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Referenda is Democracy

November 24, 2020

The bleating, bitter recriminations and speculation about why people voted in the two referenda, run in association with the recent general election, have thankfully finally died. In a rare move New Zealanders were asked to decide if they wanted a legal end of life choice and recreational cannabis legalised. 

For many people these two questions were more important than the general election and rival activists spent significant amounts of time and money trying to swing the vote their way. There have been suggestions that voters were improperly influenced by one group or another, from here and overseas, and that misinformation, by those for and against both questions, skewed the result.

Those accusations fail to acknowledge the collective intelligence of the community to make decisions on complex social issues without persuasion or interference. It is highly unlikely that many people would have been influenced by what amounted to celebrity endorsements, outrageous claims by liberal activists or dire predictions of calamity by some church leaders. Campaigns for and against both questions sometimes equalled the most misleading of commercial TV advertising. There were also genuine and sincere arguments of logic and common sense for and against both issues. That is what the community was asked to decide and those decisions have been made.    

The debate on both questions has been ongoing for decades and few people would not have developed a firm opinion on them. The reality is we don’t know why people vote as they do and we don’t need to know. It is not our business to know.  Speculation is that and nothing more but the majority of people decide these matters for themselves based on what they know and what they believe. For some that will be personal experience and for others it will be from observation and personal morality. And it was the significant degree of ethical and moral considerations in both questions which led the government to let the community decide them.

Contrary to some of the more ridiculous accusations levelled at the government that decision was not cowardly or an abdication of duty. Nor was it a lack of leadership. It was courageous leadership at its best as no one in government knew which way the ballots would go but had promised to abide by them.

The Prime Minister in particular has come in for some particularly ignorant and scathing criticism for not revealing how she voted. She made it very clear from the outset that she did not want to influence the vote and wanted to remain objective on the cannabis issue if it ever came before Parliament. It seems pointless to allow the community to decide an issue and then use high public profile to influence their decision. That is what dictators do. Those who don’t understand the ethics of that stance are either incapable of understanding it or don’t want to.

There were also suggestions that not decriminalising recreational cannabis would somehow be unfair on vulnerable young people and Maori who would continue to risk conviction if they get caught with it. Someone even suggested the result of the cannabis referendum was racist because more Maori were convicted of smoking dope than other community groups. Nonsense! No one is forced to use cannabis and regular users assure us it is not addictive. It remains illegal, it is not essential for life and millions of people live healthy happy lives without it. There is therefore a very simple and effective method of avoiding conviction which even the so called vulnerable in society understand; don’t smoke dope, don’t buy it, don’t sell it and don’t grow it. Avoiding conviction doesn’t get easier than that! 

Like it or not a significant number of people want an end of life choice and a narrow majority do not want recreational cannabis legalised. These were not electoral votes or party votes, which give successful candidates and political parties a mandate to act as they promised they would. These were clear instructions from the nation to the elected members of Parliament to take action regardless of their policies and personal convictions. That also places a moral obligation on all of us inside and outside Parliament to accept those decisions regardless of how we voted. For Parliamentarians there is an added moral obligation to go a step further and actively support both decisions. That is what the community rightfully expects of them. To do otherwise and continue to campaign against the decisions of the majority on either question would be undemocratic and morally indefensible.

If elected members of Parliament are not prepared and willing to do what the nation asks of them, regardless of their personal philosophy, how can they honestly swear an oath of office and take their place in the House of Representatives?      

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