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Success for referendum proponents

There are two days left, but in a sense, those behind the smacking referendum have already succeeded.  There won’t be a law change, and I’m not making a premature call on the result.  In the wake of the referendum, public debate has shifted.  The question I hear on the radio, in the news, in columns and from both sides’ campaigns is no longer whether the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act is working, to the question referendum proponents want New Zealand to answer: should we be allowed to smack our children?

The “Yes” Vote campaign has not, as I expected, sought to correct the misinformation their opponents have spread.  Supporters of the misnomered “anti-smacking” bill once contended that it would outlaw child abuse and not the odd inconsequential smack.  Now, though, the main message of the bill’s supporters and the “Yes” Vote appears to be that parents shouldn’t smack, and all parental physical correction, no matter how light or heavy, should be eradicated from our society.

The “No” Vote must be ecstatic at this level of engagement.  Because few campaigners have drawn the line between the law and the referendum, the idea that the two are the same question has become cemented in the public.  That is exactly what the “No” Vote wants.  The question on everyone’s minds is now, "should parents be smacking children?”, and it has become inextricably linked to the 2007 amended Bradford bill.

If this is a good thing, then those who supported the amended Bradford bill believing it wouldn’t criminalise smacking are becoming forced to reconsider their position.  For the record, I’m not reconsidering mine.  But now that the bill’s original supporters have revealed that they do indeed believe that smacking is wrong and that it should outlawed, there are grounds to believe that there might, just might, have been a hidden agenda to all of this.  If the “Yes” Vote wanted a victory, then this was a poor tactic to take.  If they wanted to nobly challenge social values, then why weren’t they upfront about it in 2007?

For their part, the “No” Vote has had an incredibly weak case and cannot deserve any credit.  They, including Family First and the Kiwi Party, have presented no convincing examples that good parents were being affected by this new law.  Their best poster-boy to date, Jimmy Mason who was convicted of assault, became a failure after it was revealed that he has not just ear-flicked but punched his child in the face—something the movement was quick to condemn.  All the evidence is that the law is working as intended.

The standard arguments levied against abstainers and whatever “disrespect for democracy” do not apply to this referendum.  In any indicative vote, as opposed to a decision-making one, the strength of the result is as important as the direction.  The Government must take the margin and turnout into account.  In this particular one, the question is leading and irrelevant.  Refusing to take part achieves more than asking a silly question, and is a more “positive” response than engaging with it.

With 1.3 million votes already sent in last Thursday, the turnout looks set to be reasonably high.  People on both sides are asking whether smacking is okay, and the new law remains misunderstood by most  Even if the result is predictable, it won’t matter.  In a far more significant way, the “No” Vote campaign has already won.

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