Our Christian friends have done it: their pro-smacking petition now has the required 285,000 signatures to prompt a citizens' initiated referendum, to be held by post at heaven knows what cost to the taxpayer. It's not the fact that this referendum will be non-binding that bothers me - it's the fact that it is going ahead at all.
Democracy is rule by the majority, but the majority isn't always right. Some ideas are dumb no matter how many people support them. Example: when the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was being debated, Keith Hay and others organised a petition of many thousand signatures in an attempt to prevent the legalisation of consensual sex between adult men. According to opponents of homosexuality, all sorts of social evils were about to ensue. (The petition was judged to be dodgy and was discredited. Mickey Mouse was found to have signed four times, for example - dishonest sod that he is.) NZ had a moral crisis, but the sun rose the day after the bill passed into law, life went on, and - with the exception of the likes of Family First - society realised that gays aren't that bad. Similarly, you don't find many people out there who are proud they supported the Springbok tour. Ideas change and society moves on. It was, of course, the democratic right of Hay and his cronies to launch their petition, but their public persecution of gay and lesbian people did very little to enhance democracy, tolerance, or any of those fine liberal values that our society is supposed to cherish.
I'm not advocating the stifling of democratic debate, but in the case of the smacking issue, the arguments in favour have been uniformly dumb. Let's run through them.
1) Smacking works.
2) The state can't tell us what to do in our homes.
3) God says it's OK.
It seems to me that if you can discipline kids without violence - and it's manifestly clear that you can - then you should, whether smacking works or not. The state can and does tell us what to do in our homes, and most people would agree that banning wife-beating, for example, is a quite legitimate thing for the state to do. Finally, church and state are separate and have been for some time. Get over it. It was important to discuss these issues publicly in the interests of social progress. And we did. At length.
But when the debate is done and dusted, if there's still no good reason whatsoever to support smacking - and I truly haven't heard a single one - then why spend millions of dollars rehashing the issue via a referendum? In my admittedly half-arsed reading of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, I could find no power of the Clerk of the House of Representatives to reject a frivolous petition question. If there is no such power (and one of you smart readers might know of it), I'd like to see one.
Citizens' initiated referenda have the potential to be stupid, wasteful or even harmful. Imagine, for example, a petition banning people from Muslim countries from emigrating to New Zealand in the name of quelling terrorism. Such a petition would be obviously offensive and would make Muslim kiwis feel unsafe and threatened. Yet it's not impossible that such a petition would succeed in meeting the threshold to trigger a referendum, or would do social damage even if it didn't get the required signatures. I don't feel particularly comfortable with public discussion of smacking kids: I find it difficult to explain to my children why some people think I should hit them. And then there's the monetary cost of referenda. It seems a bit ironic that NZ is about to spend up big on a ballot about hitting kids when, as a result of the 'It's not OK' campaign against family violence, under-funded community anti-violence programmes are being flooded with more clients than their meager resources can deal with.
Of course, there are a lot of practical problems with what I'm arguing here. Who gets to decide when a petition calling for a referendum is frivolous or damaging? And how do you set a 'stupidity' threshold for vetting petition questions? As usual, I don't have all the answers ... just a sneaking suspicion that democracy isn't always democratic.