WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealanders voted overwhelmingly to overturn a law that prohibits parents from hitting children, according to the results of a nationwide referendum released Friday, but the government says the law is working and won't be changed.
Opponents of the 2007 law claim it is overly intrusive and could turn thousands of good parents into criminals.
They won the right to hold the referendum, which is not binding, by signing up 300,000 eligible voters in support of it. They also drew up the question.
But the ballot measure has drawn widespread criticism, with Prime Minister John Key and main opposition Labour leader Phil Goff refusing to vote. Both said the question was so skewed as to make the results meaningless.
In a postal vote that closed Friday, 87.6 percent of voters responded "No" to the question: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offense in New Zealand?"
Just 11.81 percent of voters said "Yes," according to the nation's electoral office. About 54 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. The final result will be declared on Tuesday.
"John Key cannot ignore this result. The attempt by politicians to dismiss the referendum as ambiguous and irrelevant has also been rebuked by the voters," Family First director Bob McCoskrie, who advocated for changing the law.
He said the government should amend the law to allow light smacking and set up a royal commission of inquiry into child abuse.
Key said he would take note of the referendum result but won't change a law "that is working." He would, however, take a proposal to the nation's Cabinet on Monday to reassure parents they will not be criminalized. He did not elaborate on whether the proposal would alter the law – or how its applied.
The law, which Parliament passed overwhelmingly, prohibits parents from using force to discipline their children but gives police the discretion not to prosecute complaints "where the offense is considered so inconsequential there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution." No prosecutions have succeeded under the new law.
Deborah Morris-Travers, a spokeswoman for the Yes-vote coalition, was "unsurprised" by the result.
"We always expected it would go in favor of the no-vote because of the way that the question was phrased – it was loaded and misleading ... suggesting that good parents are being criminalized when in fact they are not," she said.
Police statistics show only serious cases are pursued and parents who lightly smack their children are left alone, she said.