23 Aug 2009

Cabinet to consider proposals on smacking

8:13 pm on 23 August 2009

Prime Minister John Key will take proposals to Cabinet next week to reassure parents the child discipline law will be carried out the way it was intended, after 88% voted in a referendum that a light smack should not be a criminal offence.

Voters were asked in the $9 million referendum "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Preliminary results released on Friday night show 1,420,959 voters (87.6%) said "No", while 191,495 (11.81%) answered "Yes".

Mr Key says the proposals to Cabinet will not involve changing the current law.

"My view is the law is working as was intended but I think the very strong message that comes through from this referendum is that New Zealand parents don't want to see themselves or their neighbours or anybody else criminalised for lightly smacking a child.

"There are other changes that fall short of changing the law that can be introduced to give (parents) comfort that the law will be administered in the way that I believe the compromise set out it should be."

Deborah Morris-Travers of the Yes Vote Coalition, which lobbied against smacking, says the Government's move to reassure parents about the law is welcome as campaigns by the pro-smacking lobby falsely claimed police will become more involved in parents' lives.

She is not surprised by the results of the referendum, saying the question was misleading and framed to get the "no" result.

The Chief Electoral Officer says 1,622,952 people took part in the non-binding postal referendum, which, including invalid votes, represents 54.04% of eligible voters.

The referendum was organised by opponents of a change to Section 59 of the Crimes Act that prevents parents from using force against their children for the purposes of correction. It allowed a defence of reasonable force used in order to prevent harm to a child.

"No" supporters call for action

Supporters of a "No" vote in the referendum, who gathered at a hotel in Auckland to await the results on Friday, called for a law change.

One of the main opponents of the child discipline legislation, Kiwi Party leader Larry Baldock, says the result shows change is needed.

"It is our democracy, so if we allow a Government to get away with this, no-one would ever have an appetite for a referendum ever again."

The Government needs "to give back the authority to parents to do what they do best in this country, raise good kids ready for the next generation," he told supporters.

Mr Baldock denied the referendum question was confusing.

Family First NZ, which also supports the use of corrective parental smacking, said in a statement: "It is now time for the politicians to respect the people they represent and amend the anti-smacking law."

Greens label result inconclusive

Green Party MP Sue Bradford, who sponsored the amendment on child discipline in 2007, says John Key and the National Party voted for it then, and she's hoping they'll stand their ground.

She says the referendum question was so confusing, many supporters of the current law didn't realise they'd voted against it. She said it was hard to draw any conclusions from results based on such a flawed question.

"It is important that 'no' voters realise the law stands, and (the) referendum result does not mean they can now hit children," Ms Bradford said.

Child advocacy group Barnardos chief executive, Murray Edridge, said it was significant that little over half those eligible to vote took part.

"Half the population either doesn't care, or half the population thinks the law's okay, have chosen not to vote and have expressed their democratic view that way."

Mr Edridge said the referendum did not ask a direct question about people's acceptance or otherwise of the law. "It suggested that hitting children was good parenting practice and that 'good' parents are being criminalised when neither is true."

Referendum 'unnecessary'

The Dean of Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral says parents do not have a God-given right to use corporal punishment against their children.

The Very Reverend Ross Bay says he hopes the public realises that 'spare the rod and spoil the child' is not the only Christian stand on the issue.

Mr Bay says the child discipline law doesn't criminalise parents who lightly smack their children, so the recent referendum was unnecessary.

Parents Centres New Zealand, a parents support group, says the law is working and no changes should be made until a review scheduled for next year is completed.

Chief executive Viv Gurrey says the referendum was confusing and the voting was a reflection of how people felt about the question that was asked, not about changing the law.