John Armstrong: Election needn’t delay smacking referendum

Wednesday June 25, 2008 By John Armstrong

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Do you support another attempt at a referendum on child discipline laws?

Unless the Prime Minister is planning to go to the country much earlier than everyone expects, her assertion that it is not possible to hold the anticipated citizens-initiated referendum on the anti-smacking law on election day simply does not stack up.

Helen Clark claims there is not enough time for the referendum to run alongside the general election “just in terms of sheer organisation”.

The real reason, of course, is Labour does not want its election campaign sullied by periodic discussion of the smacking law whose “nanny-state” connotations have proved to be so damaging to her and her party. Better to take some flak now for delaying the referendum than see the debate resurrected over the amended section 59 of the Crimes Act which removes the defence of reasonable force for parents who physically discipline their children.

There are good reasons for holding such plebiscites on election day. They are considerably cheaper than stand-alone ones. There is also likely to be a much higher voter turnout.

Helen Clark might see the latter as a disadvantage, however. Although the Government is not bound by the result, a high turnout could reinforce any majority vote in favour of returning the smacking law to what was previously the case.

So to hide the realpolitik, the Prime Minister cites practical difficulties in organising a referendum.

But if that is the case, then it would be impossible to hold a snap election. In case the Prime Minister has forgotten, the 1984 snap election was called by Sir Robert Muldoon just four weeks before polling day. Somehow, electoral officials coped.

In fact, the law covering citizens-initiated referendums specifically allows Parliament to shift the date of a referendum to the day of a snap election. That suggests there is sufficient time and it is not a problem.

This year’s general election is still about four months away. The organisers of the petition seeking the smacking referendum have presented some 390,000 signatures in what was their second and final bid to force a ballot on the question: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”

The Office of the Clerk in Parliament now has two months to check whether the petition is signed by the valid signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters.

That equates to around 290,000 valid signatures. If that threshold is reached, the Government has another month to name the date of the referendum. There is no reason why it should take that long. In 1999, the-then National Government took only a week to determine Norm Withers’ petition for a referendum on violent crime would be held on election day.

If Labour was as quick, there would still be the best part of two months to organise referendum arrangements. Given ballot papers for the general election cannot be printed until nominations close – around three weeks before election day – it is again hard to see what the problem would be.

There would be a problem if the election was called before the Office of the Clerk had finished validating the signatures on the petition. That is highly unlikely.

When asked outside Labour’s caucus meeting yesterday about how the referendum might square with the election date, Helen Clark walked away. The election timetable is not a subject she is ready to traverse.


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