Some anarchically-inclined friends of mine use to say that about general elections. “Don’t vote for politicians – it only encourages them.” It’s not usually a convincing argument for me – but when it comes to this “child discipline” referendum I think it is the only sensible advice.
So, New Zealanders can vote from the end of next month on the proposition: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”
Trouble is we are being told that the way we vote here should be interpreted as support for legislation which we don’t necessarily support. For example, many people would, to be honest, answer “no”, while at the same time accepting the current law. (That’s my position). However, the activists who initiated the referendum petition, and who are making so much noise at the moment, would claim my “no” vote supported return of the section 59 legislation which enabled child beaters to claim child discipline as a defence when charged with assault. That’s not something I want.
This referendum question is along the lines of “When are you going to stop beating your wife?”
A silly question
This time I think practically all the politicians have got it right. It’s a silly referendum question. There is no clarity about how one should vote. Most politicians seem to be saying they won’t vote in this referendum – which tells you something. And the public appears to endorse that – only 18% in a recent poll supported the referendum proceeding.
In fact, I think the public are convinced by their argument that this particular referendum has brought the whole idea of citizen initiated referenda into question. So it seem inevitable that there will shortly be legislation to change referenda so that ideologically and religiously -motivated people can’t manipulate the system with loaded referenda questions.
And this is the problem – manipulation of the system (and attempted manipulation of the public) by narrow minority groups for their own ideological ends. This tactic was quite successful during the initial debate on the legislation changes. Many innocent parents were naturally concerned that the changes could make some of their parenting illegal. But that concern has largely disappeared.
The fact that legislation was amended to take these concerns into account, this lead to almost unanimous support in parliamentary vote, makes the whole referendum redundant. It is even more redundant because the NZ Parliament will, anyway, review how the law has worked in practice. And let’s face it, referendum supporters are really at a loss when asked for examples of the law being applied inappropriately by police or other state authorities.
Claims to moral authority discredited
And the ideological orientation of those currently promoting the referendum also discredit it. Typical is the blog NZ Christian News. It unashamedly claims to be “sponsored by the Elusive Brethren and right-wing American fundamentalists.” It’s pronouncements are usually restricted to republished anti-science and climate change denying articles from US creationist web sites. But recently it has a real flurry of locally produced articles – some of then even written by the site’s anonymous administrator (admin) which is very unusual. Other conservative NZ Christian blogs have also been promoting the referendum.
I would have thought this would be the kiss of death. One of the reasons Christianity has lost so much support over recent years has been because of the way some its adherents behave towards children. We have become used to news reports of sexual and physical abuse of children by Christian leaders – protestant as well as Catholic. Now, I am the last person to tar all Christians with the same brush (some of my best friends are Christian). But these activities, and the apparent reluctance of many church authorities to face up to the problems and protect the interest of the children concerned, does undermine any claim to moral authority in this area.