Prime Minister Helen Clark says a postal ballot in 2009 is the best course for a potential referendum on the anti-smacking law because having it on election day would cause voter confusion and slow down the vote count.
Helen Clark yesterday said the Government had accepted advice for a postal ballot in 2009 from chief electoral officer Rob Peden, who said holding it in the 2008 election "will inevitably lead to voter confusion, congestion in polling places and put at risk the timing of the parliamentary count."
The decision has disappointed petition organiser Larry Baldock, who has threatened to re-ignite the issue and organise protest marches if it is not done on election day.
"Hiding behind Ministry of Justice advice is cowardly. She should tell the truth and admit that it is her intention to do all she can to avoid this referendum at the election for her own political reasons."
National Party leader John Key said Helen Clark was "arrogantly out of touch" and "running scared" on the issue.
"Her government does not like the New Zealand public being able to express their view on democracy. They are about to be stopped from being able to exercise their democratic view through a referendum on the anti-smacking legislation at the election ... Why does the Prime Minister not just admit she finds the voters of New Zealand an annoyance?"
He said it was bad use of taxpayers' money to hold a stand-alone referendum when it could be done with an election.
However, the Prime Minister said the costs of either option were similar.
"The Leader of the Opposition is now running around saying he wants a referendum so he can disguise from conservatives the fact he voted for the child discipline bill in the first place - something he would like them to forget."
The driver of the law change, Green MP Sue Bradford, said she was relaxed about how a referendum was done, and welcomed the chance to highlight the issue again. She expected a high turn-out either way because the issue was polarising.
This week, Mr Key said his stance remained one of supporting the law change unless he saw evidence that good parents were being penalised under it. He said there was not yet any sign of that.
The law allowing stand-alone postal ballots was introduced in 2000 after the two referendums in the 1999 election caused delays and were blamed for confusing voters.
The advice from Mr Peden said while the process could be streamlined to reduce the problems found in 1999, it was unwise to hold the referendum on election day.
He said while a high turnout would be secured by having it on election day, this was also likely in postal ballots for issues of "high public interest".
There has only been one postal ballot in New Zealand - Winston Peters' 1997 referendum on a compulsory superannuation savings proposal. About 80 per cent of voters responded - slightly less than the 85 per cent average on election-day referendums.
Mr Peden also warned there could be problems reconciling the election finance rules in the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act with those in the Electoral Finance Act. Preliminary estimates of the costs were up to $7.3 million to hold it with the general election, compared to up to $8.1 million for the postal option.
The Clerk of the House has two months to check the anti-smacking petition has enough signatures. The Governor-General then has another month to set a date. If it succeeds, New Zealanders will be asked, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"
Only three petitions for citizens- initiated referendums have succeeded:
* The Norm Withers petition seeking more victims' rights and harsher sentences for violent criminals, held on election day 1999.
* Margaret Robertson's petition asking if the House of Representatives should be reduced from 120 to 99, also held on election day 1999.
* A Firefighters' Union petition in 1995 asking if the number of professional firefighters should be reduced.