Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

The Really Big Issue


"It's the most talked about political issue of the year", trilled a breathless TV3 reporter. And it remained in the top three news items for all the rest of the week before last, and could possibly surface again this week. In case you are wondering, it wasn't the news that New Zealand's economic growth rate is slowing, nor that new productivity figures show that ours have slumped to the worst in twenty years, and are only half as good as when Labour came to power in 1999. And the most talked about political issue wasn't the wage gap between us and Australia that just keeps widening, or the figures that show that skills continue to migrate there seeking higher remuneration. Nor was it the fact that several secondary centres seem unable to get competent medical specialists, or, one might add, top cops who could run a slide rule over local police behaviour.

No, the really big issue that had the TV3 reporter so engrossed was the smacking bill. It's the sort of issue lazy people dream of when they don't want to get their heads around things that really matter - those that affect the sort of society we pass to our children. Escapism, political tomfoolery, ignoring the herd of elephants stampeding into our room.... This country seems proud of its capacity to overlook uncomfortable realities. Given that our educational system has given up teaching the sorts of skills that would help people come to grips with the economic challenges of life, I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

So much hot air has been spouted about the smacking bill that no one now knows what Sue Bradford's bill really means. At first it seemed to introduce an absolute ban on even a light smack. The Prime Minister whipped the Labour caucus into line to stop smacking, despite having promised in 2005 that her party would not ban it. But now we are told that Helen Clark's support for the bill was because it dealt with people "who thrash and beat children". Activity of that kind, of course is covered by other legislation. So what, precisely, will change in practice if the Bradford bill passes? Nothing it seems. "A lot of people think it is an anti-smacking bill and that it bans smacking", Bradford belatedly said herself. "But that has not been my intention". Really? So what, precisely, is this "most talked about political issue of the year"? Nothing more, it seems, than some sort of fuzzy, un-enforceable homily to the wider public against domestic violence. Which, of course, isn't tolerated under existing law anyway. So weeks of parliamentary time and money have been spent debating something the meaning of which not even the bill's proponents are clear about. If anyone thinks it will stop the family violence that is part of the culture of the feral underclass that this government's policies keep breeding, forget it. Most of them take no notice of any law that doesn't suit them, and won't even know when Bradford's bill becomes law.

This sort of middle-class legislation is what Americans would call cherry pie and mother love: difficult to oppose. It sounds better than it is in practice. But it serves a most useful purpose for Helen Clark's government right now. The political numbers are so tight in the present parliament that ministers dare not tackle anything meaningful that might ruffle the coalition keeping it in office. The smacking debate is infinitely easier to handle than tackling the welfare scandal that has seen sickness and invalid beneficiaries rise in number as welfare cheats find better remunerated ways of not working. And it means ministers don't need to restrain the rocketing numbers of bureaucrats delivering worsening services, who eat up money that could be returned to taxpayers. And ministers are able to ignore the growing rebellion against NCEA, and don't have to confront the urgent need to foster greater parental responsibility for children. And they can overlook the really tricky issue of turning around the incentives that mostly point Maori in the direction of continuing grievance, rather than settling them, then moving forward.

Lots of countries have had periods when they ate up their seed corn rather than planted for tomorrow. We did it in the 1970s and early 1980s when we thought there were easy solutions to our declining economy that could be fixed by a regulation or three. We have been doing the same again for the better part of a decade now. Just building up problems for tomorrow while we debate the likes of smacking legislation that will improve absolutely nothing.