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John MacDonald: The anti-smacking law has failed. But we still need it

Author
John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Tue, 31 Oct 2023, 1:22PM
Photo / Getty | File
Photo / Getty | File

John MacDonald: The anti-smacking law has failed. But we still need it

Author
John MacDonald,
Publish Date
Tue, 31 Oct 2023, 1:22PM

How about this for a statistic to make you proud to be a New Zealander? 

In the past seven years, since Oranga Tamariki was established, 57 kids have died because of abuse or neglect in New Zealand.  

They’re the numbers being reported today as we try to get our heads around the death of another toddler, Ruthless Empire, who died just days before his second birthday from what the police described as “blunt force trauma”. 

Not only that. But none of the people living in the house where he was living bothered taking him to hospital for another 12 hours after he was assaulted. 

So he didn’t have a hope, did he?  

There was one comment that the cop in charge of the investigation said over the weekend that really stuck with me. Detective Inspector Nick Pritchard said the level of violence towards Baby Ru was “difficult to fathom”. 

And when you get a detective talking like that - who will have seen all sorts of things - you just know that this poor little boy really suffered. 

When the anti-smacking law came into effect in May 2007, supporters of it said it would reduce the number of infant deaths in New Zealand. When I say the law “came in”, it was actually an amendment to existing legislation.  

Because, up until that point, the Crimes Act said parents couldn’t be prosecuted for assaulting their kids because there was a legal defence of “reasonable force”. 

So Green Party MP at-the-time, Sue Bradford, championed the amendment which became known then, and is still known now, as the anti-smacking law.  

And you may well remember people who supported it at the time saying that it was going to mean a reduction in the infant death rate.  

Because if parents weren’t allowed to smack their kids, then there was less likelihood of someone really losing the plot and smacking a child to death. That was one of the arguments in favour of it 

And I thought the same too at the time. But kids are still dying. 57 of them in the past seven years. Baby Ru being the latest. 

Which tells me that the anti-smacking law has failed. Yes, there will undoubtedly be less kids getting smacked by their parents than there used to be.  

But is a child being killed every six-and-a-half weeks - because that’s what this stat being reported today averages out at - is that a good reason to say ‘woohoo, that anti-smacking law really worked’. 

Because it hasn’t. And it is shameful that kids are still dying in these numbers here in New Zealand. 

But even though I think the anti-smacking law has failed, I don’t think that’s a reason to get rid of it or amend it back to what it used to be. I think we still need it 

Because why would you change the law and make it ok to beat kids? You just wouldn’t, would you. 

But my thinking is that as long as there is a law to protect kids - even though it’s failing - as it’s there, it is going to make some people think twice about how they discipline their kids. So my view is that it’s failed, but we still need it. 

And then there is Oranga Tamariki. It’s been around for seven years and, in that time, 57 kids have died because of abuse or neglect in New Zealand.  

That’s another fail. How could it be anything else? But it was always going to fail. Because when you’ve got an organisation that gets 70,000 to 80,000 calls every year from people who think a child might be in danger, of course there are going to be failures. 

I’m not saying it’s good enough. But, sadly, it is inevitable. And kids like Baby Ru are the ones who suffer the consequences. 

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