Today the torrid debate over repeal of section 59 will resume in Parliament. Mercifully, whichever way the vote goes, the wrangling is drawing to a close. It has been painful to witness the polarisation and hear irrelevant arguments stated ad nauseam. Between the self-righteous do-gooders using the power of the state versus the people and the hard Christian Right brandishing biblical texts, there is a third position which gets buried by earnest activists determined to "send a message".
The objection is simply that repeal of section 59 will not stop child abuse.
Just as micro-chipping dogs will not stop dog attacks. We all know that, yet had to listen to heated drawn-out debates over dog-chipping legislation which was nothing more that a weak government's attempt to demonstrate it can deal with problems. Nanaia Mahuta, Associate Minister for Local Government is still fighting a rearguard action publicising a recent feel-good story of a family and their dog reunited only because the dog was chipped. Very nice. But it wasn't the point of the legislation and it is hard to imagine any good news stories following the passage of the anti-smacking bill.
We won't be seeing headlines claiming the number of CYFS notifications has plummeted. Quite the reverse. CYFS, already struggling to keep up, could very well get less effective than they already are.
Removal of section 59 won't stop child abuse because it won't tackle the causes of child abuse. New Zealand histories of child welfare, and there are three or four under-read books on the subject, are littered with references to child abuse and the strong association with young, unmarried mothers and ethnic minorities.
The first survey into child abuse published in 1970 found that those born out of wedlock were three times more likely to be abused, Maori children 6 times more likely and Pacific children 9 times.( 25 years later a study showed children with a parent on the DPB were four times more likely to be the subject of a CYF notification.)
The thinking, then, was these mothers needed more financial support. And it came. Sadly, rather than mitigate the problem the money exacerbated it. More girls kept babies they were unable to emotionally care for while the money allowed them to live away from family or whanau. This development, compounded by rapid urbanisation, meant Maori traditional nurturing links were lost.
Most child abuse is perpetrated by mothers. Where children are hit by fathers or other males, drugs and alcohol are often involved. Drunk people do not heed messages sent from government. Last year there were around 23,000 convictions for drink-driving despite politicians constantly self-congratulating about how they dealt to that particular culture.
Compared to the sixties, when the wider public first became aware of child abuse (yes, there were stories then of babies with cigarette burns) today's statistics indicate much higher levels. It stands to reason. If policy encourages growth of the group from which abuse and neglect are most likely to hail, then the incidence will increase.
This is a group which doesn't heed laws or "messages". They have already ignored ideas about getting an education, skills, and family planning.
If Sue Bradford's bill is passed it won't personally bother me. I don't demand the right to smack. Non-violence is an ideal many of us do our best to practice.
The tragedy will be that once again Parliament has acted out a charade which allows them to avoid doing something, anything that would take real moral courage; that risks being unpopular with voting blocks like feminists and beneficiaries.
Actions like stopping payments to teenage parents, stopping CYFS from pressuring girls to keep their babies and go on the DPB, encouraging adoptions which have fallen from almost 4,000 in the early seventies to just 300 a year today.
If this bill is really about stopping child abuse, and not about making parents who smack their children criminals, then we should expect a raft of other measures such as those described. Ironically, the major effect of its passage will be to delay real reform while too many New Zealand children continue to live frightened, insecure and disconnected lives.