On Friday Madeleine and I attended the Forum on the Family and the following is our long awaited (and long) review of it.
The Forum kicked off with an impassioned talk from Bev Adair. Bev gave a harrowing account of her own story of childhood physical and sexual abuse and subsequent encounter with God that transformed her life and character and enabled her to break the cycle in her own life, heal and bring her own experience into her work with the Family and Child Trust. She stressed that the solution to child abuse was that people stopped blaming others or their social context for what happens to them; that they must cease demanding solutions from the state and being reliant on welfare; she called for individuals and communities to take responsibility for their own actions and for an end to the silence; abuse is not invisible, people who see it must act. Bev stated that voluntary organisations that were not funded by the state were doing some of the most effective work in the community and the consensus from them was that poverty does not make people hurt their children, she pointed out that countries with real poverty don’t brutalise their children or have stats like New Zealand’s.
What was interesting was that later in the program the children’s commissioner, Dr John Angus, gave a much drier facts and figures type talk that reinforced what Bev stated. Relying on data compiled by CYFS, Angus noted that abuse tended to be more correlated to drug and alcohol abuse than poverty and that while reports of child abuse are on the increase, the actual cases are not. Like Bev he also suggested that the solutions were at the family, individual and community levels as opposed to government. Angus noted that one of the biggest problems was that when people were worried about a friend or family member’s conduct they rang CYFS rather than actually confronting or addressing it at a family level. Angus argued that real progress is made when families and communities own the problem and openly confront the issues family members face and offer constructive help instead of just looking to the state. It was at this family/community level, that real change can be made.
In contrast to this, Labour Leader Phil Goff gave a speech about how poverty and economic hardship were the key issues in child abuse. Goff spoke of the need for a society where no children missed out on health care, education or basic necessities due to economic deprivation. He noted the historic Christian motivation behind the original welfare policies of Labour and suggested a need for all parties to work towards helping families in need. While I am not generally a fan of Labour, it is hard to dispute Goff’s claim that we should work towards having a society where no child misses out on basic necessities due to poverty and God clearly would want Christians should to be committed to achieving such a society, that said, none of this speaks to the question as to how this should be done and what the just and appropriate means of bringing it about are (I have discussed the issue of sustenance rights in a previous post). In the Q&A when I questioned Goff further on this he made it clear that he specifically saw this support as primarily coming from the state and not from the voluntary sector on the grounds that “the state has the money.” (Ironically Goff also justified high taxes on the grounds that it was needed for the state to play this role making his position somewhat circular.) These criticisms aside, Goff is to be commended for being the first Labour leader to front up and address the Forum on the Family and for attempting to build bridges with conservative Christians instead of trying to “marginalise them out of existence.”
One unfortunate feature of Goff’s talk was the focus in the Q&A on the smacking issue. Goff suggested this was a side issue, not as important as child abuse and that people should focus their energy and passions on more important issues. That is, of course, correct and the fixation by members of the audience on this issue did seem disproportionate. However, at the same time, as members of the audience noted, a large number of the audience were from voluntary organisations that were dealing with domestic violence and child abuse at the coal face; hence, the suggestion they were not addressing this or were not as committed to these issues is inaccurate. Moreover, opponents of the current s59 of the Crimes Act had repeatedly told Labour that laws about smacking had nothing to do with child abuse in the past. Proponents had justified the decriminalisation of reasonable force for the purposes of parental correction on the grounds that it would help to stop child abuse and some had, in fact, equated smacking with child abuse. The previous Labour government’s support of this line of argument was the reason that there was now a Bill before the house, John Boscawen’s Crimes (Reasonable Parental Control and Correction) Amendment Private Member’s Bill. So for Phil Goff to now claim now that concern around s59 was a side issue and the question of child abuse was a different, more important issue that Labour was deeply committed to was more than a tad disingenuous, which is what evoked the scathing (and justified) attack from Christine Rankin that David Farrar referred to on his Facebook page.
Moreover, with a Bill before the house, Labour really do need to take a stance; it is fine to say s59 is not their main focus but when the bill is actually put before them they will need a position. Their opinion on the now, apparently separate and unrelated to light smacking, issue of child abuse, while commendable, is not what they will be asked to vote on. When Madeleine pressed Goff on this he stated that Labour will be voting against Boscawen’s Bill.
