Why revive the smacking debate?

20:35, Jan 17 2014

Successful political arguments often rely on a lot of ignorance on the part of the people whose support the protagonists are seeking.

The debate on the Green Party's smacking law in the last term of the last Labour government was one of these types of arguments.

Now, Colin Craig of the Conservative Party wants to revive the debate for his political ends. Those ends are perfectly respectable in a democracy - he wants to get him and his party elected to Parliament.

His problem is that he is desperate to establish a profile as something other than a very wealthy man of very conservative views (which is to say he doesn't want to change much in the present social and political order) and who can afford to bank roll his way into public office.

His goal took a decidedly disastrous turn last year when his most memorable public statements suggested he took the chemtrail conspiracy theory seriously (that's the theory that says the vapour trails caused by jet planes in fact contain chemicals that are sedating us or making us all compliant) and that he doubts the moon landings were real.

What better way to start the election year than to resurrect a six-year-old debate with deeply held views on either side, and claim that you're siding with mums and dads who he thinks feel deprived of the chance to hit their kids.


It was a weird enough debate six years ago, and showed the Right up for what they seem to believe about kids, that they own them and can do what they like with them.

So, before we have another year of mad shadow boxing, let's look at what the law actually says. Of course I'm not a lawyer and I have had to take some advice from those within that profession to enable me to better understand the current law.

And let's remember, the law as it is now was agreed between Helen Clark and John Key and supported by National, Labour and the Greens and one or two others. The only party that voted against the law was the ACT party, which starts to tell us where Colin Craig's real politics actually lie.

The law is section 59 of the Crimes Act. It is headed up "Parental Control". That gives a good idea of what it's about.

The first part says a parent of a child (or someone acting as parent) "is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable" and if it's for a number of stated purposes. So, it looks like force can be used on a child if it is reasonable and used for the right purposes.

The purposes are: to prevent harm to the child (this would be for something like a child about to run out in the middle of the road); to stop criminal behaviour (the child wants to throw a stone through someone else's window); and, preventing the continuation of offensive or disruptive behaviour (the tantrum in the supermarket).

The fourth purpose is interesting. You can also use force for the purpose of "performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting". The important words there are "good care and parenting".

The sort of force described in these parts are, well, forceful. You need to be forceful and physical if you're going to stop young Rangi running out on the road. Likewise if you're taking screaming Jane out of the supermarket. A fair amount of force might be needed to stop 11-year-old Timmy smashing letter boxes.

None of this implies hitting or violence.

The next part of the law is the confusing part and taken in isolation could give the wrong impression. It says "nothing justifies the use of force for correction". The third part of the law says this prevails over the first part.

Then there's the fourth part. It says the police have a discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent "where the offence is considered to be inconsequential" and there is no public interest in prosecuting.

Putting all this together I think it comes down to this: you can use force to stop your child doing dangerous or unlawful things. You can't use force (that is to say hit your child) to punish them. And the police aren't expected to prosecute over trivial things, like a light smack.

The referendum was a no- brainer. It asked "should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" About 88 per cent said no. But of course they would because good parental correction, like the words "good care and parenting" in the law, don't mean hitting kids to hurt them.

The track record of the police shows the law is working. All but one of the nine prosecutions under the law in the last six years involved children who were hit around the head. That's not good parental correction.

We have a bad enough child violence problem as it is. This law is working and there is no need to change it.

Taranaki Daily News