Saturday, March 11, 2006

Editorial: Classic clash of town and rural values

The police are standing by their decision to charge South Taranaki farmer Gavin Vanner with manslaughter after his daughter Molly was killed riding his quad bike. The outcome of the trial provides reason to question their position, however.

First, there is the speed with which a High Court jury cleared Mr Vanner of that charge, and an alternative one of criminal nuisance. Then there is the correctness of the jury's verdict. As much as Mr Vanner's judgment may be queried, it is a long leap from there to finding an element of criminality in his conduct.

The verdict was, in fact, predictable. As much as a jury should not, strictly speaking, view grief as an issue for consideration, the further punishment of a distraught father was bound to seem a futile exercise. Able defence lawyers would always cast matters in a light that overshadowed issues of conduct. This promoted the right outcome, even if not for the right reason.

All the while, the prolonged proceedings increased bitterness towards the police in the Kakaramea community. Even acquittal will do little to salve that sentiment. In a classic instance of townie values confronting common rural practice, the police were seen as siding with ACC and the Department of Labour, both much scorned in the farming community.

The verdict also created a precedent. Farmers, it seems, need not fear prosecution for similar conduct in future. Some may even interpret the outcome as upholding their values, no matter, as Justice Rodney Hansen noted, the "yawning gulf" between what any safety expert would say and they do.

Such farmers would be better advised to ponder the wisdom of allowing young children to ride quad bikes. These are not harmless pieces of light machinery. The one that rolled on top of 4-year-old Molly Vanner weighed 368kg. It is hard to imagine a young child handling such a machine with the required degree of safety. ACC statistics confirm as much. It receives about 50 claims a year for children involved in quad bike accidents.

Federated Farmers has tried to get its members to think about the dangers. In 2003, in association with ACC and the Department of Labour, it released industry guidelines for the use of quad bikes. These suggested no one under 15 should be allowed to ride them, and that helmets and protective clothing should be worn. They are not, however, a legal requirement, and have been disregarded by many farmers.

That, in itself, illustrates the chasm in thinking between town and country. Urban employers must abide by strict safety standards, while many farmers pay cursory attention to the subject. Adherence to traditional practices, and a fear of losing perceived freedoms, mean they will accept change only with the greatest reluctance. When an attempt is made to impose urban standards on those practices, as would have been the implication of a successful prosecution, there is bound to be friction. And a jury sitting in New Plymouth is rather more likely to acquit than one sitting in Auckland.

But Mr Vanner's lawyer was wrong to claim the case had been pointless. The police, on reflection, might conclude that comment on Molly Vanner's death might have been most appropriately delivered in the context of a coroner's inquest. Criticism of farm practices could have been made without the rancour associated with criminal charges.

And farmers should reflect on what was a needless death. The more responsible already follow industry guidelines. The rest might now ponder whether the dangers associated with modern machinery require a modern approach to safety.

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