Political capital and God: the smacking debate ain't over

John Key's rejection of the smacking referendum is yet another political cost being exacted by a law that few understand, and the fundamentalists are using that confusion to their advantage

Do we dare to hope that the smacking debate is fading? I doubt it, but before the week is out I wanted to comment on the vast amount of political capital spent on this curious piece of legislation.

It was a bill launched by the Greens, yet both major parties have put their political necks on the block to back a bill that, while worthy, is really only a very small step on the long road towards making this country a safer place for children.

Helen Clark put aside her conservative instincts, even after the risks she had already taken with prostitution and civil union reform, and again put her party ahead of the public mood. John Key, in a brave act that would suggest the pragmatism to come, did a deal with Clark to grand coalition on the bill. Yes, both had the eye on women and Auckland voters, but it was a heck of a gamble in both instances.

This week the Prime Minister has again taken a firm position on the bill, a position at odds with majority opinion; he now owns this law in a way he never had before. It's an unusual stance for the anti-conviction politician that Key has so far shown himself to be. Like Clark before him, he is spending a significant amount of political capital for little political gain. LBJ pushing the civil rights bill through Congress, this ain't.

While I voted yes in the referendum, my view is that it will take us a decade to really undermine the culture of child violence in this country and this law does little more than draw a line in the sand.

Politically, Key can assume a fair bit of latitude with the Kiwi battlers most likely to be unimpressed with his stance on the referendum. For now. They still like him more than anyone else on the scene. But he can only turn on them so many times. His political capital is finite. (The fact he's also risked his growing Maori support with his stance on the Auckland super city council seats suggests to me that he knows something we don't; that is, the Maori Party are going to get some kind of win over the Foreshore and Seabed legislation. He's got an ace up his sleeve there).

Why is this such a politically costly law? Largely because most New Zealanders still don't understand the act. And that's not an elitist statement intended to diminish the intelligence of most voters. It simply states the fact that it's a horribly misunderstood law.

It begins with is common name, the anti-smacking law. The act does not ban smacking. If your child is about to harm himself or herself, or harm someone else, for example, it's fine to smack. I suspect most New Zealanders are hazy on that at best.

The law could more accurately be called the anti-reasonable force act, because it's that defence in cases of assaults on children that it did away with, not smacking. But the politicians and media have done us a disservice in the way it was framed, and once a perception has been created, it's hard to remove.

Do New Zealand voters understand that no-one has been convicted of smacking their child? And, given the intent and wording of the act, do they understand that such a prosecution is highly unlikely?

No, what most voters understand is that they or someone they know have smacked a child or been smacked at some stage in their lives, and they don't see themselves or those friends as criminals. It's a classic case of 'the other'. I smack, but it's only those other people who are criminals... therefore smacking can't amount to criminal behaviour because I'm not one of 'them'.

The politicians have spent hours and months understanding the law; the public have a knee-jerk reaction to the concept. In the meantime they're talking past each other.

All of which has been fuel to the fire for the religious right in this country. The religious aspect of the campaign hasn't received much attention, but while the mainstream churches either supported the yes vote or stayed neutral, the drive and organisation behind the no vote came from the fundamentalist churches of this country. All because of a proverb about sparing the rod.

Consider the story by Matt Nippert this past Sunday showing that the local arm of Focus on the Family, a major no vote supporter and the employer of referendum initiator Sheryl Savill, receives around $200,000 a year from its American parent organisation.

Focus on the Family began in 1977 in America, founded by James Dobson and is now a $130 million a year conservative evangelical organisation with huge political influence over the Republican party. In the 2008 election they were major supporters of Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin.

Dobson has strong views on smacking. In his controversial book Dare to Discipline, he encouraged parents to use belts and switches on their children. He wrote that smacking should be used sparingly, but added:

"It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely."

The no vote campaign backed away from such advice, but the conservative Christian churches will see this as a successful foray into politics and it will be interesting to see whether that encourages further action.

They can't sustain a parliamentary presence (they've tried and failed), but referendums and the like a perfect ways for them to flex their numerical and financial muscle.

And so at the end of the week we're left with a popular Prime Minister digging in his heels and a conservative religious movement plotting its next move. No, I'm afraid we can't say that this is over.