How did the section 59 repeal question get through the neutrality screening process and into a referendum in its current form? I find it completely mystifying. For those who aren’t aware, here is the question that will be making its way into our mailboxes post-election:
“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offense in New Zealand?”
First, there’s the fact that they were allowed to use a nebulous word like “good”, which essentially means “anything I approve of,” which essentially lets the reader pick their own definition. We might as well remove it from the question and be left with “Should a smack as part of parental correction be a criminal offense in New Zealand?” It’s pretty clear that saying “no” to this leaves us open to sanctioning child abuse so long as it’s in the form of “smacking”.
The essential recurring problem here is that the pro-section 59 lobby have given us no objective legal way of qualifying what “good parental correction” means in relation to smacking and the charge of assault. They insist that it’s a common-sense test, which would be fine if there were evidence of good parents being convicted for, say, losing their temper once or twice. Even the most extreme cases brought up by the lobby have all been dismissed at somewhere along the process- normally after a verbal warning, or after the complainant was revealed to be untrustworthy. That’s hardly the case of good parents being sent to prison that detractors of the law change were worried about, and sounds to me like a case of the new law working both in the sense of protecting the innocent, and in the sense of attempting to prevent and prosecute child abuse.
There’s also a final test: Any definition of acceptable smacking is not satisfactory if it defines an acceptable level of abuse, or allows abusive parents a solid defense against conviction like the old law did. Even if an objective test can be found- like Chester Burrow’s amendment mentioning “transitory and trifling harm”- it still needs to make a clear statement against child abuse, and still needs to allow us to bring people who are clearly being abusive to justice. I think after the robust debate on this issue, it’s unlikely we’ll find any compromise that can pass this final test.