Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Smacking “debate” shows up lack of organic leadership of the working class

Socialist Worker, Whangarei

Sue Bradford’s Crimes Amendment (Substituted Section 59) Bill will give children the same protection against violence that the law already gives to adults and animals. It removes the defence of “reasonable force” for anyone brought before the courts for inflicting violence against a child.

Why then is there overwhelming opposition to what’s become known as the “anti-smacking bill”? In some polls it’s been over 70%.

Certainly a culture of smacking has been passed down from generation to generation in this country. So while smacking is less widespread than it was ten or twenty years ago, many parents still use smacking to discipline their children (though there will be a big range in the level of frequency and intensity). Many people figure it’s OK to do so and resent the implication that what they’re doing is child abuse. That’s one reason for opposition to Bradford’s bill.

Significant also is that the “revolt” against the “anti-smacking bill” has got a lot of its impetus from the middle classes in the media. These people are “up in arms” because they feel they’re “targeted” by the legislation as well – laws that affect the working class poor don’t matter so much. This has allowed space for right wing groups, including the religious right, to voice their opposition to the bill.

And despite being Sue Bradford’s bill, Labour’s support for it has given the right the opportunity to attack the government’s perceived political correctness – it’s another example of Helen Clark and her parliamentary colleagues “interfering in people’s lives”. Working class people alienated from the political process can be receptive to such arguments. They’re just so sick of superior sounding politicians.

The bill needs to be defended from attacks by the right and any progressive politics has to be in favour of protecting children from violence, but we can’t ignore the opposition to this bill amongst the working class. One of the things this “opposition” shows is that working class identification with the Labour government is fast eroding. Clark and the rest of them don’t have enough respect amongst the working class to lead on issues like this.

The Green Party fares little better. Like Labour, their focus on electoral politics means they too don’t have an organic connection with ordinary grassroots people. Their ability to lead and educate the working class is therefore marginal. They don’t have the kind of respect and authority that can only come from years of connection between a party and the masses.

Sue Bradford has been courageous in proposing the bill and for facing up to all the attacks in the media – and the debate surrounding the bill will probably result in some parents thinking about other ways to discipline their children – but the Green Party’s distance from the working class remains.

The other reality is that changing the law won’t stop violence against children, particularly in the extreme form that horrifies people. Violence against children is a symptom of powerless and alienation, of people living in extreme poverty and under incredible stress. It’s a problem of society that’s been created by two decades of neo-liberal policies.

A recent government report titled Wealth Disparities in New Zealand based on Statistics NZ figures shows that 95% of New Zealand’s net wealth is owned by half the population. The other half is left with the crumbs – a mere 5% of the country’s wealth. Many of the “wealth deprived” will be on benefits, just battling to stay afloat on unliveable incomes. Bringing up children in that situation is difficult in the extreme. A good proportion will be working parents, doing long hours for crap pay in factories, fastfood, retail or elderly care. The problem here is simply time.

Bringing up children takes huge amounts of time and energy, plus a “clear head”. Disciplining children effectively can’t be done without a lot of focused attention on the child. If anything good can be said of reality TV, then I’d have to single out Supernanny. As a parent of small children, I’ve learnt a few tricks about how to discipline a child successfully. And from my own experience, I’m constantly amazed at how you can reason with children from a very young age, they can be taught the difference between right and wrong. But it takes time, time that many working class parents simply don’t have. Smacking becomes an easier option, to the detriment of both child and parent.

Chronic low wages is creating extreme stress for families, its forcing ordinary people into a situations where they can’t be the parent or caregiver they’d like to be. The government’s much hyped Working For Families package has put some extra money in the hands of working class parents, but it’s being eaten up by rising costs, particularly for housing.

Recent modest increases in the minimum wage has lifted the bar slightly at the bottom level, but many workers outside unions – which in the private sector is the huge majority – have had their wages stagnate for decades. The relative poverty of these workers has been increasing. It used to be that one income might be enough for a family, that’s no longer possible for the majority of working class people today.

Of course any attempt by workers in unions to lift their wages – like the Progressive supermarket workers last year – is met with fierce resistance by the entire capitalist class. The harsh industrial laws kept in place by Labour places a huge barrier in the way of workers trying to win real gains (like wage increases that do more than keep pace with inflation). Labour, because its main focus is to keep business profits up, is overseeing the conditions in society which give rise to domestic violence, in all its forms.

The National Party is claiming that their extensive private polling is revealing a swing away from Labour – they’re citing the anti-smacking bill as one of the main reasons. Without an alternative, alienated and angry working class people can be manipulated by the forces of the right. That danger remains ever present.

The “smacking debate” once again points to the need for a mass workers’ party with organic and lasting connections to the working class. There’s no overnight solution, just lots of sustained hard work, with many up and downs. Socialist Worker is at the forefront of positive initiatives focused outwards to ordinary people. With RAM, Workers Charter, Solidarity Union and VAST we hope to be laying the foundations for a broad left alternative to the Labour Party to emerge.

One of the things we can fight for is free early childcare for everyone who wants it. Labour’s miserly increase in early childcare funding has made its election promise of 20 free hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds unworkable. They could use some of the $10 billion dollars of budget surplus the government’s got in its coffers, instead most of that is being tagged for tax cuts for companies and the rich. It’s a matter of priorities, and the working class know where Labour’s lie. If the Green Party continues with its strategic alliance with Labour then they’ll be increasingly tarred with the same brush.

Not hitting your children is “good sense”, and the working class has plenty of “good sense” if given leadership by people they respect and who stand with the working class on all issues.

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