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New Zealand PM says smacking children to remain illegal

The New Zealand government refused to bow Saturday in the wake of a national referendum that overwhelmingly called for a law change to give parents the right to smack their children.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2009 10:41 IST

The New Zealand government refused to bow Saturday in the wake of a national referendum that overwhelmingly called for a law change to give parents the right to smack their children.

Prime Minister John Key told reporters the referendum result would not be ignored but neither would the law be changed.

More than 87 per cent of those who voted called for the so-called "anti-smacking law" to be overturned. The postal ballot attracted 54 per cent of eligible voters.

Key said he "took the message seriously" and would put a series of proposals to cabinet next week but added there was no intention to change the law.

"My view is the law is working as was intended but I think the very strong message that comes through from this referendum is that New Zealand parents don't want to see themselves or their neighbours or anybody else criminalised for lightly smacking a child," he told Fairfax Media.

"There are other changes that fall short of changing the law that can be introduced to give (parents) comfort that the law will be administered in the way that I believe the compromise set out it should be."

The referendum asked: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Although the result is not binding, organisers said the government could not ignore such an overwhelming outcome.

"Because of the oxymoronic state of non-binding referenda in this country we must now ask the prime minister to respect our efforts and our voices," said referendum petition organiser Larry Baldock.

"It is time to stop claiming the 'law is working well' when there remains 87 per cent opposition to it after more than two years."

However, child advocate and anti-violence groups said the outcome of the referendum was a foregone conclusion given the "confusing and leading" question that it asked.

"The question was framed from the outset to capture a 'no' vote. The referendum question assumes that smacking can be part of good parental correction," said Heather Henare, chief executive of Women's Refuge.

Barnados New Zealand chief executive Murray Edridge said the vote did not provide any clear mandate for change.

"We are pleased that 11 per cent of the votes expressed support for the law and we are confident that over time even higher numbers of Kiwis will acknowledge the need for the law as it now stands," he said.

Many people, including Key and Opposition Leader Phil Goff, decided not to vote in the referendum, arguing its question was loaded or ambiguous.

The aim of the 2007 law was to curb New Zealand's high rate of child abuse and stop people using parental discipline as a defence against assault charges.

The law removed a provision which said parents could use "reasonable force" to discipline their children, but gave police the discretion not to prosecute trivial cases.