My regular New Zealand Truth column this week is about the child discipline referendum and the inadequacy of the legislative provisions regarding the wording of citizens initiated referenda questions:
As I am sure everyone is excruciatingly well aware, we are right now in the middle of the postal referendum on the physical discipline of children.
Voting started on 31 July and finishes on 21 August.
At a cost of $9 million to the taxpayer, the referendum asks:
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
I reckon this question is both misleading and ambiguous.
A lot of people tell me they have no intention of voting, or are going to spoil their ballot paper, because they are angry about money being wasted on such a confused proposition.
Other people are keen to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ because they have strong views on the issue and want to vote regardless.
This includes me of course. I will be voting ‘Yes’ and encouraging others to do the same, as I see that voting ‘Yes’ is a vote for keeping the law as it is.
Parents are not being prosecuted in their droves for giving their children a ‘smack’.
There is actually no offence called ‘smacking’ in New Zealand law.
There is, however, an offence of ‘assault’ which has always been there.
What the law change in 2007 achieved was simply the removal of the defence of ‘reasonable force for the purpose of correction’ which in the past allowed some parents to get away with quite badly beating their children.
The ‘reasonable force’ defence also meant parents felt they had a state-sanctioned right to use physical force as a way of disciplining their children.
New Zealand made a huge step forward two years ago when Parliament voted by a huge majority to take away this defence and give our children the same legal protection from violence as we adults enjoy.
I hope that despite the anger people justifiably feel at the way in which money is being wasted on this confused referendum question, some of you at least will consider voting ‘yes’ as an expression of support for the law change.
People often ask me, ‘If you think this question is so ambiguous, what should the question have been?”
Of course it could have been any number of things, but I believe a much fairer question would have been something like ‘Should the defence of reasonable force for the purpose of correction be available to New Zealand parents?’
At least people would then have been a lot clearer on what they were voting for or against.
I have put a member’s bill forward seeking to ensure that in future when someone comes up with a proposal for a citizens’ initiated referendum, the Clerk of the House – who approves these questions – has more legal guidance on what should go forward.
I am suggesting that questions that are ambiguous complex, leading or misleading should not be accepted, and that the proposer keeps working on the question with the Clerk until it is clear and simple.
I am in discussions with the Minister of Justice about this at the moment, and hope the Government may change the law in this area as a result.
Meanwhile, the debate on whether our kids deserve a childhood free from violence continues, and will for a while yet, whatever the result on 21 August.