How did that wording get through, anyway?

How did the section 59 repeal question get through the neutrality screening process and into a referendum in its current form? I find it completely mystifying. For those who aren’t aware, here is the question that will be making its way into our mailboxes post-election:

“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offense in New Zealand?”
(emphasis mine)

First, there’s the fact that they were allowed to use a nebulous word like “good”, which essentially means “anything I approve of,” which essentially lets the reader pick their own definition. We might as well remove it from the question and be left with “Should a smack as part of parental correction be a criminal offense in New Zealand?” It’s pretty clear that saying “no” to this leaves us open to sanctioning child abuse so long as it’s in the form of “smacking”.

The essential recurring problem here is that the pro-section 59 lobby have given us no objective legal way of qualifying what “good parental correction” means in relation to smacking and the charge of assault. They insist that it’s a common-sense test, which would be fine if there were evidence of good parents being convicted for, say, losing their temper once or twice. Even the most extreme cases brought up by the lobby have all been dismissed at somewhere along the process- normally after a verbal warning, or after the complainant was revealed to be untrustworthy. That’s hardly the case of good parents being sent to prison that detractors of the law change were worried about, and sounds to me like a case of the new law working both in the sense of protecting the innocent, and in the sense of attempting to prevent and prosecute child abuse.

There’s also a final test: Any definition of acceptable smacking is not satisfactory if it defines an acceptable level of abuse, or allows abusive parents a solid defense against conviction like the old law did. Even if an objective test can be found- like Chester Burrow’s amendment mentioning “transitory and trifling harm”- it still needs to make a clear statement against child abuse, and still needs to allow us to bring people who are clearly being abusive to justice. I think after the robust debate on this issue, it’s unlikely we’ll find any compromise that can pass this final test.

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8 thoughts on “How did that wording get through, anyway?

  1. I find that I can’t answer that question so I guess I’ll have to spoil the voting paper.

    Does anyone know how referendum questions are made? Are they up to the people who make the petition i.e. the referendum question wording is decided by people who start petitions who may have no idea of how referendum questions need to be worded in order to make sense? Are there any rules around this?

    I’m trying to remember, what was the other referendum we had where the question was worded in a stupid way?

  2. I think essentially that the petitioners get to propose the question and it gets sent back to them to re-propose if it’s not deemed a neutral phrasing. That’s what I remember from the teevee nooz. πŸ˜‰

    As I’m quite new to voting on referenda I’m probably not the right person to ask about other stupidly worded questions, but I’m sure this wouldn’t be the only one ever.

  3. I’m pretty sure it’s the Clerk that helps them with the wording. You’d think after the referendum on crime and sentencing (if that’s what it was), they wouldn’t allow such badly worded questions.

  4. Personally, I think referenda stink, because they reduce complex political issues to a simple “Yes” or “No” and can too readily be bought by slick advertising campaigns by wealthy interests pandering to prejudice among uninformed voters.

    But if we have to have them, then surely they should be required to be worded in some meaningful way.

    This one, regardless of the outcome, can readily be argued to support both the current law and whatever its proponent would like the law to be. It simplifies the complex legal issue of the defence of justification with regard to the criminal offence of assault to the simplistic issue of “smacking” (whatever that means).

    I really think if people are proposing CIRs to change the law, they be required to draft and include in the petition for the CIR the precise wording of the legislative amendment they are proposing. That is what happened with the Government-initiated referendum on the electoral law that saw us move to MMP – the entire Bill was available to voters before they cast their votes in the referendum.

  5. I really think if people are proposing CIRs to change the law, they be required to draft and include in the petition for the CIR the precise wording of the legislative amendment they are proposing. That is what happened with the Government-initiated referendum on the electoral law that saw us move to MMP – the entire Bill was available to voters before they cast their votes in the referendum.

    Indeed, that would prevent these types of problems quite handily. I’d say that suggestion is totally post-worthy, Toad. πŸ™‚

  6. That question has been designed to get a No response. Peoples natural response to that question is to say that No, of course good parenting shouldn’t be illegal – Hell, I do it and I know that the question is designed to do that. It should never have got past the Clerk of the House but I suspect it wasn’t put to an actual linguist as it needed to be.

  7. Pingback: Language is a wonderful thing « Ideologically Impure

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