Should you or Parliament decide the big social issues?

Do you like the idea of Labour MPs being “whipped” in to vote against whacking kids? This is not a joke question.

Beneath that superficial irony lies another: immediately after the election Helen Clark, ruing the loss of provincial seats, was swearing to abjure social engineering this term. She would not be exposed to jibes of political correctness next election.

So why make Sue Bradford’s bill a party issue for her MPs now? This isn’t, yet, a government on its last legs and so doing what it believes before it has no power to do anything.

Of course, cold-light-of-day analyses of the 2005 election painted a subtler picture than conservative provinces voting against political correctness. For example, some of the city-province difference is explained by provincial Labour MPs not implementing the state house targeting plan that worked well in big-city Labour districts. Also, the two-party swing to National masks an actual rise in Labour’s overall vote share. It is more useful to say National’s vote rose more in the provinces than in the cities.

Nevertheless, political correctness, social engineering, pushing out the liberal moral boundaries put Labour at odds with its conservative wage-worker voters and with some ethnic groups which normally support Labour.

The last time Labour lost large swathes of the conservative wage-worker vote, in 1975 to Sir Robert Muldoon, it took a quarter-century to re-secure that vote.

But there is a wider irony, which is not to do with Labour’s liberal enthusiasms.

One argument used to justify the anti-smacking bill is that Parliament has a duty to be in some sense the conscience of the nation on these issues. Some add Parliament also has a democratic duty to look out for minorities and the defenceless, in this case children.

Those who make this case point to recent history in the wake of liberal social reforms as justification. Out of the furnace of each high-emotion and knife-edge vote has come calm and something resembling acceptance (or is it resignation?): abortion in 1977, homosexuality in 1986, prostitution reform and civil unions in the 2002-05 term. There were also big changes in iwi/hapu rights and general human rights in 1985-93.

And now smacking — or, more accurately, thrashing. Pita Sharples tells us he was thrashed as a child. Whatever that did to him, he is now an exemplar of the best of being Maori in a modern world. Now he wants us, if we collectively say our children are treasures, to get everyone to nurture these treasures as they should be, with kindness, guidance and encouragement.

There is not the space here to traverse the arguments in this latest furnace of public emotion, except to note that even liberals are not as one on this bill and to note the resort, even by a QC, to extreme and even silly arguments against the bill and proponents’ unreal expectation of the power of legislation. Bad parents who bash kids will be with us 20 and 50 years hence.

Of equal importance is the process by which these laws are passed. If you get the numbers, that is that. (Or vice-versa, in the case of mercy killing which was rejected despite polls in favour.) Clark is getting the numbers on whacking by whipping her MPs, among whom are some who oppose the bill.

Clark has made it a matter of high policy. It is, in effect, now a government bill.

Lay that alongside the argument that in such cases Parliament is the nation’s conscience, that it can stand above the emotions which often drive pub-and-club debate and bring to bear rational thinking and longsightedness.

The pedigree of this thinking is from the late-eighteenth-century English conservative MP, Edmund Burke, who declared he was not his electorate’s delegate but was elected to use his best judgment on issues of the day.

How can an MP whipped into line be exercising his or her best judgment?

More important, was Burke right? Is public opinion relevant only at the ballot box? Or might it have a larger role in a modern, educated, media-saturated society?

In short, do voters collectively have wisdom? Can they be trusted to make good decisions by referendum on big issues of the day?

Sometimes Parliament has said yes. MMP was voted in by referendum. Most of Parliament (Clark included) would have voted the other way. For 65 years there was a referendum at every election on whether to prohibit liquor sales (though Parliament cunningly devised a three-way question which diluted the prohibitionists’ case).

There was no referendum on abolishing appeals to the Privy Council, a major change to our constitution. There was no referendum on prostitution reform or civil unions. There will be not be one on kid-bashing.

Is that right? Are you so childlike that you cannot distil from extremists’ propaganda the deep issue and make the right decision for this society at this time? Is it enough that only some MPs try to gauge their constituents’ views?

Yes, says Parliament, arrogating to itself all wisdom. Think on that.