A constant refrain of critics of Sue Bradford's anti-smacking bill is that passing it into law would be an affront to democracy. The Government, they say, is thumbing its nose at the people by pressing ahead with the bill in the face of opinion polls showing opposition to the proposed legislation at about 70 to 80 per cent. How can this be government of the people by the people for the people?
We, the people, exercise ultimate political authority, through the ballot box. Politicians who swim with public opinion obviously improve their chances of being elected or re-elected to Parliament. That does not mean that they are necessarily supporting the best policies. Nowhere is it written in stone that the view of the majority is always right.
Legislation should be based on the best advice available to a government. Normally, that comes from those who are intimately involved in, or have done extensive work on, the subject of the bill. Experience gives every parent something to say on this bill, but not many of those opposed to it could claim particular expertise in the field. Nor could the celebrities wheeled out last week by the bill's supporters.
Politicians with an eye on their electoral prospects will naturally pay attention to the public's view. But there is justification for giving it relatively little weight if the experts agree about a piece of legislation, as they do on this bill. Its removal of the parental defence of "reasonable force" to the crime of assault has the virtually unanimous support of agencies that advise on childcare and parenting. Those organisations' reliance on public goodwill may have led them to adopt a low profile as debate on the legislation has intensified, but there has been nothing to suggest they have withdrawn their support. This newspaper has expressed reservations about the bill. Select committee amendments have fatally compromised any prospect of a clear and descriptive law for parents, and it creates a legal minefield. Overall, it is probably no better and no worse than the current legislation. Yet it could send a message to parents who do not understand the meaning of reasonable force and, as such, could be a catalyst for a change in attitude.
The need for an improved mindset has long been acknowledged as the key to remedying New Zealand's appalling incidence of child abuse. Most people appear unconvinced that the anti-smacking bill has much to do with achieving this, but a majority of MPs seem willing to heed expert advice to the contrary. They are not ignoring opinion polls; they know very well they could pay for their decision at the next election. Their critics, rather than talking of a besmirched democracy, might ponder the nature of government we would get if parliamentarians always bowed to public opinion. Aside from the risk of poorly considered law, those politicians would effectively render themselves redundant. Government by opinion poll would require only a bureaucracy to enact the popular view.
To a degree, politics has already moved some distance along that path. It is common for policies to be dropped not because they are necessarily wrong but because they have aroused public ire. Politicians who do this may enhance their electoral survival but they eschew a leadership role.
At the next election, those who support Sue Bradford's bill will be judged on that and their other activities during this term of Parliament. Time may mellow or intensify public antipathy towards the legislation. Either way, those MPs can hardly be accused of undermining democracy.
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