National thought it was onto a winner when it released a cabinet paper a couple of days ago about the cannabis referendum. Instead of being the party of leaks it was able to claim that the Government also had a leak problem although the actual extent of the problem may not have been high.
And it thought that it could embarrass the Government by showing that the Government was not serious about the referendum because it did not support the once the referendum passes then the law that Parliament had already passed comes into force option in the cabinet paper.
Instead the Government has gone with option 3, that is the referendum will include a non-binding question accompanied by draft legislation. But as confirmed by Jacinda Ardern in Parliament yesterday, the three Government parties have confirmed their agreement to respect the decision of the referendum and to vote in favour of the result.
There is a precedent for option 4, that is Parliament passes the law but it is conditional on an affirmative referendum vote. This was the original MMP legislation. But this was heavy duty electoral reform which Parliaments muck around with at their peril. By way of contrast drug law has always been subject to political whim and there is no sign that this is going to change.
Andrew Geddis sums up the situation in this passage:
… Chloe Swarbrick’s admission there was “no consensus” on adopting this “legislate, then let the people endorse” approach indicates that one of the governing parties was loathe to publicly vote for a bill to permit cannabis legalisation in advance of any referendum. We needn’t speculate for too long on which party that might be, because I think it will have the words “New” “Zealand” and “First” in it.
Which places us in a (to my mind) less-than-ideal place. Having said that, let’s not overly catastrophise the issue, shall we?
Any wailing and gnashing of teeth that the announced process means the referendum result now will be “non-binding” seems entirely misplaced to me. There simply is no such thing as a truly “binding” referendum in our system of parliamentary supremacy, because any parliament may undo what a previous parliament has decided.
Even if the current parliament were to enact legislation to legalise cannabis, and even if this were to be approved of by voters at a referendum, the next parliament is entirely free as a legal matter to retain or repeal it. Just as the next parliament is entirely free as a legal matter to enact or ignore any bill that the public say they want to see become the law.
Any difference in the two situations is then politico-moral in nature, not legal.
If the referendum passes then what will National do?
They spent all day avoiding the question. And no doubt they will be polling furiously to see if conservative voters otherwise supportive of Jacinda and Labour or even Winston and NZ First will switch because of the proposed reforms.
There is a cross party group in Parliament working which National has refused to engage in. And yesterday the reason was declared. Basically it involved Paula Bennett being bitchy.
From Radio New Zealand:
Mrs Bennett was asked whether she would participate, as National had refused to be part of the group that had been operating up until now.
The problem had been, she said, was the group was run by “Chloe [Swarbrick] and her mates”.
“I just don’t see how, with all respect, a junior member of Parliament that is not a part of government is the spokesperson on drug reform which could change the social fabric of this country.
“So if they’re serious about a cross-party, put a Cabinet minister in there and I will happily sit with them and any other Member of Parliament.”
And Simon Bridges started to talk about cannabis infused gummy bears. Which brought on this example of interweb brilliance.
He was kicked out of Parliament yesterday essentially for being an idiot. Not one National MP followed him. It must be really lonely being leader of the opposition right now.
And the MPs have been asked the compulsory “have you ever smoked cannabis question” and the responses have gone from a traditional “no way no how” to “yes I tried it once or twice but I did not like it”. Speaking as someone who grew up in South Auckland, went to University in the 1980s and then moved to West Auckland I am intrigued that they have lived such sheltered lives.
The topic is going to become intensely political and will have more than a minor effect on the next election in that it is expected to boost turnout. But do not expect a reasoned respectful discussion about what is best.