Inspirational pensioner. Died aged 75.

Nan (Anne) Withers, the pensioner whose beating inspired a law and order referendum supported by more than 90 per cent of New Zealand voters, has died peacefully in Christchurch following an operation.

"Mum has touched the hearts of all New Zealand," said her son, Norm Withers.

Mrs Withers, then 70, became national news in July 1997 when she was brutally beaten with a metal jack handle while tending her son's menswear shop.

She had worked at the shop after the death of her husband three years earlier and was alone on the morning of the attack. Her attacker, Harry Goulding Houkamau, took $280 in cash and clothing.

Mrs Withers suffered a fractured skull and needed 75 stitches to her face and scalp. The middle finger of her right hand was injured from trying to fend off blows.

In sentencing Houkamau to 10 years' prison, Judge Stephen Erber said the assault was "as bad as it can get" short of murder. Houkamau was released on parole after serving 2 1/2 years.

Mr Withers, a law and order campaigner and Christchurch councillor, said this week his mother was lucky to have lived through her ordeal.

"We were blessed to have the extra 4 1/2 years after that mongrel did what he did," he said.

"She hasn't suffered any more and she's at rest."

His mother was with him when he handed over the petition signed by 307,832 New Zealanders demanding tougher penalties for violent crimes.

"It's to help other people now," she said. "What happened to me, I don't want to happen to anybody else, because it's something you never forget."

The attack had sparked her family to seek a referendum. "Should there be a reform of our justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?"

Mr Withers presented the petition to Parliament in January 1999. In the election that year most voters agreed with the referendum question - 1,663,755 voting yes. Just 147,009 said no.

At the time Mr Withers said the result was overwhelming.

"I am staggered, absolutely over the moon."

He thought high-profile cases such as his mother's, and the home invasion that ended with the 1998 shooting of Reporoa farmer Beverly Bouma, had opened people's eyes.

More than two years of political tinkering later his ebullient mood had soured.

Last month Mr Withers declared criminals were the winners in the Sentencing and Parole Reform Bill.

That legislation proposed to set the standard non-parole period for serious offences at one-third of the sentence.