Anti-smacking manoeuvre challenges Left-wing parties

COLIN CRAIG: Conservative leader.
COLIN CRAIG: Conservative leader.

You have to wonder if, in the weeks since Colin Craig made his interesting observations about astronauts and the Moon, he hasn't gotten some professional help. Because his latest stunt - to raise again the fraught subject of child discipline - is nothing short of brilliant.

Over the past couple of decades few subjects have lent themselves so readily to the arousal of popular passions as the so-called "anti-smacking" crusade. There's something about the crusaders' arguments against corporal punishment that gets right under the skin of "the average Kiwi".

And, equally, there's something about "the average Kiwi's" willingness to use the phrases "hitting your kids" and "good parenting" in the same sentence that drives the crusaders absolutely bloody nuts.

Given that most of the anti-smacking crusaders are staunch supporters of the Green and Labour parties, inciting them to launch yet another assault on the child-rearing practices of ordinary New Zealanders makes perfect sense - if your purpose is to push Colin Craig's Conservative Party over the 5 percent MMP threshold.

Of course, it's entirely possible that Mr Craig is acting entirely alone. There has always been a peculiarly guileless quality to the man: a weird "what-you- see-is-what-you-get" honesty that is every bit as attractive as it is off-putting.

His ready admission that he still smacks his 8-year-old daughter is a case in point.

Only an adviser of Crosby-Textor's sophistication would have the sheer Machiavellian gall to suggest that a political leader own up to the belief that it is perfectly acceptable for citizens to pick and choose which laws they obey and which they ignore. A party which openly acknowledges its ambition to join the nation's legislators is generally expected to demonstrate (and usually does display) a little more respect for the Rule of Law.

It is, however, a crucial element of Mr Craig's nave political genius to instinctively "get" that the anti- smacking legislation owes nothing at all to the will of the people and everything to the unshakeable convictions of a self- righteous minority.

Those who bridle at this characterisation would no doubt also dismiss the judgement of the 87.4 percent of voters who in 2009 answered "No" to the Citizens Initiated Referendum question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Mr Craig's argument is that any law passed in such studied contempt of public opinion has no legitimate claim upon the ordinary citizen's compliance. Accordingly, he plans to make its repeal a "bottom line" should the Conservatives end up holding the balance of power following this year's general election: "It would be an easy one for National to put over the line because obviously the law is not working. Child abuse statistics have risen. It's a silly law. The vast majority of parents think this law has gone too far."

The big challenge for Labour and the Greens is to demonstrate an equally sophisticated grasp of the political dynamics of the "anti-smacking" debate as Mr Craig (acting either alone or in response to professional advice) has shown.

They must resist the temptation to re- litigate the political arguments of 2007-08. Instead they must hold firmly to this thought: "The best way to keep children safe from parental brutalisation is to win the election."

Let Mr Craig knock himself out on the smacking issue. There are a whole host of important things to talk about with voters besides the anti-smacking legislation: inequality; inadequate incomes; child poverty; affordable housing.

The Labour-Green strategy must be to coax the non-voters of 2008 and 2011 out of their political alienation; their belief that the political class simply doesn't give a toss for their opinions.

Both parties need to "get" that nothing demonstrates the "truth" of elite indifference better than the "anti- smacking" bill.

Why else would Mr Craig's Conservatives be thrusting it back into public consciousness?

If Labour and the Greens cannot persuade alienated voters that someone other than Colin Craig's Conservatives is listening to them, then the Left will lose.