Why are referenda questions so badly worded?

Referenda are very blunt instruments.

They usually give voters only two options – supporting or opposing the proposition with no ifs, buts or maybes.

That makes it very important to get the question right but those behind the referendum on child discipline have got the question wrong.

Most people understand the intent of the referendum – a change in the law which got rid of the reasonable force defence for people accused of hitting children to ensure that parents who lightly smack a child aren’t criminalised for doing so.

But the intention isn’t clear in the question which asks “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”

Who’s smacking whom and who’s being corrected?

Would a violent smack as part of good parental correction be okay but a light one as part of bad parental correction not be?

Those are silly questions but that’s the problem with the referendum question which is open to silly interpretations.

I support the intent of the law but like Macdoctor, I think the underlying problem with it is confusion:

Kids are not being dragged off to CYFS because of a light smack. Masses of police resources are not being wasted following up on smacking “leads”. On the legal front, not a lot has changed.

The problem is . . . There is considerable fear, uncertainty and doubt about the new law and what is really acceptable. . . . The net result of this uncertainty is a reduction in the use of smacking – a result that the advocates of the repeal applaud. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of this is that some parents will lack the skill-set to use some other form of discipline, resulting in the use of no discipline at all.

The whole “anit-smacking” debate was badly handled from the beginning and that led to bad law but a badly worded referendum question isn’t going to improve matters.

Just as the proponents of the law missed an opportunity to get the legislation right, the proponents of the referendum have wasted the opportunity to correct the problems with it.

Smacking isn’t child abuse . It isn’t good parenting either however, I am very uneasy about the law which makes it a criminal offence.

I won’t be voting yes but I don’t think I’ll be voting no either because by asking the wrong question the referendum means neither answer is right.

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