I recently watched the superb film “Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President”. It is available on SBS. It’s not about politics. It’s about the man. Watch it, enjoy the fabulous music and interviews with the music legends he befriended. Then weep. Weep for a time when honesty, integrity, self-effacement, and sincere humility were the consistent hallmarks of a fine political leader.
It started me thinking in a new way about politics in Australia, about what it would be like if we had those hallmarks right across the political spectrum. At the moment, the focus is rightly on immunisation against Covid but we also know how far we are behind other OECD countries in immunising our population. The embarrassing statistic is that of the 38 OECD countries, we have the smallest percentage of the population immunised. Now we are finally making progress, but it is like competing in a 100-metre sprint 4 seconds after the starting pistol has fired.
Embarrassingly, we lag in three other areas too. First, the threat of climate change tends to be pushed further into the background because of the urgency of Covid, even though on a longer-term scale it is arguably an even greater problem than Covid. In failing to commit to an effective climate change target we are again at the wrong end of the OECD line. We should be able to focus on more than one thing at a time.
The second is that we still have laws that allow children from as young as ten to be put in prison. According to the Raise the Age campaign, over the course of a year, over 500 children aged 10-13 are placed in prison in Australia. Aboriginal children are hugely over-represented in this figure. It is now a year since the state attorneys general deferred for 12 months the decision as to whether to raise the age and instead, commissioned a report. The report has been finalised but has not been released.
Although this is a matter for individual states, there is no evidence that our federal government is showing any interest in encouraging the states to raise the age. As a nation we appear to have difficulty in seriously committing to raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, something that has been achieved by many western democracies as well as nations whose human rights records we criticise, such as China and Russia. Prisons are not suitable places for children whose brains and attitudes are still developing.
Physical punishment of children is the third area where we lag. Although there have been calls in the past to help parents develop more effective methods of discipline, along with requests to legislate to stop children from being hit, there has been small political will to join the other 62 nations who have already done this or even to join the 27 additional nations who have committed to reforming their laws to achieve this.
This week, a review in The Lancet looked at 68 prospective research studies about what happens in the longer term to children where physical punishment is the main parental method of discipline. The themes identified may surprise many who have not studied the area, but they are validated by research: 1. Physical punishment consistently predicts increases in child behaviour problems over time. 2. Physical punishment does not have positive outcomes over time i.e. it does not work. It is well known that hitting a child will stop a behaviour, but this is temporary. 3. Children who are hit by parents are more likely to need child protection services. 4. Physical punishment is a predictor of worsening behaviour over time. The Lancet concludes that physical punishment is harmful to children, particularly to their development and it recommends policy changes.
Children need discipline, of course. Discipline is a crucial part of child-rearing. The problem is the belief that hitting a child is the best and only form of discipline. Many parents need help in using more effective methods of discipline, methods that help them to improve undesirable child behaviour rather than hide it, methods which help their children to learn that hitting people is not a good way to get them to change their behaviour.
Recent governments in Australia seem to have abdicated their responsibility to visionary leadership, instead focussing on what people want in the hope that this will help them become re-elected. Once the population demanded a faster, better vaccine rollout the federal government responded. It may have developed an effective policy anyhow, but public outrage certainly sharpened its focus and shortened its timelines. One still can’t help wondering about the commitment of a government whose rather weak advertising campaign to encourage immunisation pales into insignificance when compared with the advertising blitz we will see once an election is announced.
Once we have achieved a high immunisation rate, we need to focus much more on demanding action on climate change, on stopping the imprisonment of young children and on supporting parents in the difficult task of childrearing. We can achieve this third objective by joining the other 62 nations that have prohibited physical punishment of children and the additional 27 that have committed to do so.
It is now clear from the research that this will be good for children. It will also be good for parents, even though it may seem counter-intuitive to some. It will help their children, as they grow into the world to learn that there are more effective ways than hitting people to resolve conflicts. And it will make those children better parents in due course. The tide in Australia is changing but real change will only come will only happen once the population demands it.
So when I vote in future, I’ll be looking for honesty, integrity, self-effacement, and sincere humility. Am I dreaming? Will I have to vote informal to be true to this commitment? I live in hope.