Not all the speakers spoke on child abuse and s59, Greg Fleming, CEO of the Maxim Institute, gave a good talk entitled “Right Wing, Left Wing. What Does it Mean? Does it Matter?” Fleming made essentially three points; first, he noted that the terms ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’ often function as labels that are used to pigeon hole or brand a person so as to summarily dismiss their position without actually addressing it or considering its merits. Fleming’s contention that such dismissals often reflect a kind of unjustifiable intellectual laziness is undoubtedly correct and occurs far too often.
Fleming’s second point was to suggest that the labels ‘left’ and ‘right,’ when understood correctly, do have a useful descriptive function in highlighting where a person sits on a particular spectrum. For Fleming, this spectrum constituted a horizontal axis whereby equality was at one end, the left and inequality at the other, the right. In addition to the horizontal left-right spectrum is a vertical spectrum with freedom at the top and authority on the bottom. These axes lead to communism being on the bottom left, totalitarian authority to maximise equality; fascism on the bottom right, totalitarian authority to maintain inequality; social democracy on the top left, limited government focused on achieving equality; finally, classical liberalism on the right, limited government for the sake of maximising individual freedom.
One criticism I have of this is that the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ are vague and ambiguous; it is not that there is some agreed upon concept of equality or freedom that different groups support, oppose or emphasise to different degrees. It is rather that various groups disagree over the very nature of freedom and equality. Consider, for example, Fleming’s contrast with classical liberals and social democracy. Fleming suggested social democrats emphasise equality over freedom while classical liberals emphasise freedom over equality. In reality both emphasis freedom and equality but understand them in different ways. Classical liberals insist that all people are equal but by this, they mean that all individuals have equal rights to freedom – freedom being defined in terms of freedom from coercion. Similarly, social democrats support individuals having freedom but they typically define freedom in terms of freedom from want; their emphasis on equality is an emphasis on economic equality – people having more equal incomes.
Fleming’s last point was an epistemological one; Fleming noted that disputes over public policy often reflect much deeper disagreements about the nature of the state and “what it means to be human.” He went on to emphasise that, in reality, one approaches such discussions from a neutral perspective, uncommitted to any assumptions about the nature of humanity, the state and so on giving a few simple summaries of basic philosophical points interspersed with DVD clips from popular culture (in this case the West Wing and Campbell Live).
Here I would only make a minor criticism; Fleming talked of the myth of objectivity and then immediately qualified his statements to circumvent being committed to stating that truth was relative. By using the term ‘objective’ Fleming courted this confusion. The claim that objectivity is a myth can be construed to mean there is no objective truth, that truth is somehow constructed in different ways by the perspectives of different communities. This social constructionist position, which is false, should be anathema to Conservatives (which Fleming realised). Fleming should have talked about the myth of neutrality, a much simpler way of avoiding the pitfalls. That said, Fleming did do a reasonable job of explaining these distinctions to the audience but ran out of time to work through unpacking the very interesting list of common slogans he had prepared with the audience. He concluded with the cogent point that identifying the differing underlying presuppositions in a dispute enables one to better understand and contribute more effectively to the dialogue, a skill that is vitally needed in contemporary Christian circles and in greater society. The problem is that few people in New Zealand are capable of teaching these skills and of those that are, even less are being utilised as broadly as they could be.
This lack of a clear understanding and vision of the appropriate function and role of the state was evident from the nevertheless enthusiastic speech by Families Commissioner, Bruce Pilbrow. In his speech Pilbrow endorsed various statist polices such as 12 month paid parental leave because it helps families. He advocated state sponsored advertisements stigmatising child abuse because such activities should be stigmatised. He concluded with his hope that if future governments sought the disbandment of the Families Commission that it would be doing such a good job that families would fight for its retention. These positions appear to presuppose a principle that the state should perform any action which is good or helpful.
This was not limited to Pilbrow. Throughout the many presentations no one questioned whether, in fact, it should be the role or function of the state to fix social problems. God has given the state a legitimate judicial function in prosecuting and punishing people who engage in seriously immoral and harmful actions such as child abuse and has given the state a legitimate function to defend the rights of citizens (Wolterstorff has argued that these rights probably include sustenance rights). However, this is quite different from the picture of the state as a kind of saviour that should be at work trying to solve all social problems, promote family cohesiveness, marriage and so on. It also differs from the claim that the state has a duty to educate people as to how to be a parent or a husband or a healthy person, etc.
