Kiwi Politics: Progressives, Pandemics and Possibilities – Part Two

In the first part of this two-part series (found here), I looked at the current New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern from her early life into her very successful premiership with a rag-tag coalition government. In this second part, I will be looking less at individuals and more at policy proposals, upcoming referenda and the foreseeable election.

Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand

The 2020 New Zealand General Election

To begin, I will take a look at the upcoming General Election in NZ, which will pit Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party against their primary adversaries, the National Party. The National Party replaced their former leader, Bill English, with their new leader, Judith Collins, on the 14th of July 2020. At the time of writing, she has had little time to set out her platform for the upcoming election but given Ardern’s recent success in battling back COVID-19, and her recent reopening of the country, she stands in a good position to get re-elected.

Indeed, the betting odds seem to back this up, with all bookmarkers listed on OddsChecker, a gambling comparison website, making the Labour Party odds-on favourites to win the election. Furthermore, recent polling found that 88% of voters in New Zealand answered they trust the government “a lot” or “a little” to make future decisions in light of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Only 9% of voters answered that they “do not trust [the government] very much” or “do not trust [the government] at all”, with the rest “unsure”.

By comparison, the G7 average (by the same categories) returned 59% trusting the government “a lot” or “a little”, with the remaining 41% divided into 24% “do not trust very much”, 11% with “do not trust at all” and 6% “unsure”.

Moreover, the New Zealand government’s COVID-19 approval rating is thirty points higher than the G7 average, with a ratio of 84:54. Finally, on polling, the Labour Party has taken a sharp upward swing in the COVID era at the expense of their more conservative National Party rivals, as you can see in the graph below.

NZ 2020 Election Polling by % of National Support

This polling stands the Labour Party in good stead for the upcoming election, meaning we may see the formation of a Labour government without the need for external party support. While the Labour-NZ First-Green coalition has been an all-round success, it would be easier for Ardern to manoeuvre without the requirement of cross-party support within her own government. Now it is worth bearing in mind that these polls do not account for the new leader of the National Party, which could have an impact on the direction of the National Party campaign. That said, with in-person campaigning likely being kept to a minimum, even with the country reopening, the capacity for massive polling deficits to be overturned is diminished.

The Referenda

As I mentioned in the previous article on New Zealand’s politics, they use my favoured electoral system, Mixed-Member Proportional Representation. Critics of the idea in the UK claim that its ‘too hard’ for voters to understand and our current system is easy for the masses to grasp. Apart from being unbelievably rude towards the electorate, this argument also fails when you consider countries that use MMPR tend to be able to form strong governments, without citizens leaving the polling station with a migraine.

The reason I bring that up is that this time around, the NZ election will be accompanied by not one, but two referendums on highly controversial topics: the legalisation of the production, sale, possession and use of cannabis, and whether to legalise voluntary euthanasia for those who meet specific criteria. The first will be non-binding, meaning that the government does not have to pass it into law, whereas the second will be binding, making it compulsory the legislation to be passed into law.

The Cannabis Referendum

The legalisation, or decriminalisation of cannabis, has been a hot-button issue amongst some sections of the electorate for a long time. Here, I am not just referring to New Zealand, but across the western world. As far as I can see, the arguments against legalisation are that it is a gateway drug with can lead people towards heavier drugs. Also, it has been proven to cause significant physical and mental health problems in long-term users. Two totally acceptable arguments.

The argument to the contrary though, claims that people are still using cannabis whilst it is illegal, leading to higher policing costs and prison sentences for people who are ultimately, committing a victimless crime. Further, there is evidence to suggest that the cannabis-gateway theory would actually be negated by legalisation, as most cannabis users form connections with dealers who then attempt to up-sell them different, harder drugs. Essentially, by removing shady drug dealers from people’s experience of purchasing cannabis, one greatly diminishes the chances of the buyer from coming into contact with a drug dealer who would later sell them hard drugs.

That is not to mention the tax benefits to the state, who would be able to raise further revenue from value-added-tax (VAT) on cannabis sales, as well as business tax from the companies selling the product, on top of the income tax that would be made by the employees of these companies. Regardless of the left-right leaning of a government, the wiggle-room is there to either redistribute the capital via the state or cut taxes elsewhere. Unless you are a diehard social conservative, I see no major downside legalisation of cannabis. The medical complications are certainly no worse than we see with rampant alcoholism, which is a far bigger issue with a far smaller associated stigma.

Either way, we can debate the arguments for and against all day, but the numbers tell the story. The projection seems to be that this referendum will be incredibly tightly run, but currently, the Yes Campaign (pro-legalisation of cannabis) are in lead.

Polling on the 2020 NZ Cannabis Referendum

With only a 2% of the electorate that are currently undecided, it seems as though the pro-legalisation campaign may have this wrapped up. There is still room for change, but given that campaigners on both sides will have eyes on both the Euthanasia Referendum and the wider General Election, it may be the case the campaigning resources are stretched too thin to make a major difference. That said, it is close. Keep an eye on the polls as we approach September the 19th to watch for shifts in opinion.

The Euthanasia Referendum

Any long-time reader of TPIN will know that I am cautiously opposed to euthanasia, whilst remaining open to the idea if a sensible proposal is put forth. I worry that it must either exclude many people who do rightfully deserve to end their life, or it must be open to as many people as can be reasonably given the right to end their life, but the latter option leaves space for abuse. The bill being voted on, is the End of Life Choice Act 2019 and whether it should come into force. This bill, after continued appeals from the Green Party, is extremely tightly regulated, meaning that there will inevitably be unfortunate cases of people who wish to end their lives, but are not allowed, due to failure to meet certain requirements.

The question New Zealanders face is whether or not it is rational to vote against this bill in spite of its shortcomings, or whether it is better to vote for a bill that allows some to end their life early, but not others. To me, this a classic case of the no-win voting scenario (see video). Although I can see how to some voters, this proposal seems fair, well-reasoned and well-regulated, and to others, it seems a moral atrocity. If there is one thing we’ve learnt, it is that referendums are seldom fought in good faith these days.

Despite the emotive nature of euthanasia typically giving rise to emotive discourse and strong antagonism on both sides of the debate, New Zealanders have found a level of agreement on the topic. Polling has found consistent support in favour of the End of Life Choice Act, as well as hypothetical examples (in polling prior to the End of Life Choice Act’s writing) in the 70-80% range. This is, in part, due to the fact that both major parties (the National Party and the Labour Party) agree on the issue, leaving only a selection of MPs to vote against the bill going to the public.

Examples of Three Polls that Show a Massive Favorability Towards Legalising Euthanasia

The Euthanasia Referendum appears to be even more likely than both the Labour Party winning the election outright, and the Cannabis Referendum being won by the Yes Campaign. It will certainly be interesting to see how the difficult issue with manifest in New Zealand’s society and what the unintended consequences of the bill could be. Often, you can never foresee some of the knock-on effects of such a seismic change in law, so New Zealand will undoubtedly be used as a case study by advocacy groups, or possibly by reactionary groups across the globe when it comes to the euthanasia debate.

Final Remarks

My hope is that throughout these two articles, you have learnt something about Kiwi politics, whether that be the phenomenal rise of Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand response two international threats; far-right terrorism and COVID-19, or whether it be their politics and their attempts at social reform that are still ongoing. New Zealand is an interesting country politically and it certainly has a lot to offer the world in terms of setting an outstanding example that we can all learn from and hopefully, begin to follow.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020