Monday, 30 April 2007

26 April 2007 - By Audrey Young - Labour left between a rock and a hard place

Audrey Young: Labour left between a rock and a hard place
5:00AM Thursday April 26, 2007 By Audrey Young
National leader John Key played pragmatic politics this week and Green MP Sue Bradford played principled politics.

In a sense, both were playing to their parties' strengths.

In a sense, neither can be condemned for that.

It leaves the anti-smacking bill exactly where it was: legislation that will outlaw the use of physical force to teach children a lesson or for "correction", but with two different predictions about how the law will be applied.

Supporters are certain the police will not prosecute parents who smack their children lightly - just as the police don't press assault charges now for such action.

Opponents caution that a new law that specifically bans force to discipline children will invite prosecutions for a light smack.

Key offered a significant compromise this week on his party's previous position on the anti-smacking bill.

He accepted the bill's primary function - to ban the use of force against children for correction on one proviso that it explicitly allow for "minor and inconsequential" smacks in the course of parenting.

What he proposed this week was no more than the assurances given by Prime Minister Helen Clark and Bradford that parents who smack lightly would not be criminalised.

Instead of trusting their predictions of police interpretation, Key wanted the proviso written into the law.

While there is an inherent contradiction in what he offered - banning physical punishment but allowing it a little bit - it is no more of a contradiction than that already existing in Bradford's bill.

Bradford rejected the compromise because it was inconsistent with the principle driving the bill.

She wants to put children on the same footing as adults and to remove the notion that it is excusable to use any form of violence on them - children - other than a few exceptions outlined in the bill such as to save them or others from harm.

To define in law what level of violence was allowed against children would be like trying to define what level of violence was allowed by men against women.

And anyway, Key's compromise is a watered-down version of the amendments proposed by National MP Chester Borrows, which are set to be voted down next Wednesday.

Bradford is a mother of five. She has said from the first reading that it was not her intention to criminalise ordinary parents, that her target was those who hit or beat their children seriously.

The difficulty is that her intentions conflict with the actual bill.

She may not want police to prosecute smackers but the bill leaves it open to just such a response.

It is almost inconceivable Parliament will pass a law that explicitly bans physical punishment and then expects the police to prosecute only extreme cases.

It would have been a lot plainer if Bradford had said something like "this bill outlaws physical discipline against children and, even though I don't want the police to prosecute smackers, they may do so because smacking is violence on a milder scale".

But if she had promoted a hard line, or a bright line in the law, she would have kissed goodbye to Labour's bloc support and relegated it back to a conscience issue, which is probably what it should have been.

Key's failure this week will not alter the likelihood of the bill passing narrowly. It would have given Parliament the satisfaction of having broad-based support for such a contentious law.

Key will try to get as much mileage as he can from here.

He will now approach Labour which will almost certainly dismiss it as a stunt.

Any acceptance by Labour would also prompt Bradford to withdraw the bill (which might provide private relief to Labour if it is haemorrhaging support from women over its decision to back the bill).

Key, whether genuine or not - and Bradford believes he is - has manoeuvred himself into an enviable position on this issue.

If Labour agrees to his amendment, he gets the credit for showing some leadership on the issue. If it tells him to get lost, it rejects what is seen as a sensible way through a difficult issue.

Even if he fails, he wins.

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