Saturday, 22 August 2009

Deafening Echo

Political reverberations: The question now, 87.6 percent of the voting public having said "No", is whether the "anti-anti-smacking" groups behind the referendum will succeed in persuading the Key Government to repeal Sue Bradford's legislation.

YESTERDAY EVENING, the Chief Returning Officer announced the results of the so-called "Anti-Anti-Smacking" Citizens Initiated Referendum. The count showed that nearly nine-tenths of the voting population responded to the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"; by voting "No".

What does that result tell us about those New Zealanders?

Does it tell us that 87.6 percent of us are inveterate child-beaters: cruel and unusual punishers, who see their children as some sort of personal possession; mere extensions of their own, all-too-fragile, egos – rather than as vulnerable little human-beings, with the same right to be protected from common assault as any adult?

Has it, if only for the brief moment it took to draw the heavy curtains of silence and denial more closely together, afforded us a glimpse of the ugly dysfunctionality at the heart of the New Zealand family?

Has it alerted the 11.8 percent of us who voted "Yes" that all around us children are living in a state of deep emotional confusion: never knowing from one moment to the next whether the adults they love and trust most in the world are going to suddenly lash out and whack them?

To hear the defenders of the "Anti-Smacking" legislation tell the story, that’s exactly what the result of the referendum has told us.

Are they right?

The answer, of course, is "No."

The truth of the matter is that most of the young New Zealanders currently raising children long ago stopped using the "smack" as part of "good parental correction". If they hit their kids at all, it’s only in the extenuating circumstances already contained in the current legislation – which basically sanctions the use of parental force to prevent a child from either inflicting or experiencing greater harm.

These parents are part of the great virtuous circle of childrearing which traces its origins back to the dramatic cultural shifts of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. With each passing generation, this circle will widen until, in a relatively short space of historical time, the use of corrective violence will almost entirely disappear from New Zealand society.

Sue Bradford’s "Anti-Smacking" law reinforces this trend – but it did not create it. And, regardless of whether the law survives this referendum result, the trend will continue.

So why have these young New Zealanders (along with their non-smacking parents and grandparents) voted "No." instead of "Yes."

The answer, I believe, is because, intuitively, they perceived the legislation repealing Section 59 of the Crimes Act to be a product of an extreme, left-wing ideology, which locates the source of most of modern capitalist society’s social pathologies in the "bourgeois" nuclear family.

Other examples of social legislation – specifically those implicitly critical of conventional sexuality and the institution of marriage as traditionally defined – were widely perceived as being inspired by the same ideology. But, because they impinged upon the lives of such a small number of their fellow citizens, most "ordinary" New Zealanders were willing to let them pass more-or-less unchallenged.

But, the "Anti-Smacking" legislation was a different kettle-of-fish altogether. It implicitly criticised both the conduct and the ethics of the overwhelming majority’s immediate – and extended – families. The law repealing Section 59 hit people directly where they lived.

And they weren’t having a bar of it.

Certainly, the Christian Right placed itself in the forefront of the backlash against Sue Bradford’s Bill: and that was only to be expected. As the polar opposite of the ideology informing the last Labour-led Government’s social legislation, they were better placed than any other group in society to discern its logical political terminus: a society in which the broader community – rather than the child-citizens’ natural parents – would become the agency primarily responsible for their upbringing.

And you don’t have to be a fundamentalist Christian to recoil in horror from that "Brave New World".

Poor old Labour. Having stripped away all of its traditional economic and political radicalism in the name of the "free market", the only truly revolutionary programme its post-millennial caucus had left was the one that effectively spat upon the values and traditions of 87.6 percent of its core constituency.

The 2009 triumph of the "Noes" is, therefore, no more than the deafening echo of Labour’s 2008 defeat.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 21 August 2009.


Olwyn said...

The bill in question was a Green party Bill, not a Labour one. That said, it did add fuel to the "Nanny state" anti-Labour rhetoric, despite its non-Labour origins.

Russell said...

Chris, this would explain why the labour blog *red alert* is probably the only blog in NZ not to mention the weekend's result - even in passing. They must have had a collective "don't mention the war" type meeting before the weekend.