Monday, 2 April 2007

2 April 2007 - The Press - Smacking bill takes a hit

Smacking bill takes a hit

The Press | Monday, 2 April 2007

From feats of foreign policy to hubris at home, such is the lot of a prime minister.

When Helen Clark left for the United States two weeks ago it seemed Sue Bradford's bill removing a legal defence of reasonable force for those charged with assault on a child was set to sail through Parliament.

Now, supporters of the legislation are simply hoping to stagger across the line, battered and bruised by an onslaught of negative public reaction to the so-called anti-smacking bill.

For all the outrage and the lobbying, the thousands of emails and the threatening telephone calls and dark threats against the children of one MP supporting the legislation, the bill is still almost certain to pass.

This is because Labour, the Greens, the Maori Party, New Zealand First MPs Brian Donnelly and Doug Woolerton, and United Future leader Peter Dunne have made up their minds to vote in favour. If anything the level of vitriol over the bill has made them even more resolute.

But calculations are being done across Parliament about the level of political capital the bill's supporters are using up on this one. The Greens will probably escape unscathed since their voters are firm supporters of the bill anyway. But Labour electorate MPs in particular are really being asked to take one for the team.

How has it all gone so bad so fast? How have Labour and the Greens managed to snatch near-defeat from the jaws of a sound majority?

The simple answer is that the bill's promoters and supporters relaxed after the Maori Party pledged to vote for it, securing its majority through Parliament. They took their eye off the ball and allowed opponents to dub it the anti-smacking bill and claim it would criminalise law-abiding parents.

Of course, this won't happen. Police will use their discretion, as they do at present, and prosecute only those who have committed a serious assault on a child.

Smacking is already illegal - there is simply a defence under Section 59 of the Crimes Act if parents are arrested and charged with assault. That almost never happens, except when a parent is brought before the courts for beating their child with a riding crop or a piece of hose pipe.

Presumably, most people would want such parents prosecuted. However, public trust in the police is not high at the moment, and the public probably view assurances that the police would use their intelligence and judgment on any prosecution under the law change with some suspicion.

There is no point in the Government and its support parties blaming the Opposition for whipping up hysteria over the legislation. It has only itself to blame. The bill should never have been sold as anything more than a minor amendment to the Crimes Act - a sensible, international best-practice move to close a loophole that allowed child abusers to escape prosecution.

Instead, the Government has ended up taking on the vast majority of blue-collar New Zealand; Kiwi battlers with large mortgages, two jobs apiece and a couple of irascible brats who occasionally get a clip around the ear, and who do not want the Labour Government in their living rooms.

It seemed to take Labour a while to realise this. The Government has appeared smug in its conviction that most of the opposition to the bill was coming from a small but noisy minority, which according to Michael Cullen is led by Right-wing fundamentalist Christians who want the right to beat and thrash their children.

There may well be such people at the vanguard of the fight against the bill, but lumping the majority of opponents in with religious zealots is not smart politics and will only inflame voters further.

There are signs the Government is starting to panic. It tried to find enough support to push the bill through under urgency but its support parties were not keen. Now it is talking about making the bill a Government motion to enable it to push it to the top of Parliament's order paper and hasten its progress.

Private member's bills are only debated once a fortnight, which, added to the three-week Easter recess, would push the bill's passage into mid-May.

That's Budget time, and the last thing Labour wants is for its legislative showpiece to be overshadowed by wrangling over the Bradford legislation.

There are risks associated with taking over the bill. Labour's support parties will not like it, seeing it as a bid to subvert the normal democratic process. It also removes any ability for the Government to blame the Greens for the legislation at a later date.

Labour is so closely associated with this bill that making it a Government motion is unlikely to inflict any more damage on it.

The Government appears to have two choices now - persuade Bradford that the political climate has got too hot for this legislation or shove it through quickly. The loss of face associated with a backdown is likely to be too great for Labour, however, and it has probably come too far to turn around now.

Instead, it is pinning its hopes on the public's usually short memory when it comes to unpopular legislation, citing examples such as the anti-smoking legislation, prostitution law reform, and civil unions - all of which were unpopular at the time but now largely accepted.

This might work, but it might not. The difference with these other laws is that the Government was able to specify a group of people who would benefit manifestly from the law change - same-sex couples, prostitutes, non-smokers who wanted to drink in bars. It could also argue that it made no difference to most people.

On the Bradford bill, proponents seem torn between arguing that it will provide shelter for children from abuse and claiming that it will have little impact at all. It is also a topic perfect for political exploitation by National at the next election campaign. It fits neatly into the nanny state folder and plays to the public view that Labour has a social-engineering agenda.

Some senior Labour MPs are privately angry that the party has been forced to take such a hammering over a bill not even in its name at a time when it can ill-afford such hits. They had wanted some clear air to let the dust settle after last year's furore over the pledge card expenditure and the embarrassment over MP Taito Phillip Field.

This week does not look any better for the Government. The long-running commission of inquiry into police conduct is due tomorrow and is expected to be severely critical of police culture. Labour will be worried that it could get caught up in the wider public backwash from such bad news.

Police are also likely to release their decision on whether to lay charges against Field this week. If the MP is charged that will reflect badly on Labour, despite the fact that he is now an independent MP.

For the Government, the Easter recess cannot come fast enough.

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