Putting the referendum in context
Posted on 13:15, June 21st, 2009 by Anita
Firstly, a couple of facts:
Secondly, in case any of you are interested in a much more wordy context I have attached, below the fold, a slightly updated piece I wrote for a different purpose earlier this year. It was written to follow on from a summary of the international context, if anyone’s really keen I can post that too :)
The bill, put forward by the Green Party’s Sue Bradford, was the culmination of decades of effort by campaigners for children’s rights (Wood, Hassall, & Ludbrook, 2008). New Zealand inherited the rules permitting “reasonable chastisement” from Britain, giving it separate statutory force in New Zealand in 1893. In 1961 the new Crimes Act placed this permission in section 59. The call for repeal in New Zealand, like that in other countries, grew out of campaigns against corporal punishment started in the early 1960s. By 1979 Jane and James Ritchie were calling for the repeal at a conference held for the International Year of the Child (Ritchie & Ritchie, 1979). Advocates spent the following decade campaigning for the end of corporal punishment in educational and government institutions: schools were banned from using corporal punishment in 1990 and Social Welfare foster homes in 1991.
The 1990s saw major government campaigns against child abuse, and the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1993. Despite the ratification of the convention and comment by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1997 the government did not move toward the repeal of section 59, although government campaigns discouraging physical discipline commenced in 1998.
Throughout this period courts were re-interpreting section 59 in cases involving parental discipline and generally narrowing the scope of permissible physical discipline. In 1997, for example, a Family Court ruling reduced the ability to use cultural considerations to justify physical discipline (Somerville, 1998; Goldsmith, 2003, p. 290). Increased media focus on the child abuse occurring within some New Zealand families increased public awareness of the issue and the need for societal change. Researchers also addressed the impacts of the section on physical discipline (e.g. Dobbs & Duncan, 2004).
After the turn of the century significant establishment voices started to back the call for repeal: the Commissioner for Children and a number of major NGOs including Barnados, Plunket and Unicef. Politicians from a number of parties placed private members’ bills on the issue in the ballot and Cabinet asked officials to investigate the repeal of the section on a number of occasions.
So when Bradford’s bill was drawn from the ballot much of the research and government groundwork had been done. Politicians, public servants and advocates understood the issue, and there was a general will to move the issue forward. The broader political environment, however, was not so straightforward.
The initial debate on the Bill was set within a finely balanced political context. 2005 was an election year, and the National Party had a real chance of winning against the incumbent Labour-led coalition. National’s increase in support paralleled, and was linked to, increased support for socially conservative churches. The evangelical churches, just like their Australian and US cousins, had recently started deliberately engaging in secular politics (Lineham, Havoc, & Barbosa, 2007), and their ability to mobilise conservative voting and fund-raising blocs was very attractive to traditional conservative political parties. The leader of National was discretely building links with the evangelical churches using a “values” discourse borrowed from Australian and United States conservative political campaigns. In July he spoke to the Greenlane Christian Centre congregation without journalists present; as well as promising increased funding for “schools that teach the values of their community”, he also pledged National’s opposition to the “anti-smacking” bill (Hager, 2006, p. 254).
Formed in 1981 the Greenlane Christian Centre is one of the new breed of evangelical churches identified in a report on the state of New Zealand churches by Challenge Weekly (McNeil, 2006). Like many of its kind it has a congregation in the thousands and facilities, such as a cafe and a childcare centre, designed to build an inner city evangelical community. Many of these new churches took on active political roles; Greenlane Christian Centre, for example is linked to The Maxim Institute, a right-wing think tank, and campaigned against the Civil Unions Bill (Ngatoko, 2004).
Evangelical churches in New Zealand have a long history of involvement in moral based political campaigns, from the Prohibition and Sabbatarianism to campaigns to eliminate poverty and racism. The more recent rise of evangelical and pentecostal churches as a socially conservative political force in New Zealand echoes the pattern overseas although the mobilisation against abortion has been largely driven by Catholic groups rather than evangelicals. While historically politically weaker than the evangelical churches in the United States many of the New Zealand churches, like their Australian counterparts (Maddox, 2005), have become more involved in secular politics despite our traditional separation of church and state. The issues in New Zealand which have recently mobilised evangelical churches have been reactions against progressive legislation, such as Civil Unions and Prostitution Law Reform (Lineham, 2006, p. 9), although there were earlier limited campaigns against the teaching of evolution (Numbers & Stenhouse, 2000) and some evangelical involvement in the anti-abortion movement.
The repeal of section 59 provided a rallying point for conservative Christian groups in New Zealand as the bill was easily framed as an attack on family. Christian groups had not had great success at entering the political debate in the previous decade, despite several attempts at the creation of Christian political parties (Miller, 2005), and many saw this as a political opportunity. Combined with an electorate moving toward right-wing parties, models of values based campaigns in Australia and the United States, an attack on families provided a platform for the development of the Christian right as a political power in New Zealand.
The Christian perspective on the repeal of section 59 was not, however, uniformly that of the socially conservative evangelical churches. For many years the more mainstream churches had seen the repeal as an important part of their social justice claims (Wood et al., 2008, pp. 94-95). Despite this history the churches were less willing than their evangelical colleagues to get involved in the political debate that surrounded the repeal. This reluctance was seated within a context of uncertainty about how the churches should involve themselves in state politics to further social justice agendas (Roberts, 2005; Dancer, 2006; Dancer, 2008). It was also a reflection of the effectiveness of the framing of the repeal as an attack on families — many within the churches felt conflicted about the perceived intrusion of the state into family life.
This conflict is represented in the split within United Future, the most Christian based party to win seats in the 2002 and 2005 elections. Peter Dunne, a Catholic, voted for the repeal; his colleague Gordon Copeland, also a Catholic, voted against the repeal. In the end this tension was too great and Copeland left United Future, eventually founding the Kiwi Party, whose most well-known policy is opposition to the repeal.
So it was in this context of a left-wing socially progressive coalition which was losing popular support opposed by right-wing political forces and an energised conservative Christian political force that the repeal was debated.
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