Key dragged into smacking debate

BILL BACKED? Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that National was likely to support Bradford's amendment to the law surrounding referenda questions.
BILL BACKED? Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that National was likely to support Bradford's amendment to the law surrounding referenda questions.

Prime Minister John Key has been dragged into the centre of the resurgent smacking debate.

As the controversy around the citizens-initiated referendum mounted, one of the organisations backing it last night called for a meeting with Mr Key and said it could produce evidence that parents were being needlessly prosecuted under the 2007 law change.

It removed the defence of reasonable force from the Crimes Act, effectively banning smacking as a means of correction while giving police discretion over prosecutions.

Arguments have raged ever since and opponents managed to get enough signatures on a petition to force the referendum to be held.

It will ask the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

In Parliament yesterday Mr Key said he saw no need to change the law.

"In my view the current law is working. I've given New Zealand parents a commitment that if the law didn't work I would change it. I stand by that commitment but I've seen no evidence to date that the law is not working," he said.

Family First, a strong opponent of the law, said it had the evidence.

"We have a number of cases that have been made available to us of parents being prosecuted under the new law," said Family First national director Bob McCoskrie.

"These have been independently examined by a senior police officer who believes that they show the law is not working."

Mr McCoskrie said he was writing to Mr Key asking for a meeting so he could deliver his evidence.

The referendum will be held by postal ballot between July 31 and August 21.

It will cost $9 million to run, and that has become part of the row over it.

Some MPs have said it is a waste of money, and yesterday Federated Farmers spoke out against the referendum.

"Farmers look at the $9m and argue that reducing some of the country's debt or investing in agriculture is far better than an expensive catharsis," said the federation's president Don Nicolson.

BRADFORD BILL SUPPORT

The Government yesterday indicated it may support a law change proposed by the Green Party that would rule out ambiguous or leading questions from citizens-initiated referendums.

As the smacking debate gathers steam before next month's referendum, the author of the "anti-smacking" law, Green MP Sue Bradford, has drafted a law that would allow Parliament's chief officer to strike out questions from referendums.

Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff have said the referendum's question is ambiguous, and neither plans to vote in the referendum.

In reply, ACT member of Parliament John Boscawen has drafted a bill that would amend the law to bring back the defence of reasonable force for parents who physically discipline their children.

Both bills have yet to be drawn in Parliament's ballot.

Under the law, the Clerk of the House must approve the wording of a petition circulated in a bid to trigger a citizens-initiated referendum.

The Clerk can object only on the grounds that the question is not clear or does not have a yes-or-no answer.

Bradford's Citizens Initiated Referenda (Wording of Questions) Amendment Bill would give the Clerk additional powers to rule out questions that were adjudged ambiguous, leading, misleading or complex.

It says this includes questions with more than one meaning, that group together separate propositions, that invite a voter to answer in a certain way and are misleading in fact or law.

Bradford said the referendum question not only made a value judgment on whether smacking was "good" but also presupposed a single smack constituted a criminal act and would lead to a prosecution.

Key said yesterday that National was likely to support Bradford's amendment.

"We may consider supporting that on the basis that holding a referendum is very expensive, and I think it is in the public interest that we have a question that is comprehendible."

He was concerned about the cost of the referendum, but the Government had no choice under the law but to allow it to go forward.

If Bradford's private member's bill was not drawn from the ballot, the Government may pick it up as a Government bill, Key said. Boscawen said political infighting over the referendum question was overshadowing the fact that "good" parents who "lightly smack" their children were now technically criminals.

"While the police have discretion not to prosecute, the reality is that the parent is breaking the law," he said. "How can this Government expect the public to have respect for the laws it passes when it condones the police not enforcing them?"

Under Boscawen's amendment, parents could again use "reasonable force" to discipline their children, provided injuries to children were only "transitory and trifling", the force did not involve a weapon and was not cruel or degrading.

Boscawen's bill is unlikely to win political support, with Labour, National, the Maori Party and the Greens committed to the current law.

By COLIN ESPINER, The Press, and NZPA