Pressure groups that gather the required 300,000 signatures to force a citizens-initiated referendum at election time feel, quite naturally, a strong sense of vindication. Such is undoubtedly the case with Family First, the promoter of a petition on the anti-smacking law. It will point to the attainment of the referendum threshold as evidence of a groundswell against the legislation and demand that MPs amend their stance on the issue. In reality, however, there is little to support that view. Even more to the point, there is plenty to suggest New Zealanders have moved on and that a referendum at this year's election would be an unnecessary distraction.
Certainly, there was plenty of heat when Green MP Sue Bradford's bill was taking its first steps in Parliament. Many people worried that this repealing of the defence of reasonable force, which parents had for disciplining their children, was riddled with ambiguity. But much of that angst dissipated when a compromise clause negotiated between National's John Key and the Prime Minister was placed in the bill. This gave the police the discretion not to prosecute a parent for the use of force against a child "if the offence is considered to be so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution".
Some who still harboured concerns probably wanted to see the legislation in action. They needed reassurance that parents would not be prosecuted for a normal smack. On balance, they have received it. Teething troubles with the law were guaranteed, and there was always the possibility that the police would take up cases that the public thought unfair. But the small number of prosecutions appear to have been well-merited. The police have also used their discretion in giving cautions. They have also charged a handful of parents including musician Jimmy Mason who, having flicked his 3-year-old son on the ear, was dobbed in by a member of the public.
More fundamentally, the law has many people thinking anew of how children are disciplined. It is helping to reshape attitudes by sending a message to parents, especially those who did not know the meaning of reasonable force and were apt to resort to beating their children. This potential, more than anything else, was the catalyst for the virtually unanimous support for the legislation from agencies involved in childcare and parenting.
The upshot of all this is that the anti-smacking law is no longer a matter of substance to the public. In a Herald-DigiPoll survey last month, just 4.2 per cent of those polled selected it as an issue that was likely to influence their election vote. Given that, it seems reasonable to suggest that many signatures on the petition were, in fact, gathered before the compromise clause was inserted.
Citizens-initiated referendums are non-binding, and there is little reason to think this one would lead to the anti-smacking legislation being thrown out. The bill passed into law with wide cross-party support and an eventual 113-to-8 vote in Parliament. National, which originally opposed it, seems relaxed about its progress. Mr Key said last month that until he saw evidence that the compromise was not enough to stop minor incidents being prosecuted, he was happy with the law. The petition, he saw, was the product of "a significant but not overwhelming group" who believed it remained an issue.
The compromise clause has worked because the police have demonstrated common sense in deciding what is "consequential". That same trait suggests that attempts to raise a hue and cry over the law during the election campaign would be misguided and, ultimately, fruitless. Attitudes have changed. Other issues are bound to be far more to the fore.