The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

All thrashed out - an end to debating s59?

Well, what an interesting day in NZ politics! Idiot/Savant has great coverage of the Parliamentary debate on the committee stage of the Bill repealing s59 of the Crimes Act and thus removing from our statue books an archaic defence for assaulting children.

Cross-party consensus on a highly controversial issue that had mobilised a large amount of public support and opposition. That's a sentence I never thought I would type. NZ First is still to make up their mind*, and Act are still vehemently opposed, but both major parties are on the one side, along with the Greens, Maori Party and United Future.

Of course as a supporter of repeal, I'm pretty stoked right now. I see no problem with the new amendment, I'm happy that a political consensus has been forged that takes the heat out of the issue, and the core of the legal change remains as I had hoped; a clear message has been sent that hitting children is not ok and there will no longer be a defence in law that allows people to get away with beating their kids. Let the social change start now!

The coverage that child abuse has received throughout this process, in particular the slippery slope of physical discipline, has been a Good Thing. Hopefully we've all learnt a lot about other forms of correction, about the rights of children, and about questioning practices that seem to have continued for years for arcane reasons that no longer apply**. I know I've certainly learnt a great deal about the impact physical discipline can have on people, and I know for sure now that it's a path I don't want to go down with my own kids.

So this seems to be an end to the public debate and all that's left is the inevitable scrap over who actually won.

I'll readily admit I was surprised John Key agreed to the new amendment. TV3 News said tonight that Helen Clark initiated the discussions by passing a note to Key in the chamber yesterday afternoon, suggesting talks.*** Clark, Key and Bill English**** then met last night and thrashed the deal out. Today Labour and National came out with an amendment Key said publicly his 48 votes could back. Original sponsor of the bill Sue Bradford is happy - like me, she feels it doesn't really change the legislation. Peter Dunne gets to put the amendment and re-establish his claim to the Mr Commonsense crown. Fun for (almost) all the family!

But why did Key agree? He must have known that this was an issue that could run and run - this s59 kerfuffle looked like it had the legs to create all sorts of havoc in marginal seats and the party vote to the next election and even beyond. Labour recently neutralised the over-spending issue by paying back the money they owed Parliamentary Services, and the cheque was presented two months before the deadline they had set themselves (if still nine months later than National managed to pay their more meagre bill of $10,000). Key must have a lot of confidence that there will be other issues on which National can embarass Labour in the near future, because he's just traded a major one away for a joint media conference with the Prime Minister and some sound-bites.

Or maybe Clark snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on this? Maybe she told Key (and English) last night that Labour would put up this amendment, which is so close to the compromise Key (falsely, imho) said he wanted last week, regardless of whether National came in on it or not. Clark may have sold it to Key by saying that National would look like fools if they persisted in voting against, given that this amendment was what they claimed to desire only a few days ago. And Key bought it.

On the other hand, this could be part of a broader plan by the new-ish National leadership to show that their party can engage in MMP-style politics, in coalition-building. Notably their main coalition possibility, Act, have been left well and truly outside the tent on this one, but perhaps Key will point back to today, on the hustings next year, and say "See, I know how to work together, I can do this whole multi-party jizzle."

Of course he'll need more than one example to have any cred in his claim - I look forward to National agreeing to engage in pragmatic discussions around monetary policy and election funding proposals in the near future. After a few more fancy steps with multiple dance partners Key might be able to put himself up as a credible alternate Prime Minister - a doer of deeds and a maker of deals.

But the flaw in that plan is the stark fact that it was Clark who actually pulled this deal together. Clearly there is political life, and political management, in our Prime Minister yet. After all, you don't stay Labour leader for 14 years without knowing how to neutralise your enemies, and understanding how to win a vote.

It's been a funny strange day, and here's a little funny hah hah to end it.

Previous posts about s59's repeal and the accompanying debate:
- The Appeal of Repeal - 18th March
- A little more on s59's repeal - 19th March
- Supporting repeal - 27th March
- So explain to me again - why is hitting a child ok again? - 29th March
- Debating s59 - striking a blow for positive social change - 2nd April
- Another question on s59 - what is smacking? - 5th April
- Compromised - 29th April

(Pic Via)

* I took the "s" off that word. We all know there is only one mind to be decided in NZ First most of the time.
** If they ever did.
*** I think we can presume the note didn't say "trev sez gerry tol him yous r ok 2 talk l8r wanna get 2gethr?"
**** Telling that English and Key went to that meeting together imho. Is Key not confident enough with the Prime Minister, or with his own caucus, to do this kind of stuff without someone holding his hand?


Deborah said...

There is another wrinkle in this story. Apparently Key and Cullen talked at the Leadership Forum across the Tasman last week, and Key told Cullen that he genuinely wanted to find a way to make this all work. So yes, I agree, Helen Clark has worked very hard to make this all happen, but I think we need to give some credit to Key too.

I am so pleased about today's events.

There are various people who have impressed me mightily through this debate, notably Pita Sharples and the Maori Party, and Katherine Rich. Of all of the people supporting this bill, she is the one who had the most guts in sticking to her principles.

