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Peter Wilson: A $9m Referendum - And The Result Won't Make Any Difference

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Federated Farmers isn't an organisation that usually voices opinions on issues that don't have a direct impact on its members.

It did last week, and it hit on something worthy of wide consideration -- the $9 million it is costing to run what has become known as the smacking referendum.

"Farmers look at the $9 million and argue that reducing some of the country's debt or investing in agriculture is far better than an expensive catharsis," said federation president Don Nicolson.

The referendum will take place, by postal ballot, between July 31 and August 21.

The question it will ask is: Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

The wording of that question is the subject of an intense debate which Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff have been dragged into.

They both consider it ambiguous. Goff says he won't vote, Key says he is unlikely to.

And regardless of the outcome, the law isn't going to be changed. Key has made that clear, saying he has seen no evidence that it isn't working the way Parliament intended it to.

So what will be achieved by laying out $9m of taxpayer money during a recession which is causing the Government to restrict spending across a wide range of services?

Nothing, except an opportunity for those behind the referendum to say "we were right" and accuse the Government of refusing to carry out what will surely be termed "the will of the people".

That is assuming the referendum delivers what they want -- an overwhelming "No" response to a question which was framed to gain just that.

When the law was passed that removed the defence of "reasonable force" for hitting a child, which effectively banned smacking as a form of punishment, Key brokered a deal with former prime minister Helen Clark so the police would have discretion over prosecutions.

Key says that discretion is being exercised, but opponents of the law change are just as obsessively zealous about it now as they were then.

They managed to gather about 300,000 signatures on the petition that forced the referendum to be held, which isn't easy.

They now justify the wording of the question by saying those who signed the petition knew what it was going to be.

Whether they thought it through is another matter. It isn't until now, with the referendum imminent, that the question is being debated.

Goff's reason for not voting was this: "The question implies that if you vote `yes' that you're in favour of criminal sanctions being taken against reasonable parents -- actually, nobody believes that."

The real issue, fiercely debated when the law was changed, is whether or not it is right to use violence against a child as a means of correction.

The referendum question says it is, with the qualification of "good parental correction" which in itself is open to endless differences of opinion.

It also seeks a negative response, which makes it even more confusing.

That could backfire because voters may be inclined to think it is actually a referendum on whether they should be allowed to smack their children.

If that happens, they will vote "yes".

Child advocacy groups have banded together and are chanting for a "yes" vote to defeat the purpose of the referendum's promoters even though they disagree with the question itself.

Amid this fiasco, there isn't going to be a conclusive outcome and the $9m exercise isn't going to have any effect at all on the law because the Government has said it won't.

This referendum is a waste of money, and it has brought into question the way they are run and the questions that are asked in them.

The Green Party's Sue Bradford, who drafted the member's bill that brought about the smacking law change, wants the referendum provisions changed so "ambiguous" questions can't be asked.

She would put responsibility on the Clerk of Parliament to decide that, an unenviable task when promoters are determined to gain the outcome they want by wording questions in ways that suit their purpose.

Because citizens-initiated referenda don't happen very often, these problems are likely to go into Parliament's too hard basket.

Because they are non-binding, politicians don't really have to worry about outcomes.

They simply ignore results like the overwhelming demand for the number of MPs to be reduced from 120 to 99, which overlooked the fact that MMP won't work in its present form with less than 120 members.

The Norm Withers petition for tougher sentences for violent offenders did work, although that question was ambiguous, too, because it drew in the rights of victims.

It worked because the previous government, like the current one, considered it was a vote-winning issue.

The smacking referendum isn't. Neither of the main parties wants to get involved in another divisive, emotive debate over the rights and wrongs of it.

Most members of the public probably don't either because they have moved on.

The only people who haven't are those still obsessed with being denied what they see as their parental right to smack their children.

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