July 13, 2009
By Colin James
An enrolment deadline for the yes-means-no/no-means-yes referendum passed on Friday. Have you worked out how to vote? Will you vote?
Why vote? It is only indicative. MPs ignored the 82-92 per cent majority votes in the three previous citizens-initiated referendums, in 1995 on the number of firemen and in 1999 on reducing the number of seats in Parliament and on the needs of victims and minimum and hard labour sentences.
Major-party politicians are not keen to reopen the wounds of 2007 when the Crimes Act defence of reasonable force in disciplining children was abolished. Labour backed Sue Bradford’s bill as an article of faith. National brokered the awkward compromise as an article of politics to avoid losing women’s votes.
Whacking may well be going the way of abortion, settled by a messy compromise in 1977. Abortion still excites the minorities for “choice” and for “life” but it is parked offstage with the Abortion Supervisory Committee.
Two issues are at stake in the whacking/smacking referendum.
One is the value and future of non-binding citizens-initiated referendums.
The hurdle petitioners must clear is high. Parliament’s Clerk must approve the wording and petitioners must get a sample-checked 10 per cent of enrolled electors to sign.
Then petitioners need a credible turnout. This is guaranteed when the referendum runs alongside a general election (as in the two in 1999) or voters see it as important. Turnout in the firemen’s referendum in non-election-year 1995 was a derisory 27 per cent. (Turnout in the compulsory retirement savings referendum in non-election-year 1997 was 80 per cent but that was government-initiated.)
Postal voting, introduced in 2000 and applied to the whacking-smacking referendum, might better the firemen’s 27 per cent. But would even a 90 per cent majority on a 40 per cent turnout in next month’s referendum be convincing? Opponents of MMP questioned the validity of the 54 per cent majority on an 85 per cent turnout in that government-initiated referendum.
Turnout is one objection opponents raise against making citizens-initiated referendums binding (as they are in many United States states and in Switzerland). The topic’s public policy importance is another: the firemen vote was an issue for phone-in polling, not one in which most citizens felt they had a real stake.
Comprehensibility is a third test: can the question be answered by yes or no, can voters be effectively educated so they can make an informed decision and is the question clear? The back-to-front wording of next month’s vote has confused some voters. And so far the educating has been done by protagonists and is most likely to be heard by those voters who themselves have strong views.
That highlights the second issue in the referendum: its substance.
Fact: the police reported on Friday that from October to April they attended 279 child assault “events” which “were most likely to identify ‘smacking’-type incidents”. (The total of child assault “events” was much higher. The new law has not stopped whacking.)
Of the 279, eight involved actual smacking (not whacking) and none of those eight resulted in a prosecution, though four were referred to Child, Youth and Family or a family conference — more than smacking was involved. (Of 39 acts of “minor violence”, eight were prosecuted.)
That doesn’t sound like widespread persecution of good parents who smack.
Most of the referendum debate is at that level: the rights of the child versus parents’ rights. Civilised societies have (slowly, over centuries) been coming to deem that if a child’s rights are abused by parents, society as a whole has a duty to assert the child’s rights.
The whole society has an intimate interest in those rights, as it does of the rights of all “minorities” and defenceless individuals. Social cohesion demands it, as much as ethics. A child belongs to all of society, not just its parents.
But society also has another interest in its children: an economic interest.
A child ill-treated in the womb by a smoking, drinking, poorly-fed mother starts with a handicap. That handicap is made greater by poor nutrition, inattention to cognitive development or violence in the early years of life.
That handicapped child will do poorly at pre-school and school and will be more likely as a teenager to go off the rails or develop mental illness and less likely as an adult to be a productive worker and taxpayer. Worse, that child may as an adult be a charge on society as an addict, beneficiary or criminal or a charge on the state as a prisoner.
Intervening to assure those children a reasonable start is expensive and intrusive. But it is an investment, with a quantifiable return. John Key’s new scientific adviser, Peter Gluckman, has led international work on the science and economics of that.
It is an investment Key has hinted he will make. Whether he does will be a central test of his prime ministership — far greater than a muddled referendum.
- First published in the Dominion Post and Otago Daily Times, July 13, 09