steve Baron, who since 2003 - first under Voters' Voice and now Better Democracy - has been campaigning for binding citizens-initiated referendums as a form of direct democracy.

He says he is marching on Saturday and "I hope others will join me and become the 6-8 per cent of society who become politically active, the political gladiators, the select few who get off their backsides to make a difference."

Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First, warns that the march is "not a one-off - it is part of a long term strategy to bring representative democracy back to New Zealand". Like Mr Baldock, he's got his political science confused. Binding citizens-initiated referendums, which is what this motley right-wing band are demanding, are anathema to the principles of representative democracy.

This form of government dates back to the 18th-century principle, advocated by Edmund Burke, that an MP is not in Parliament to act as his constituents' delegate, but is elected to represent them, using his skills and best judgment to do what he thinks is best, for both country and the electors.

The development of disciplined political parties has somewhat watered this principle of MP independence down, but the system we have inherited and developed is still a far cry from the principle of mob rule that governance by binding citizens-initiated referendums promises.

The Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1986 decided that "in general, initiatives and referendums are blunt and crude devices ... [that] would blur the lines of accountability and responsibility of Governments".

They threaten the rights of minorities. In Switzerland, the land of cheese and binding referendums, binding referendums enabled a majority of men to deny women the basic right to vote until 1971.

Paradoxically, they also allow minorities to push their own hobby horses. Baron, of Better Democracy, in his rallying call for this Saturday's march, appealed for "political gladiators ... the select few who get off their backsides to make a difference".

He puts this minority at 6-8 per cent.

It's this minority, with the help of single-issue money-bags like Mr Craig, that the binding referendum campaigners envisage as leading the political decision-making.

Parliamentarians made a bad move in 1993 when, in the fall-out from the Rogernomics revolution, they agreed to introduce non-binding citizens-initiated referendums.

It was never going to stop there. Now the mob is clamouring to make referendums binding. Saturday's march is a good reason this demand should be rejected.

The organisers are demanding August's referendum result, which supported the beating of children, be translated into law. There are 13,000 reasons why this - and direct democracy - should not happen.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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