Saturday, 31 March 2007

31 March 2007 - nzherald - John Armstrong: Clark whip spurs voter backlash

John Armstrong: Clark whip spurs voter backlash

5:00AM Saturday March 31, 2007

As a general rule, prime ministers shouldn't mess with private members' bills. And normally they don't.

Private members' bills which deal with matters of morality are usually big trouble. Prime ministers usually have enough of that heaped on their plates without putting up their hands for more by taking sides on something provoking strong emotions.

To then take the step of wielding prime ministerial authority to direct how MPs should vote on what many people believe should be a conscience issue is to invite a public backlash.

Despite the already overwhelming opposition to the so-called anti-smacking bill initiated by Green MP Sue Bradford, Helen Clark ignored those unwritten rules. Labour is copping the backlash.

National's polling is apparently registering a voter exodus from Labour of astonishing proportions - so astonishing National is querying whether its figures are right.

Labour is confident that once the bill is passed, public fury will subside. The world did not end the day the ban on smoking in bars came into force. Likewise smacking.

But for now things are a mess. National is puzzled why Labour got itself embroiled in something with so little political upside.
It must be presumed Clark ignored the unwritten rules because of her personal conviction that smacking to correct a child's behaviour is wrong and should be outlawed.

It is a principled stance. It would have been more so had she allowed her MPs to exercise their principles through a conscience vote.

But that would likely have condemned Bradford's bill to defeat.

That has been Labour's quandary. Labour may have acted out of principle. It has contrasted Clark's "leadership" on the bill with John Key's "expedience". But saving the bill meant incurring damage. Labour has got caught in a vortex where its attempts to stem the damage have only made things worse for itself.

Leaving the bill to sink or swim on its own would have been the easy option, however.

Given National's lead over Labour in the polls is solidifying and with Key nipping at her heels in the preferred prime minister stakes, Clark must have been tempted to wipe her hands of the measure.

She didn't. In her view, the defence available under section 59 of the Crimes Act for those who beat their children had to be wiped from the statute books. That belief overrode Clark's usual caution and previous intention for Labour to steer clear of legislation which might be mislabelled as "social engineering".

There may also have been an element of defiance; a desire to show that while her minority Government may be constrained, it is not going to be browbeaten into paralysis.

However, Clark also weighed in behind Bradford's bill because the public mistakenly regard it as a Labour bill. Labour was taking all the blame. The Greens were not.

The bill plays beautifully to their constituency. But that has meant the measure never got the intensive political marketing necessary when pushing controversial legislation through Parliament.

A belated selling job has seen Clark and other Labour ministers assuring parents they have nothing to fear from the bill and it is really targeted at altering the behaviour of those who "thrash and beat" their children.

However, as a One News-Colmar Brunton poll vividly illustrated this week, the vast majority of New Zealanders do not believe the bill will help curb child abuse.

What the bill might or might not achieve on that front is anyway irrelevant to them. Their fix on the bill is very clear and very simple. The bill would stop them smacking their children when they are being naughty.

That was the bill's original intent. That was modified by a compromise at the select committee stage. The current wording means a child could not be smacked for the purpose of "correction", but "reasonable force" could be used to protect a child from harm, preventing a child from harming others or engaging in offensive or disruptive behaviour.

As the Prime Minister keeps saying, the bill does not outlaw smacking. But it does mean parents cannot smack their children simply to discipline them when they are being naughty. Smacking can no longer be used as a behaviour-modification tool.

Much of the public opposition to the bill flows from the feeling "Nanny State" is barging through the front door of the family home.

The bill's proponents can argue such a view is misguided. They can argue the state crept in under the floorboards long ago. They can argue good parents are never going to face prosecution for the occasional mild slap. But it is what people believe that matters in politics, not what politicians think they should believe.

For the great majority, the bill deals with a moral question - whether it is right or wrong to smack a child.

The expectation is that moral issues are conscience issues for Parliament and MPs would have a free vote. But that was dashed by Labour whipping its MPs into line.

Clark insists the Bradford bill falls outside the scope of conscience issues which, to use her description, are confined to legislation dealing with "sex, gambling and booze".

If the bill is about curbing child abuse, it logically follows the Labour caucus should take a collective position on a measure combating a social problem.

But the public does not see it that way. It sees a governing party losing the argument and then whipping its MPs to get the result it wants.

In applying the whip, Labour immediately lost any claim on the moral high ground.

Its subsequent frenzied attempts to get the bill off the political agenda have only compounded public indignation. It flirted with urgency when it had little chance of securing it.

It is now contemplating turning the private member's bill into a Government bill so it can be debated and passed next week.

The procedural sleights of hand are a measure of Labour's desperate desire to rid itself of the measure. But the bill's opponents see them as further examples of a cynical Government manipulating the system.

Even the sweetener offered by the Government - a Ministry of Social Development review of how the new law is working two years after it comes into force - will be treated with suspicion. There is no obligation on the Government to act on the review.

Ostensibly, Labour is waiting for Winston Peters to return from South America so NZ First has some input into discussions on whether the measure should become a Government bill.

Labour's other support partner, United Future, has already expressed strong reservations.

But Labour does not have much choice. The furore over Bradford's bill has already completely overshadowed Labour's highlighting of social measures which come into force on April 1. These include the $10 family tax credit, a boost in the minimum wage and four weeks' annual leave.

Labour cannot afford a repeat episode when Parliament resumes in May following the three-week recess in April. Why? Let's just say two words - the Budget.

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