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Friday, February 23, 2007

Heather Roy on Anti-Smacking Bill

MP Heather Roy on why ACT does not support Sue Bradford's proposed anti-smacking legislation.

Criminalising Acts Of Parenting

I know my own children are too old for smacking, as soon I will be the shortest in our household. Even when they were small I seldom used physical chastisement. My husband was even more restrained than I was, but if the Anti-smacking Bill had been enacted 18 years ago we would both have been on the wrong side of the law.

There would, however, have been little chance of prosecution, because we would have been in the same situation as hundreds of thousands of other parents. The police couldn't possibly deal with them all and would only act when there was a complaint. The Bill to outlaw smacking currently before Parliament - which repeals Section 59 of the Crimes Act - fails at the most basic test. Laws must be enforceable and routinely enforced - otherwise they are meaningless.

I don't doubt for a moment Sue Bradford's good intentions in sponsoring the anti-smacking bill. Like many of us, she has long campaigned for initiatives to end the violence done to vulnerable youngsters. But good intentions are not enough. This debate - which has been going on for some time now - has relied on emotion rather than reason, and focused on rules rather than results.

There is not one MP in Parliament who condones abuse of children. Each of us wants every Kiwi child to grow up in a loving environment, safe from the abhorrent treatment meted out to the Kahui twins, Lillybing, James Whakaruru - and the list goes on. But there will be more cases, and our natural inclination is to take action.

As legislators we are in a powerful situation - we can try to make a difference by changing laws to reflect the sort of society we want for our children. But the laws we make need to be enforceable and regularly enforced. This Bill fails on both these counts, and sadly, it will not save the life of even one child, or stop the abuse of children who are subject to such mistreatment that it's difficult to even read their life stories, because they are just too distressing.

The easy option, taken by many MPs, was to vote in favour of this Bill to show that violence against children is being taken seriously - in the hope that it would change those who victimise our defenceless children, and to clear their consciences. But all we will achieve by repealing Section 59 is to turn loving parents into criminals. In the course of doing so, we will make no difference to the real problems.

Caring for those who cannot defend themselves is one of the finest things about our civilisation. But the unintended result of the smacking ban will be to criminalise thousands, hundreds of thousands, of good parents.

The original version of the Bill outlawed any form of physical punishment or restraint. It made even the lightest uninvited but deliberate touch punishable by law. Holding your child still while dressing them would have made parents into criminals. The current version, still before Parliament, does little better.

I don't need to be persuaded that it is essential to reduce our level of family violence. Violence is a plague that haunts our New Zealand communities and I agree that violence begets violence. But this Bill is not the answer to stopping child abuse. Our existing law against child abuse is already strong. Section 194 of the Crimes Act - Assaulting a child under 14 - attracts a maximum sentence double that of common assault. Section 195 - Cruelty to a child - brings a 5 year maximum sentence, and abandoning a child under 6 means a 7-year prison term, under Section 154.

Enforcement of the law is the key. Enforcement involves doing three things properly - reporting the behaviour, trial, and conviction followed by sentencing. If any one of these three elements fails, criminals will go free.

The police are struggling to cope already. CYF are struggling to cope. Most abuse is not reported to authorities until severe damage has been done to young lives. Around 70 per cent of serious abuse occurs to children not already known to CYF.

Much of this debate rests on the difference between 'smacking' and violence. Proponents of the Bill believe these are the same, but as a parent, I believe they are not. Reasonable people know when discipline ends and abuse begins. The rest - an abusive minority - will not notice, or care, that a law change has been made.

The threat that this Bill is intended to be will get ignored by the very people who should heed the warning. Those parents who care for their children already and take their responsibilities seriously will be the only ones who suffer.

The greatest good can be done by helping vulnerable families directly. There are already many successful initiatives operating around the country. Mentoring, going into homes and providing advice and assistance with parenting, health, education and welfare issues, will do much more to keep children safe. Plunket is perhaps the best example of mentoring already in action, but they are constrained by funding.

ACT will continue to oppose this Bill, but not because we don't care for children. We simply want caring parents to be able to make the best decisions for their children - decisions that we as legislators cannot anticipate or control from our comfortable parliamentary chairs. Acts of abuse are already illegal - unfortunately enforcement of the law is frequently totally inadequate. This Bill will not change any of that, but it will succeed in criminalising acts of parenting.

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