Editorial: Bennett's loose talk

Last updated 09:57 08/06/2012

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OPINION: The perils of talking in a half-baked fashion about policy proposals on hot-button issues have just been dramatically illustrated by the fuss that has developed around comments by the Minister of Social Welfare, Paula Bennett, on dealing with child abuse.

Precisely what Bennett is proposing is not entirely clear and that lack of clarity, beginning with some loose remarks on a talkback show hosted by the ageing controversialist Michael Laws, has given Bennett's political opponents, and even some of her party's allies, a stick with which to beat her.

She has only herself to blame for it. And artificial as it all may be, the to-do is a pity, for it distracts from a serious discussion of what is a serious issue.

The outcry began when Bennett mentioned in an interview with Laws that, in considering what could be done to protect children from the sometimes fatal lack of care they were exposed to from chronically inadequate parents, she was looking at a proposal that was "right out there".

Bennett was not specific but perhaps because she was talking to Laws, this was interpreted by some as implying that Bennett was considering compulsory sterilisation for parents who had been shown to have abused their children.

While compulsory sterilisation for people considered likely to be sub-standard as parents was once, in the 1920s and earlier, thought unobjectionable, the subsequent horrific history of its application in totalitarian countries has made it unthinkable in civilised places.

Bennett has since said that was not what she was proposing, but her alternative proposals do not seem to be much more clear or considered. At one point she seemed to suggest that courts might be empowered to bar anyone convicted of child abuse, neglect or murder from having more children.

She gave no details about this idea, but even if such a provision were enacted - and that would be highly unlikely given the lack of backing for it from National's support parties - and even if judges could be persuaded to exercise the power, it is hard to see how it could be enforced.

As a practical matter, all that could be done would be to take away any children born in defiance of such an order and to punish people for disobeying it. It is unlikely to do much to get to the root of the problems of child abuse and neglect.

Moreover, apart from being much more of a blunt instrument, Bennett's proposal does not seem to advance the law a lot. If a child is in danger, Child, Youth and Family already has the capacity to obtain the removal of the child from its family. Last year, 148 babies were removed within a month of being born and 177 were removed the year before.

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Bennett has made it clear that no decisions have been made and that she is still preparing a white paper on vulnerable children to put before the Cabinet.

There is little doubt that there needs to be what the Prime Minister, John Key, this week called an "uncomfortable conversation" on how to deal with the nation's ghastly record on child abuse. Any policy proposals, however, need to be thought through and put forward only after careful consideration.

Bringing them up half done on rabble-rousing talk shows, or trying to explain them in front of a media scrum in the corridors of Parliament, as Bennett has done in this past week, merely risks an unproductive party-political backlash and gets in the way of any sensible debate.

- The Press

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