Yet, a causal observation of religious conservatives in general seems to suggest that other than a commitment to a collection of issues related to religion, abortion and various moral issues, they don’t generally have a consistent, thought out philosophy of government; granted these issues are important and Christians should be concerned with them but at what point do they cross from the realm of personal responsibility to that of the role of the state?
I hope I am not coming across as being too negative about Bruce Pilbrow, my former Bible College neighbour whom I have a great deal of respect for. Much of what he said was excellent, his record at Parents Inc is exemplary and like he said, if we are stuck with the Families Commission then I am very happy to see the likes of him working within it.
Another interesting feature of the forum was a political panel where two current and two ex Members of Parliament spoke of their roles and shared insights into life inside parliament. Two things of note came up in this discussion. The first was the fact that politics involves choosing the better of two options as opposed to the best or ideal option. In many situations one has to support a flawed policy because the alternative option on offer is worse. These realities of the political situation are at times lost on New Zealand Christians who have at times cut off their nose’s to spite their faces, formed splinter parties and run campaigns doomed to failure leaving the secular liberals to dominate in the areas where gains could have actually been made.
Equally interesting here the discussion that emerged about the practice of whipping and political peer pressure, practices that see MPs vote against their convictions in favour of legislation they consider unjust. This raised interesting questions. What for example is the point of a debate or a select committee hearing if parties decide prior to a vote to vote on party lines and no one can be persuaded anyway unless those ordering the whipping have a change of heart? Why aren’t MPs who believe a particular piece of legislation is mistaken allowed to voice dissent? Ex MP Judy Turner, floated the idea that parties should only require members to vote in favour of polices outlined in the manifesto, platforms that they had promised to vote in favour of before the election. This practice would leave them free to vote on everything else on an issue by issue basis. I think really important questions were asked here and they were not completely resolved by the politicians who seemed to both claim that politicians were open minded could be persuaded to not support a policy but nevertheless the party would pressure them to toe the line and very few people could in fact stand up to the level of pressure involved. I should point out here that one current party in parliament does permit its MPs to vote according to the consciences on pretty much everything, the ACT Party.
After a good talk by New Zealand’s number 1 self-proclaimed hedonistic blogger David Farrar, about the role of blogging and the growing power that bloggers wield, the Forum ended with an address from Prime Minister John Key. I am not an enthusiastic supporter of Key, but despite this I think he did quite well. Unlike Goff, Key addressed the section 59 issue directly. Key explained his position, did not try and deflect questions or tell people off but was willing to offer his own reasons and arguments in response to questions from the floor. While he said he and the audience would agree to disagree he also ostensibly expressed a willingness to talk and discuss the issues with anyone and stated he would review his position in light of new evidence. Key also seemed to be very much a person who worked well with diverse people. He appeared to be trying to come to a position that everyone on both sides of the debate could live with and wanted to avoid a bitter, protracted, public debate on the issue (of course much of this could have been the kind of spin and persona that politicians put on).
Key also addressed several other issues he considered important; such things as national standards in education, getting tough on drugs and gangs and boot camps for at risk youth. All this, of course, resonated with his conservative audience. There were, however, questions that could and should have been raised during the Q&A which were passed over by the almost one-eyed focus on the smacking issue. For example, what exactly are the more “sweeping powers” police would be given to tackle gangs? What are the checks and balances to ensure peoples basic civil liberties are balanced or does that not matter because we are talking about gangs and drugs? Moreover, is Key’s stated response to critics who argue boot camps don’t work that “he can’t think of a better alternative” really adequate? Should governments do things simply because doing so is at least doing something – despite of evidence that might be mustered against the policy? Christian conservatives really need to think a bit harder about some of these things and not simply accept feel good conservative slogans and get up in arms only about the policies that directly affect them personally.
This was our third Forum on the Family and as always Madeleine and I enjoyed the experience. We came away with good, thought provoking ideas, interesting information; we had some fruitful discussions and appreciated the opportunity to mingle with some really good people doing a great range of service for the community, Bob McCoskrie and Family First being one of them.