Smoko: Taking a closer look at new smacking poll

At University, the first time round, I majored in rugby and cricket, and minored in "social studies".

Somewhere along the line, one or two tidbits of knowledge were assimilated.

In industrial mathematics, one lesson was repeatedly rammed home: there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

That is to say, in practised hands, data can be interpreted selectively through the questions asked and the results highlighted, or indeed, omitted.

Another great nugget which has never stopped being useful - particularly in this profession - is try never to take "research" at face value.

Who has commissioned the research, who has conducted it, and is there a relationship between the two?I was curious about the recent poll conducted on behalf of the lobby group Family First.

This group campaigned vociferously against the repeal of section 59 of the Crimes Act - which essentially removed the defence in law for parents who hit their children excessively ostensibly for the purposes of correction.

The compromise that was eventually reached, as its detractors have pointed out, is messy in that it relies on a discretion of the police not to prosecute parents who smack their children if the act is deemed "inconsequential".

However, on balance, I am in favour of the legislation because of this country's appalling record on violence against children.

The law change may not stop the worst cases of child abuse, but if it goes some way towards creating a climate of opinion in which it is considered inappropriate to hit children, then it is a good thing.

But to return to that research. Its thrust was that opposition to the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 (otherwise known as the child discipline Act or the anti-smacking Bill) had grown in the past year.

Without going through it in detail, it found that 48% of parents with children under 12 said they had smacked their children in the past year.

Launching the poll results, Family First national director Bob McCoskrie said: "For a new law to be ignored by so many people who are willing to risk a police or CYF investigation indicates just how out of step with reality this law is."

He might equally have said: "Fifty-two percent of parents have abided by the new law, when a year ago, 78% said they would not."

He could have made the point that of the 48% (out of about 250 parents of children under 12 in the total respondent sample of 1018), few, if any, had been prosecuted under the new law, and fears it would lead to a rash of prosecutions have proved groundless.

Mr McCoskrie could also have been a little more transparent about who conducted the research on his organisation's behalf.

It was a company called Curia Market Research. Curia is owned by David Farrar. Mr Farrar, in another guise, runs the Right-leaning Kiwiblog.

He has consistently opposed the child discipline amendment and other Labour-led initiatives, including the Electoral Finance Act. He is perfectly entitled to do so.

On his blog, the talented Mr Farrar discloses that he joined the Young Nationals in 1986 and has been affiliated to and a member of the National Party.

He worked in the Prime Minister's Office for Jenny Shipley and in the Leader of the Opposition's office under Jenny Shipley, Bill English and Don Brash.

(In a similar spirit of disclosure, this columnist has been a journalist for almost 25 years; in 2007, while freelancing, he was contracted by Ministerial Services for about 10 weeks as a temporary ministerial press secretary.

He is not a member of any political party, but astute readers may have discerned a liberal tendency in some of his columns.)Mr Farrar's associations do not invalidate any of the work Curia Market Research carries out for its clients, which is undoubtedly highly professional.

A glance at Curia's website gives an indication of the company's modus operandi. "Curia believes polling is an art, as well as a science . . .

"We work closely with our clients to ensure the questions asked will be of maximum benefit (the right answer to the wrong question can be worse than the wrong answer to the right question), to provide meaningful results . . ."

So, let me see if I've got the hang of this.

Prominent pro-smacking lobby group employs prominent pro-smacking "activist" to provide market research designed to emphasise a statistically validated message?In today's spin-spun world, that's probably par for the course.

All the same, it does lend Family First's most recent headline-making poll an interesting twist.

Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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