Thursday, 3 May 2007

3 May 2007 - The Dominion Post - Smacking bill sorted in time for Budget to shine

Smacking bill sorted in time for Budget to shine
The Dominion Post | Thursday, 3 May 2007

Of course by definition – again her own – the prime minister cannot "leak" since as the Government's spokesperson what she says is automatically mandated.

When it comes to the Budget, Miss Clark and Finance Minister Michael Cullen have taken that to a new level.

So when ministers decide to say something, be it more money for tertiary institutions or a dollop of new health spending, then that is a pre- budget announcement.

However, should any reporter ask a straight – or even tangential – question about the Budget they are met with much eye-rolling and "you should know better than to even ask" looks. Certainly Miss Clark's deal- making over an amendment to Green MP Sue Bradford's child discipline bill was kept firmly under wraps till the ink was dry, and the way cleared for yesterday's exceptional joint press conference with National leader John Key.

Once it saw the light of day it prompted a predictable scramble between the two big parties, with both declaring relative victories.

Labour can claim it showed a leader in Miss Clark who could broker the deals and herd the cats in an MMP world.

At the same time it has helped remove the erroneous perception that responsible and mild parents would be hauled into court, without compromising on Miss Bradford's bottom line that a level of acceptable hitting must never be defined.

National can claim it helped achieve a compromise that Miss Bradford had previously resisted, ensuring parents would not be criminalised for delivering a light smack.

(It has also removed the embarrassing prospect for National, in government, of drafting a bill that would provide a state mandate for violence against children, however minor.)

What remains unclear is whether National will suffer a backlash from those who think – rightly – that the amendment changes little beyond providing a level of "comfort" for concerned parents. Police discretion is now enshrined in the Bill, but let's not forget that smacking for correction is still illegal.

The real winners, though, are the police.

As Parliament implicitly, or overtly, ruled out smacking that caused trifling or transitory harm (under the Chester Borrows amendment) or minor and inconsequential (under the proposed John Key wording) their job was made more difficult.

By a law of unintended consequences, there was a risk that every time MPs tried to define acceptable levels of smacking – and were defeated – the police's ability to use their discretion diminished and the risk they would have to move against even light smacking increased.

That does raise the question of whether the clauses in the bill which define where force for non-corrective purposes is allowed are now necessary – but it is unlikely a tired Parliament will want to open that debate again.

The twin pillars of secrecy surrounding the Bradford bill and the Budget were, in fact, tightly intertwined.

A deal over the Bradford bill, which will now get Parliament's overwhelming endorsement on May 16, clears the decks for the Budget the following day.

It may remain controversial for some time, as the police response to the new law is tested and examined, but with National on board it will lack a high profile political champion.

And make no mistake, this is a Budget the Government does not want overshadowed.

It comes as National consolidates a big poll lead and Labour fights to regain the initiative – and turn back any perception it is tired as its third term rolls on.

For the first time in many years Dr Cullen is not banging on about his Budget being boring, beige and predictable.......

........Then, the heat around the Bradford bill may fade more quickly from the voters' hearts and minds.

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