The rancorous smacking debate is set to be reopened this year, with an election day referendum looking increasingly likely.
Anti-smacking campaigners are closing in on the number of signatures they need to force the referendum.
Family First director Bob McCoskrie said activists have gained 273,000 of the 300,000 signatures needed to trigger a Citizens Initiated Referendum. Activists, including Christians, libertarians and Act supporters, were working hard to get the remaining 30,000 signatures by the March 1 deadline.
"We are totally confident we will get there. We are going to make it the issue of 2008," he said. Also heavily involved in collecting signatures is new group Unity for Liberty, led by Craig Hill, who says he has a Christian background. "It's going great guns," he said.
While any referendum would be indicative only, not binding, it would have the potential to be a powerful rallying point for anti-Labour forces in election year because of Labour's role in backing the legislation. It could also put renewed pressure on National to reconsider its position on smacking.
The petition calls for a referendum on two questions: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"; and "Should the government give urgent priority to understanding and addressing the wider causes of family breakdown, family violence and child abuse in New Zealand?"
Family First, one of the petition's backers, appears to have a sizeable war chest to promote the referendum. The organisation is running full-page advertisements in newspapers today. McCoskrie said its funding came from large numbers of small donations from individuals.
If the campaigners gain the required signatures, parliament's clerk of the house then scrutinises a sample of the signatures from the petition to see if signatories are eligible voters. If the petition is valid, the referendum would go ahead at the time of this year's general election.
Using physical force to discipline children became a criminal offence last June after a long and difficult campaign led by Green MP Sue Bradford with Labour's support. An 11th-hour pact between National leader John Key and Labour's Helen Clark saw the bill easily pass.
Key said at the time that "New Zealand parents now know that they won't be criminalised for lightly smacking a child". He said on Friday the new law was operating in the way National had expected.
"If there is demonstrated evidence that good New Zealand parents are convicted for lightly smacking a child, then I will act to change the law. But at this stage I haven't seen enough evidence of that," he said.
While there have been no known convictions for light smacking since the law change, there has been a rash of cases in which parents have been investigated by police for apparently minor incidents of smacking.
Justice Minister Annette King said the new law was working as intended, contrary to claims the police would be "in everyone's home or bedroom".
Bradford said that although opponents had the right to use the democratic process, she questioned the motives of some of those pushing for a referendum.
"I don't think it's really about hitting children at all, for many people it's part of a campaign to get the National Party elected. I think they are very much turning it into an election issue," she said.
THE LAW IN PRACTICE
The so-called anti-smacking legislation came into effect last June with the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act allowing parents to use reasonable force to discipline their children. Police officers were given the discretion to not charge parents who used minor force. But even those not charged will have their details recorded. If there is a subsequent event, prosecution will be considered, and Child, Youth and Family will be notified. While several parents have been "dobbed in" to police after being seen smacking their children, there have been no known prosecutions for light smacking.
- © Fairfax NZ News