Span said...

That's very interesting Deborah, thanks for contributing it. The cynic in me still wonders what was in it for Key? He can't have been worried that it would be too politically divisive and thus bad for the nation, surely? Did they have focus groups that showed the public softening? Or was there advice that showed it was unlikely people would still care in a year's time?

On the other hand, maybe Key and others in his caucus felt uncomfortable about voting against it, for principled reasons, and wanted a way to support it without losing face. If that's the case then Katherine Rich deserves to take an extra bow as a key figure of influence in the National caucus - you are right, I have been very impressed with her during this whole schmozzle.

So many people have spoken eloquently in public in support of the Bill it's hard to single people out, but I certainly agree those you have named are worthy of credit too, even if everyone is largely focused on Clark and Key right now. And of course Bradford I hope gets recognised as the person who had the vision to put the issue up in the first place - I wonder if she thought when she originally put her bill in the ballot that it would pass?!

Hewligan said...

Well, the cynical view (and I think it was John Campbell who said it) is that by opposing the bill, Key placed himself in line with the values of "mainstream NZ" - who do oppose the bill. By compromising on it, he has, at the same time, distanced himself from the conservative Christian groups who would have turned off those same voters.

Which is probably an overly cynical view, since this does seem to be a compromise that is very much in line with what Key seems to believe. Though, of course, he'd be an idiot if that angle hadn't at least crossed his mind - and he's clearly not an idiot.

Oh well, the important thing is that the bill will pass, and that while the wording may have had to change, it has not altered the substance. I think we should chalk this one up in the win column for passing an important law change, even if the political outcome of it is less clearcut.

I'd still rather have seen an outright repeal of Section 59, but I think at this stage it's pretty clear that was simply not politically possible.

zANavAShi said...

I agree Hewligan. I would rather have seen an outright repeal of Section 59 too and I am hoping that some time in our future some party or politician will come forward to see it struck out completely.

But for now all I have are tears of relief that this will at least pass in some form and it will become a seed for a change in the social norms of New Zealanders towards this archaic and shameful "wooden spoon school of discipline" culture.

Maybe in a few days I will get past my emotional exhaustion over this issue enough to feel happy and be able to analyse the political ramifications of the compromises which were made today.

But for this moment I just need to sit with my tears and the hope that another child might not have to go through the pain of what I had to endure as a small child.

There is an amazing Section 59 post at PA by Anke Richter for those of you are interested and I just posted my reaction to it over at The Watermelon.

Thanks Spannergrrrl, your blogging on this issue has been a source of strength to me these last weeks ((((hugs))))

Leo said...

I actually take the cynical view in this that Clark had to compromise to maintain any good public feeling over this issue. She and Bradford bore the brunt of the public's mood over S59 and it appears to me that outwardly she is looking to appear a competent political figure but inwardly, she was just saving her own ass.

John Key in my view compromised because New Zealand needed the unity on the issue to happen and he saw that. In interviews I've read with him, he is actually a really decent guy with solid values.

Rich said...

I think neither Key or Brash really have their heart in being social conservatives. They know they have to trim in this direction to stand a chance of building a coalition to implement right-wing economic policies, but they don't really buy into the (social) conservative agenda in the way that Howard and Bush do.

The difference between Key and Brash is that Brash was willing to ditch his personal opinions and line up behind the blockhead tendency. Key is rather more thoughtful and was willing to accept adding some legally redundant text to give the appearance of some sort of compromise. Brash would have stuck it out in the hope of winning the child-beater vote (and possibly been sorely disappointed when the issue disappeared without trace).

Span said...

Thanks for your comments - I wrote this post after going to Nicky Hager's talk on The Hollow Men the night before and I suspect my cynicism gland was over-producing ;-) It's certainly interesting to read others' takes here and elsewhere.

Zana - thanks for your kind words, they are much appreciated! I had a little bit of nice feedback off blog too which encouraged me to write more after my first post, so it's nice when these virtuous circles get started :-)

Dave said...

Span, unlike what you said, I'm sure this is NOT going to be the end of public debate on this. In supporting the amendment, I believe Key has done the right thing, but in voting for the bill as well, hes going to get a backlash.

Span said...

Maybe it won't dave, I guess we'll have to wait and see. But the media coverage since the new amendment was proposed has been that most people seem to be positive about it. Certainly Brian Tamaki, who I would have thought represented those towards the more extreme end of opposing any repeal of s59, said on Wednesday that he supported it, and indeed claimed it as a victory for his people.

You might also note there is a question mark in the title of my blog post, btw.

zANavAShi said...

Dave I think - in fact I HOPE - that the debate is far from over.

Now that the hysteria of those who want to retain the right to issue a so-called "loving smack" has been placated for now I hope we can get on to the underlying issue at hand - which is the need to reform the terribly archaic and shameful attitude to physical discipline that we have in this country.

I meant to post this link earlier, but there is a most excellent article over at Public Address by journalist Anke Richter on this ingrained cultural attitude of ours:,