Smacking referendum: PM pledges new approach

By Simon Collins

No Vote petition organiser Larry Baldock celebrates in Auckland last night after the results were announced. Photo / Kenny Rodger
No Vote petition organiser Larry Baldock celebrates in Auckland last night after the results were announced. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Options for changing New Zealand's approach to smacking children will go to the Cabinet on Monday after New Zealanders voted by 88 per cent that a smack should not be a criminal offence.

The vote declared last night in the non-binding, citizens-initiated referendum on the question "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" was 88.1 per cent "No" and 11.9 per cent "Yes".

It was muffled by a low turnout of 54 per cent, including 0.3 per cent who spoiled their votes, so even the huge "no" vote fell just short of half of the enrolled electors.

Prime Minister John Key said in Australia - where he is on an official visit - that voters had said strongly that "they don't want good parents to be criminalised for a light smack".

His own view was that the law was "working as it is now".

But on Monday, he would take to the Cabinet "options which fall short of changing the law but will provide comfort for parents about this issue".

He would not say what they were.

Yes Vote spokeswoman Deborah Morris-Travers said her coalition had been talking to the Government about "non-legislative ways that we could clarify police practice and police guidelines".

The current law, passed in May 2007, was a compromise agreed by Mr Key and Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark which gave the police discretion not to prosecute cases of "inconsequential" force against children.

Police guidelines issued soon afterwards state that "while smacking may in some circumstances be considered inconsequential, a prosecution may be warranted if such actions are repetitive or frequent and other interventions or warnings to the offender have not stopped such actions".

Mr Key's repeated statements that a "light smack" should not be criminalised, which he has said consistently since before the 2007 law change, suggest ministers may give police advice that they can disregard even repetitive or frequent "light smacks".

Police say they have taken only one prosecution for "smacking" in the first 21 months since the law was changed, and it was withdrawn when the main witness declined to give evidence.

Twelve prosecutions were made for other "minor acts of physical discipline".

Ms Morris-Travers said it was "comforting" that the Government did not plan to change the law.

She said New Zealand was still the only English-speaking nation that had banned physical punishment for children and other countries were watching to see if the ban would be reversed.

"If we were to go backwards, I think it would be embarrassing for New Zealand."

But Kiwi Party leader Larry Baldock, who organised the petitions that forced the referendum, told about 40 jubilant supporters at Ellerslie last night that he would settle for nothing short of repealing the ban on parents using physical force for correction.

Family First director Bob McCoskrie said parents did not want "comfort".

"Parents don't want to be pampered, they don't want to be fluffed around. They want a law change," he said.

"He [Mr Key] needs to listen. He was elected with a 45 per cent mandate. He's got an 88 per cent mandate to change the law."

The law allows parents to use force to prevent harmful, criminal, offensive or disruptive behaviour and to perform "the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting".

But it says none of those provisions justifies the use of force for correction.

Four police reports have said the law change has had "minimal impact on police activity".

Children's Commissioner John Angus said he would advise the Government to keep the current law.

"I have looked at the police statistics, and fears that the new law would mean police would investigate lots of families and lots of parents would be prosecuted have proved unfounded," he said.

The 54 per cent turnout in the referendum compares with 79.5 per cent at last year's general election, 44 per cent in the 2007 local body elections and 80.3 per cent in the only previous postal referendum, on compulsory superannuation in 1997.

- NZ Herald

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