Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Sound of One Hand Smacking

PJ O'Rourke once demonstrated the difference between the left and right wing. It went something like this: Have you heard the one about Helen Keller and the time she fell down a well? She broke three fingers calling for help. A right winger will say you shouldn't tell jokes like that. The left winger says you can't tell jokes like that. Such is my sentiment towards Sue Bradford's Section 59 Bill.

Greater minds than mine have dissected the hoo-ha into two main arguments. This is no mere flattery. His guest post at PA, featuring his cattle prod argument, nicely sums up Chester Burrows' suggested amendment, albeit using a human tool as opposed to an implement. It's, like, metaphorical. David Haywood splits the Section 59 debate in twain:

Debate 1: Human Rights and Physical Punishment

Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is clearly in the eye of the beholder. What is cruel, inhuman or degrading in Kazakhstan is different to what is cruel, inhuman or degrading in NZ. Yet Sue Bradford clearly supports a zero-tolerance policy to smacking on this basis. What was once a reasonable hurdle of force, is set to become an insurmountable high jump of virtue bestowed magically by the power of legislation.

Nup, not gonna happen. Treaties and Conventions are aspirations, yearnings. Law is different. Law is not a matter of "sending messages." Section 59 is not a Family Court matter, it is a criminal thing. Say a parent or caregiver is found guilty of Bradford's new improved Section 59. Now what? Put the kids in care of CYF, that bastion of parenting? Jail? Jail is a fine example of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Just ask Tim Selwyn. A fine perhaps, or community service? That'll help the kids.

There is little in common with the corporal punishment precedent set in schools. Schools are ultimately servants of the state, unless one goes private. I am old enough to remember getting the cane, shoe, roman sandal, slipper, wooden spoon and strap. I am young enough to remember Errol Brookie at Palmy Boys' High, Master of Monday Morning Calisthenics. Caned for wearing a necklace to school. Heh. Yet I bear no malice to the teachers who used physical punishment.

I cannot say the same for the prefect system at PNBHS. It was my first experience of a fascist regime. I am glad prefects have lost the right to use physical discipline. No more metal rulers and bleeding knuckles. I suppose the current prefects have perfected the art of psychological torment by now.

So, schools is different from families. Families are not servants of the state. Sue Bradford's Bill unreasonably puts the state between the parent/s and child. Which segues nicely to...

Debate 2: Problems with Section 59

Whichever path one may take defending Sue Bradford's Bill, you reach the same ending. The relationship between parent and child is interfered with by the state. As Mr Haywood highlights:
Here is Bradford's proposed amendment:
  1. Every parent of a child... is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances and is for the purpose of:
    1. preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person; or
    2. preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that amounts to a criminal offence; or
    3. preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour; or
    4. performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting.
  2. Nothing in subsection (1) or in any rule of common law justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction.
  3. Subsection (2) prevails over subsection (1).
Somehow, the nature of reasonable force is to be tamed. With words. The new law will permit parents to:

a. take the toy off your child when he tries to hit another child with it
b. remove your teenager's stash from their possession
c. somehow prevent them from calling strangers "cunts"
d. y'know, whatever

This is the great misunderstanding on Sue Bradford's side. When transcribing woolly social policy into law, something is lost in translation. Sentiments only go so far.

According to the J&E report linked above:
"The Department of Child, Youth and Family Services told us that it has various policies for dealing with situations that endanger children. It told us that it would expect the thresholds at which it removes children to remain the same if section 59 were repealed. If section 59 were repealed, Child, Youth and Family told us that it would expect a greater volume of reports, but that the legislative principle that intervention in family life should be the minimum necessary to ensure a child’s or young person’s safety would remain. Child, Youth and Family is concerned with child abuse and neglect but will consider removing children only if they are at serious risk. It told us that if section 59 were repealed it would look at developing operational guidelines in conjunction with all affected agencies, especially the police.

We acknowledge that the police and Child, Youth and Family need to maintain their professional discretion when dealing with complaints regarding physical force used against children. We expect the police and Child, Youth and Family to develop effective operational guidelines and protocols and to maintain a close working relationship."
CYF admit that the amended Section 59 will change nothing, but they are gearing up to modify their operational guidelines to take account of the change. Oh, good.

With Bradford's section 59, what would actually change? Tariana Turia is justified in thinking that the weight of the amendments will fall disproportionately upon brown people, like drug convictions, taser victims and prison statistics already do. In spite of this, Pita Sharples has stated that his party will support the Bill as it stands. It's all about messages.

I agree with David Haywood, in that I have some strong empathy for Bradford's Bill in theory. In practise however, the Bill is an unworkable feel-gooder. One more law to ignore. And there's the tragedy.