Of course, it’s not 88% of New Zealanders who voted “no”. It’s 88% of people who felt strongly enough about the issue and thought the question was meaningful enough to go to the trouble voting at all. So about half of eligible voters. Slightly more than the proportion of New Zealanders who watched the season finale of Shortland Street in ’07 to discover who the serial killer was.

That said, turnout itself can be considered a telling statistic. Polling data on why the other half of the country didn’t vote would be very interesting. Presumably some mix of:

  • John Key said it didn’t matter anyway.
  • I refused to participate in such a stupidly worded referendum question.
  • I didn’t care enough about the issue.

It continues to demonstrate a general (and encouraged) misunderstanding about the law. “Should stepping a foot on someone else’s property be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” would make a good referendum. My God! It’s only the discretion of the police that stops us from being hauled off to jail every time we scuff our feet on someone’s lawn!

Should a Smack?

I won’t bore you with a rehash of what makes the current referendum question ridiculous. That’s been well covered by just about everyone in the country – except, presumably, those who signed the petition in the first place.

The stupidity of the wording is perhaps befuddling, until one considers the original timing. Family First’s petition was never intended to be a standalone postal referendum in August ’09. They hoped to get it piggybacked with the general election last year. The same wording and language that renders the whole exercise pointless was intended to alter the outcome of the general election – an intention that harks back to a time when Family First and others believed National would reinstate the original Section 59 as a matter of course.

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The Controversial Anti-Kid-Hitting Bill

Repeal would simply mean that children and adults would be the same in the eyes of the law in regard to assault. If section 59 is eventually fully repealed children will no longer be the only group in society who can be legally assaulted. Mild assaults (so-called little smacks) will not result in complaints to the police or to prosecutions. However serious assaults, things like beatings with implements and objects causing injuries, would no longer be excused as discipline.
Beth Wood, UNICEF (Not pictured. That’s Sue Bradford. Silly.)

The front page of the Herald tells us that a Research NZ poll found 73% of Kiwis disagreed with the repeal of section 59 and 72% believed it would be unenforceable. The journalist neglected to mention (or had no idea?) that 72% believing it’s “unenforceable” means that 72% don’t even know what the repeal will do. Awful close to the number of people opposed, isn’t it?

Interestingly, they have a huge pull quote from Bradford: My bill does not deny good parents who may occasionally smack their children, nor is it a ban on smacking.

Eh? But, Sue, we’ve spent the last few months of talkback, print and television referring to the repeal as the Controversial Anti-Smacking Bill. Wasn’t that what you titled it? I sure don’t know it as anything else.

Is it any wonder that after this sustained display of impartial, non-sensationalist reporting, 72% of New Zealanders would think that the repeal is something to be “enforced”? Is it any surprise that the public are under the impression that if the Controversial Anti-Smacking Bill is made law, its “enforcement” would involve police kicking down doors and arresting anyone slapping their kids’ hands out of the power socket?

Bev Adair, of the For the Sake of Our Children Trust (think of the children!), says that ordinary families are “aghast” that their MPs were ignoring polls showing the overwhelming ignorance of opposition to the bill. “We’ve had nice nanas out banging their petitions on posts because they feel powerless to make their feelings heard.” Think of the nice nanas! Think of the nice nanas getting angry because they don’t understand what the hell is going on.

Who’s let them down? For a start, every editor or TV news producer who’s allowed the phrase “controversial anti-smacking bill” to be used in reference to the repeal. The media is necessary for a functioning democracy. People can’t support or oppose bills when the legislation is being spun at them, not to favour one side or another, but to sensationalise and profit from the kind of interest a controversial bill with a controversial name can evoke – real or imagined.

Show me a poll that asks people what the law change does and whether or not they support it. I’d bet good money that the people who oppose the bill are overwhelmingly the people who don’t know what it does, and that the people who understand the bill are overwhelmingly the ones supporting it.

Whatever the result of the Parliamentary votes, there should be a goddam investigation of media coverage of this whole affair.