Herald reporter Simon Collins has been on the road for three weeks conducting a one-man poll. From Cape Reinga to Fiordland, he questioned 600 New Zealanders, face-to-face on the streets.

Read his reports in the Herald and on nzherald.co.nz, and check out our photo galleries showing what ordinary people are saying ahead of the election.

Key Points:

When Otara mother Raana Patel punishes her 14-year-old son for doing something naughty, he threatens to call in the police.

"I still give him a smack. He's still just a child to me," she says.

"He says, 'I'm going to call the cops.' I say, 'Go on then, go and call them.' But I don't give him a hiding."

Ms Patel, 31, a mother of five and a nursing student at Manukau Institute of Technology, is on the front line of a long-term social change which cuts much more deeply than the controversial "anti-smacking" bill passed by Parliament last year.

Sixteen months after the bill passed in a political compromise supported by both Labour and National, this month's sampling of 600 voters from Cape Reinga to Fiordland has found the law still massively unpopular.

An overwhelming 86 per cent agreed with the loaded question that will be put to a referendum next year: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Another question asks about the compromise reached in the law, which says parents can use reasonable force under some circumstances but not for "correction".

Police are also given discretion not to prosecute "inconsequential" cases.

This produces a much more balanced reaction. Exactly 50 per cent still don't like it, 34 per cent accept it, and 16 per cent say it's "better" or "okay in part" or give other equivocal responses.

But this result is not very meaningful because most people don't understand how it could work.

"It's contradictory," says Bluff cameraman Stuart McCormick, 35, and many others. "How can you not use the other things [such as preventing harm] for correction?"

More importantly, voters see the anti-smacking law as part of a broader breakdown of discipline at home, at school and in the wider community which leaves youngsters vulnerable to the violent "gangsta" culture.

"It starts in the school," says Allan Remnant, 52, a scenic flight operator on Fiordland's Lake Te Anau, about as far away as you can get from the mean streets of South Auckland.

"There's a lack of control and direction in school. You go back to the stopping of [physical] discipline in schools and you'll find it correlates to the increase in youth offending and lack of respect for people's property."

Te Kao storekeeper Selina Abraham, 43, compares her own childhood before corporal punishment in schools was abolished in 1990 with her work as a computer tutor in Auckland after the change.

"When I was at school, punishment was in. Now no one wants to be a teacher because the kids run the school," she says.

Many parents, like Raana Patel, report similar problems at home.

"The kids are controlling us parents because we can't smack them," says John Rae, 52, a Cook Islands-born Otara father of five children aged between 19 and 7.

Howick grandmother Gillian Birkenhead, 68, says her grandson, 5, threatened to tell his teacher that his parents were maltreating him.

Former Hawera medical practice manager Sue Eloff, 51, says a family came to her in distress when their child threatened to report the parents to the police.

"It was a good family, a solid unit, but this child got in with the wrong sort of kids," she says.

People feel the only answer is to restore effective discipline in all settings - not just the ultimate threat of physical punishment at home, but also harsher discipline in schools and much tougher penalties for all lawbreakers.

Southland sheepfarmer John Minty, 53, suggests expanding the armed forces cadet scheme, which has dwindled to a handful of high schools.

Taupo midwife Judith Gray, 41, is one of many who suggest young offenders should do compulsory military training. "Make them all go in the Army when they're 16," she says.

James from Mangere Bridge says: "If you're scared of your parents, that is the guiding principle.

"I'm not advocating that parents should thrash their kids," he says. "But if you're scared your dad will give you a hiding if you're bad, then you are less likely to do it."

How the survey works:

This article, and others to follow this week, are based on 600 interviews from Cape Reinga to Fiordland, mainly in the streets, between September 2 and 21.

Everyone was shown a card saying, "On the things that matter most, I'd rate the current state of New Zealand as: 7/Excellent, 6/Very good, 5/Good, 4/Okay, 3/Poor, 2/Very poor, 1/Awful." People were then asked to explain why they made their choice.

They were also shown the reverse of the card, listing all 20 parties registered with the Electoral Commission as at September 2. They were asked which party they were thinking of giving their party vote to, and why.

Other questions about moral issues will be reported next week.

Interviews in Auckland (32 per cent), the rest of the North Island (41 per cent) and the South Island (27 per cent) reflected the voting populations in those regions.

Women made up 51 per cent and men 49 per cent.

Europeans made up 72 per cent of the sample, Maori 14 per cent, Asians 7 per cent, Pacific people 6 per cent and others 1 per cent, all within 1 per cent of their numbers in the population.

The sample had the correct share of young voters under 30 (21 per cent). There were slightly too many people aged 30 to 49 (42 per cent, against 40 per cent in the voting-aged population), and slightly too few aged 50-plus (37 per cent against 39 per cent).