17 Jun 2009

Call for clearer referendum questions

5:59 pm on 17 June 2009

There is a growing call for a law change on referendum questions as controversy grows about a forthcoming one on child discipline.

In six weeks' time, the public will be asked if a smack "as part of good parental correction" should be a criminal offence.

Green Party MP Sue Bradford says the calibre of the question in the referendum could throw the whole process into disrepute.

Both Prime Minister John Key and Opposition leader Phil Goff say they are unlikely to cast a vote after criticising the question as ambiguous.

Ms Bradford says it is time to stop allowing referendum petitions containing ambiguous questions being put forward.

She has drafted a members bill that would require the Clerk of the House to allow only referendum questions that are not ambiguous, complex or misleading.

Mr Key has indicated support for changing the law on referendum questions, saying National will take a good look at the legislation.

The non-binding referendum was initiated by lobby groups that are opposed to Section 59 of the Crimes Act being amended in 2007. It removed the defence of "reasonable force" for any adult accused of assaulting a child.

The referendum is costing $9 million and will be conducted by postal vote in August. Voters will be asked: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand."

Changes to a bill on child discipline were prompted by the Green Party and supported by National and Labour.

But Mr Key and Mr Goff have expressed concern about the ambiguity of the referendum's wording.

Mr Goff says he cannot see a way of voting in the referendum because the question is poorly worded, while Mr Key also says he is unlikely to vote.

But the man behind the referendum, Larry Baldock, says New Zealanders had been yelling at politicians for more than three years that they did not want the law and they deserve to vote on the matter.

"The people of New Zealand have been ignored by these politicians - and for them to now turn around and say 'This question's somehow confusing, I'm not going to participate' - well, that's their decision.

"But I believe there are many New Zealanders who are going to make their voice heard very loud and clear through this referendum."

Concern at wording of question

Mr Baldock, who wrote the question and is a member of the Kiwi Party, says he cannot see what all the fuss is about.

He says the question was designed before the law was passed, which is why it is not a simple approval or disapproval of the law.

The Clerk of the House had to approve the question, which had to pass two tests: that it is clear and that it can be answered in one of two ways.

However, the Office of the Clerk of the House says there is no requirement for questions in citizen-initiated referendums to be impartial.

No information will be provided on the pros and cons of the question. That task falls to lobby groups, with a $50,000 limit on any advertising campaign they run.

The Chief Electoral Office and the Electoral Enrolment Centre are co-ordinating the postal vote, which will take place in the three weeks leading up to 21 August.

Mr Baldock says he hopes to see the law changed again to allow the defence of reasonable force and believes the referendum is worth the money the campaign is costing.

However, a spokesperson for the Yes Vote Coalition, Deborah Morris-Travers, says her group has launched a campaign to protect the law as it stands. She says the law is working and provides increased protection for children.