This morning I received a letter from the Chief Electoral Office of the Ministry of Justice in New Zealand. I've been away from NZ for some years so, as I opened the envelope I wondered, "What could be so vitally important to the future of our nation that the Minje has gone to the expense of contacting me, and seemingly every other Kiwi voter worldwide, just months after a General Election?" The letter began, "Dear Voter…." (very Red Dwarf), and invited me to cast my vote in a Citizen Initiated Referendum. I wondered what it was about.
Well, once I'd read the letter I have to admit to being amazed. The question that is of such huge importance that all Kiwi voters over the age of 18 worldwide have to give it their consideration is: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" They're kidding?! Its a criminal offence? Apparently in my time away from NZ the law has been changed that indeed does make it a criminal offence and the referendum has come about due to the public reaction in NZ against the change.
Meanwhile, the drug problem in NZ is enormous, gangs run rampant with no fear of consequences, the NZ economy is stagnant, schools and hospitals are underfunded, the All Blacks are struggling and yet the government goes to the expense of asking every registered Kiwi voter in every far flung nook and cranny on the planet whether parents should be…what…arrested? fined? imprisoned? reprogrammed?….if they ever smack a child. Listen, if a 3 year old is about to stick a fork in a power point I'm not going sit them down and give them a "Now darling, I feel so disappointed when you do that…." speech, nor am I going to give them a scientific explanation of electricity and its negative effects on a small human body, instead, I'd give them a quick smack on the hand and a loud "No!" The child remembers that bolt of lightning (ask them, they do) and when the fork/power point situation next arises they think "Hmm, I remember what happened last time, so I'm not doing it again…." Apparently, the law in NZ as it stands, since the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, would find me guilty of assaulting my child by slapping their hand, an action that would in breach of subsection 2 of the new Section 59 of the Crimes Act which states: "Nothing in subsection (1) or in any rule of common law justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction." A smack is referred to by Barnardos as an "inconsequential assault" but an assault nevertheless.
It is recognised that this referendum is a reaction to child abuse levels in New Zealand that are an indictment on any country that calls itself "civilised". The victims, children injured and all too often killed, whose suffering is detailed in a seemingly endless procession of gut wrenching court cases, cry out for action. But is making criminals out of ordinary parents who use smacking as an occasional form of discipline going to stop the suffering? Or is it the rationale that after 3 or 4 generations, smacking will be bred out of New Zealand's parenting practices?
EPOCH NZ, one of the groups which advocated the law change in NZ states: In the long term changing attitudes about the use of physical discipline is likely to play a part in efforts to reduce child abuse. Likely? While the supporters of the referendum have children's welfare at heart, does anyone really imagine that making smacking a crime would have deterred for the men who, amongst the other horrors inflicted on her, put 3 year old Nia Glassie in a clothes dryer and spun her at high heat (this case was even reported here in the UAE), or stayed the hands of those responsible for the deaths of the Kahui twins? Is the parent who smacks a child's hand or bottom to ensure s/he remembers not to run out on the road, not to put a fork in a power point or not to scrawl on the wallpaper really a criminal, the same as child killers? It seems some would say 'yes'.
If every registered voter is taking part in this referendum then there'll be many people voting who've never had children. Why should people without children tell parents how to deal with their kids? If you don't play the game, you shouldn't be making the rules. (Some of those who are currently childless probably think that smacking is inexcusable but there may well be a 180 degree change of attitude once they have their own children.)
What's the punishment for a smack? A fine? 'Counselling'? Prison? A child falls over and gets a bruise, how does the parent prove that the bruise wasn't the result of abuse? Can neighbours dob each other in? Will the sale of wooden spoons be banned?