Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Smacking referenda

In the wake of John Key effectively rejecting in advance the results of the forthcoming referendum on smacking, I’ve been inundated with emails from folk calling for NZ to embrace the concept of “binding referenda.”  The latest such missive

If politicians are going to take referenda seriously . . . they should also be considering the right of citizens to have their will enforced, and make all referendums binding. If they are not binding they are not worth the paper they are written on.

I have a couple of problems with hanging my hat on that idea.

The first objection goes to motive. The enthusiasm for binding referenda is rooted in the feeling that politicians don’t listen to us – which is true.  But since I don’t see any sign of politicians presently taking binding referenda seriously, not at least as long as the two-party capture of the body politic remains in place, I’d suggest that persuading them that they should take the idea seriously becomes about as difficult as persuading turkeys to vote for Christmas – and if you have that sort of persuasive power then you’d hardly need binding referenda to make your voice heard.

The second objection is more substantive. It’s that binding referenda do not represent an increase in freedom. Not at all.

In fact, the idea behind binding referenda is that the will of the majority should always be enforced; that unlimited majority rule is always right.  Nothing could be more dangerous, or more destructive of real freedom. It’s not just that the majority is not always right, but that unlimited majority rule puts in danger every “minority” who disagrees – and the smallest “minority” is the individual. As the ghost of Socrates might tell you, in any battle between an individual and the community under such a system, it’s the individual’s life that is forfeit.

And as the people of Iran might presently tell you, even if the majority did vote for Ahmadinejad, that doesn’t make it right. As  Walter Williams reminds us, "Democracy and majority rule [can] give an aura of legitimacy to acts that would otherwise be deemed tyranny." Principled government is not built on majority rule, but on individual rights.  Hanging your hat on the verisimilitude of a vote is not the way to bring freedom to Iran, or to anywhere (are you listening President Obama?).  Hanging your hat on a system of constitutionally protected individual rights would be.

That said, I’ll still be voting in the forthcoming referendum on smacking.  And I’ll be voting “no.” Even if the politicians refuse to listen to the result, which by their hysterical reactions over the wording of the referendum we can pretty easily predict, the overwhelming message is going to be hard to ignore.

And parents deserve to have their children back from the clutches of those so abjectly ignorant as to be unable to distinguish between smacking and beating, between assault and reasonable parental force

You might object, as John Key does, that “To date I have not seen any evidence that it is not working” – that there have been no court cases indicating the law isn’t working, no good parents being criminalised, no police resources wasted on fruitless inquiries, no children snatched from their parents’ hands by uncaring state monitors.

But that completely misses the point, doesn’t it.  The anti-smacking law hasn’t stopped parents beating and killing their children, has it, even though Sue Bradford insisted it would. And as MacDoctor says however, hanging this particular hat on some very short-term outcomes rather misses the more important point.

    The problem is, as I have blogged before, that the effects of the repeal of section 59 are actually being felt in family dynamics, not in law enforcement. There is considerable fear, uncertainty and doubt about the new law and what is really acceptable. Listening to someone like Bradford, one would assume that a smack on the bottom is the equivalent of true child abuse , on the scale of Nia Glassie. The net result of this uncertainty is a reduction in the use of smacking – a result that the advocates of the repeal applaud. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of this is that some parents will lack the skill-set to use some other form of discipline, resulting in the use of no discipline at all.
Thus the true consequences of the repeal of section 59 will not be seen in 2 years, but in 15 years time when undisciplined children become undisciplined youth. But you can already see some of the consequences already. Noticed an increase in very unruly children recently? It is very noticeable in my consulting rooms. There have always been inquisitive kids and some downright hyperactive ones, but there is now an obvious flurry of toddlers who wander round the consulting room utterly unsupervised, barring an occasional protest from the parent. My observation is purely anecdotal, of course, but I am willing to bet that doctors reading this blog know what I am talking about. I am also willing to bet that other readers have noticed an increase in badly behaved children in public places.
Let me be clear. I do not think that smacking is a particularly effective form of discipline. I do not subscribe to the idea that “spare the rod and spoil the child” means “beating your kids is your duty as a parent” (the rod in that passage is a rod of authority, not a weapon). But I think other forms of (non-violent) discipline require considerably more skill as a parent than smacking. It seems to me that a more measured way of reducing smacking in our society is to assist parents by improving their skills in other disciplinary forms, rather than removing the only form of discipline to which they have access.

I agree completely with that. How' ‘bout you?


  1. Peter, this post appeared after I left my last comment on 'Election Disappointment' where I said this:

    ".. which is why I shall be supporting the move behind the referendum on the anti-smacking Act.

    NOT because I'm in favour of referenda per se, but because I support parental rights and oppose that Act. This is my chance to *show* my opposition in that those bastards in Parliament show every sign of not overturning that statism of their own volition.

    I see it as a vote for freedom; therefore I support it and the individuals who've done the work to orchestrate it, (even though I'm sure I'd disagree with other viewpoints they hold)."

  2. Sus is right. The detail doesn't matter. This is an opportunity to send a message to do gooding charlatans like Sue Bradford and all the damn rest.

    "Get to hell out of our lives".

  3. Sus: I know, I saw your comment, and wished I'd said it all so economically. :-)

  4. I like to demonstrate the difference between beating & the disciplinary smacking of kids to supporters of Sue Bradford's legislation to test if they understand the difference. Bradford's supporters see no difference in those 2 and unless it can be demonstrated to them physically, they wouldn't understand the difference.

  5. Sue Bradford is aiming to change the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act.
    I have a post on that here

  6. It is worth highlighting the point made by Stephen Franks concerning the Anti-Smacking Bill:

    Sean Plunket... was badgering a spokesman for the referendum question, demanding to know the name of one person criminalised for smacking. The poor guy did not say what he should have - that everyone is criminalised for smacking.

    Thats the way criminal law works in rule of law countries. It applies to everyone equally.

    He goes on to point out how bad the law is from a legal perspective.


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