As New Zealanders head to the polls this weekend, they’re not just deciding if they want Jacinda Ardern to stay on as their prime minister. Kiwis are also voting on two major social changes in a rare double referendum.
Voters will have their say on legalising recreational cannabis and assisted dying. Legalising either would make New Zealand the first country to do so via a public vote.
It’s a highly unusual situation that would arguably garner more public attention in any other year. But University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis says debate has been muted under the shadow of COVID-19.
While it was originally thought the referendum votes would completely overshadow the election, they have instead became “almost an afterthought”.
“The attempt to engage the public in it has come very late and hasn’t really had any great heat or force to it, I would say,” Professor Geddis said.
As election day fast approaches, it seems likely New Zealanders will support assisting dying legislation. But there’s scepticism as to whether the vote to legalise recreational cannabis will be successful.
Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who hopes for a “yes” vote on cannabis, is still optimistic.
“The cannabis legalisation and referendum one is closer (than the assisted dying vote), but the recent polls have been encouraging,” Ms Clark said.
“I think it will very much depend on the turnout, particularly of young people.”
A solution or a social experiment?
Ms Clark has been outspoken on legalising recreational cannabis, describing it as “unfinished business” from her time as prime minister, when there wasn’t enough support to put it through parliament.
She argues cannabis is a widespread drug in New Zealand and it is “simply futile” to try to ban it.
“In many ways, (New Zealand) is the cannabis capital of the world,” she said.
But police, prosecutors and the courts still spend millions of taxpayer dollars trying, and young Maori New Zealanders are disproportionately affected.
“It isn’t fair to criminalise people who use, possess, and supply cannabis,” she told SBS News.
“This is a soft drug with less potential for harm to health than either tobacco or alcohol.”
Voters in the cannabis referendum are being asked if they support a draft bill to legalise restricted access to the drug.
People aged 20 and above would be able to buy up to 14 grams of dried cannabis per day from licensed outlets, consume cannabis on private property or at a licensed premises, and grow a limited number of plants.
Counsellor and Say No To Dope spokesman Aaron Ironside has been speaking out against legalisation. He says the group is concerned it would put young people at risk as part of a “social experiment”.
Mr Ironside agrees people shouldn’t be convicted for smoking a joint, but cannabis-related convictions are already “falling like a stone”, following changes which gave police greater discretion not to prosecute – something Ms Clark strongly disputes.
He is instead arguing for the funding of health and education programs, without changing the legal status of cannabis.
“By all means, don’t target users for smoking a joint, treat them as a health concern, but spend our money on health and education, not on creating an industry that is based on addiction for profit,” he told SBS News.
In any event, a yes vote is not guaranteed to lead to change.
Professor Geddis said it would only put moral pressure on the winning party at the election to progress the bill through parliament, but they wouldn’t be legally required to do so.
Ms Ardern, who admitted to previously smoking cannabis when put on the spot during a leaders’ debate, hasn’t shared her personal position on legalising it for recreational use.
But she has committed to respecting the public’s wishes if they give it majority support at the referendum.
Professor Geddis says the opposition National Party has only committed to sending it to a parliamentary committee.
Assisted dying likely, but not without controversy
The introduction of assisted dying in New Zealand looks like more of a sure thing, if the polls are to be believed.
“Polling across the last 20 years has basically shown about two thirds of the public in favour of it,” Professor Geddis said.
“So, unless those polls are right out of whack, or unless something truly remarkable happens… It’s looking pretty likely that the vote in favour of the legislation to allow end of life choice will go through.”
The End of Life Choice Act, which gives terminally-ill people the option of requesting assisted dying, has already passed parliament and will be enacted if more than 50 per cent of people support it.
Despite the popular support, the bill is not without controversy. More than 1700 doctors have signed an open letter arguing that “physician-assisted suicide” is unethical, even if made legal.
The letter says doctors aren’t needed to practice or regulate assisted dying, but are being included to “provide a cloak of medical legitimacy”.
“We believe that crossing the line to intentionally assist a person to die would fundamentally weaken the doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust and respect,” the letter says.
“We are especially concerned with protecting vulnerable people who can feel they have become a burden to others, and we are committed to supporting those who find their own life situations a heavy burden.”
Anti-euthanasia group Care Alliance, meanwhile, has argued the End of Life Choice Act is “unsafe, unwise and unnecessary”.
But Ms Clark, who supported assisting dying twice when it came before parliament during her political, will again be voting yes.
“I think it’s very clear that its time has come. I’d be rather surprised if it doesn’t pass the referendum,” she said.
“A lot of older people I know will vote for it because they’ve seen people through their lives who have had a very, very shocking, miserable last period, and that’s what the bill is about.
“It won’t be everyone’s choice to ask for assisted dying, when they meet the very strict criteria of the act before the referendum. But for those who want to take that choice, I believe they should be able to take it.”
‘New Zealand doesn’t do this’
Questions remain as to whether such complex issues should be decided by a public vote. The double referendum has been described as unusual, with social or moral-type issues usually going through the parliament.
It’s essentially the outcome of the current parliament lacking a progressive majority, with the referendum-loving NZ First Party holding the balance of votes.
“New Zealand doesn’t do this,” Professor Geddis said.
“The last time that we voted on this sort of thing was back in 1947, and that was on things like whether we should allow people to bet on horse races off the racing track and whether we should change the hours at which people could drink. Since 1947, all these sorts of moral issues have been dealt with through parliament.”
Massey University politics professor Richard Shaw said offering a simple question on a complex issue could “horribly simplify” issues which may need more deliberation.
“With something of that difficulty and that sensitivity it’s hard to have a really informed debate, particularly when it’s in the midst of an election and a general pandemic and there is another referendum across the fence going on as well,” he told SBS News.
Professor Geddis said the coronavirus had also hampered each referendum in different ways, making it different for campaigners against assisted dying and those supporting the legalisation of recreational cannabis to promote their arguments.
“There may be some question as to, you know, whether people gripe about how reflective the results are at the referendum, have people given proper thought to it and so on,” he said.
“But for all that, that’s the risk when you throw these things over to the public and get the public’s view.”