Society has moved on and party needs to as well.

Colin Craig says he smacks his child. He does not. He chastises his 8-year-old daughter with "a flick of a finger on the back of a knuckle". That might be an odd thing to do but it hardly amounts to the violence the anti-smacking law forbids. Mr Craig is looking for issues to give his Conservative Party a niche in national politics sufficient to put him into Parliament. It is hard to believe that a revival of the smacking issue will win him enough votes, even among those who still imagine parents may be prosecuted for the slightest physical contact.

At the election this year it will be seven years since the Crimes Act was amended to remove the parental defence to a charge of assault. Seven years is long enough to establish that the police are not dragging parents into court for trivial acts, and short enough that the debate is too recent in the memory for a repeat to be bearable.

In that time the law has been rejected at a referendum that the Government ignored. That is the real issue Mr Craig wants to tap. His party is standing for binding referendums. He thinks there is a significant undercurrent of resentment at governments that refuse to obey the results of referendums, no matter how low the turnout to the poll or simplistic the question. He may be right, He needs only 5 per cent of the vote nationwide, or one electorate if National makes room for him.

Headlines such as "Colin Craig: I smack my kids" might not entice National to get too close to him. His comments may be naive rather than accurate. He thinks the politically safe answer to make when asked a silly question, such as whether he believes the moon landings were faked, is to say he is not sure. But that sort of naivety can be crucified in an election campaign.


He will make it even more difficult for National to help him if naivety traps him in non-negotiable positions. He is reported to have made the repeal of the anti-smacking law a condition of his support. He needs to be careful to go no further. If he is drawn to describe exactly what forms of physical discipline he wants the law to permit he could find himself in a lonely place on the political stage.

The anti-smacking bill advanced by Green MP Sue Bradford became a bipartisan step when John Key, as Opposition Leader, offered to help Helen Clark get it through the final stages in Parliament. Its passage was a profound statement of public standards even if most young parents had already moved to more civilised methods of correction.

It removed for good the possibility that any parents accustomed to using violence could suppose the law in this country condoned it. If it has not changed their behaviour, as the bill's critics continue to claim, it has removed any sanction for them and they can no longer claim to any misapprehension of their legal rights. When the law's opponents exaggerate the way it is being enforced they do its message a favour.

Mr Craig needs to learn the difference between conservatism and regression. Conservatism is reluctant to change but it can recognise progress. It can tell the difference between what is valuable and worth keeping and what is primitive. Parenting is one of the hardest tasks most people do but modern parents are finding methods that do not give their children lessons in violence.

As a newcomer to the political scene Mr Craig is receiving a wealth of attention. He should use it wisely while it lasts.

Once people have assessed him and his party's positions, he will have to live with the images they have formed. He needs to do better than smacking to earn much respect.

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