Smacking poll 'won't alter law'

The Government is unlikely to change the child-discipline law regardless of the result of a $9 million referendum, Prime Minister John Key says.

The Chief Electoral Office yesterday began the citizens-initiated referendum on Green Party MP Sue Bradford's child-discipline law, which removed the defence of "reasonable force" for parents or guardians who hit their children. The referendum was forced last year when organisers collected more than 300,000 signatures on the question, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

The referendum will be held by postal ballot from July 31 to August 21. Chief electoral officer Robert Peden said the campaign and voting process would cost $8.9m.

Both sides of the child-discipline debate are lining up for a rehash of arguments expressed when the law was passed two years ago.

Child advocates have begun the call for a "yes" vote on the referendum, saying the new law is working as intended and parents are not being criminalised for smacking their children.

Family First national director Bob McCoskrie, who helped organise the petition, said the law was confusing and the confusion was "causing huge harm".

The debate may turn out to be an expensive waste of effort for both sides, with Mr Key saying yesterday that he had no intention of changing the law regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

"I think it's important that governments listen to the public, but the test I've had is that if I don't think the law is working I will change it," he said. "To date I have not seen any evidence that it is not working."

The question being asked in the referendum was ambiguous as it did not directly call for the law to be changed or repealed. The issue was of significant public concern two years ago but had died away, he said.

The Families Commission has come out in support of the "yes" vote, although new commissioner Christine Rankin is opposed to the law. Mr Key said he did not expect Ms Rankin to campaign either way on the referendum because the commission took a collective view.

The commission said new evidence on family discipline practices to be presented in Wellington today showed that the incidence of child smacking was declining. Although four in 10 parents said they occasionally smacked their children, fewer than one in 10 felt it was effective.

"The law is working well, parents are not being criminalised for trivial offences and there is growing understanding and use of positive parenting strategies," chief commissioner Jan Pryor said.

Barnardos chief executive Murray Edridge said voting "yes" in the referendum was the "best way to ensure the legal protection of children".

Plunket chief executive Jenny Price said there were safe and effective measures for disciplining children that did not involve physical violence.

Parenting advocacy group Parents Centres called the referendum a "tedious process" when the law was working as it should.

Mr McCoskrie said "appropriate" smacking for the purpose of correcting, training and teaching should not be a crime. "The law is fundamentally flawed because it fails to deal with the problem it was supposed to child abuse and implicates law-abiding parents in the process."

- The Press