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National's high-risk gamble on marijuana and euthanasia


National Party leader Simon Bridges might regret giving deputy Paula Bennett the drugs reform portfolio. Photo/Getty

Having polarising MPs like Paula Bennett and Maggie Barry leading the opposition to popular reforms may backfire.

On January 1, amidst a welter of media predictions about the issues likely to dominate New Zealand politics this year, former National Party activist Liam Hehir was the only one I saw who nominated “Conscience issues” — adding “Watch out, National!”

He put it third on his list for The Spinoff after “capital gains tax” and “law and order” but his warning soon looked prescient. A week later, a Horizon poll showed that 60 per cent of New Zealanders would vote to legalise cannabis for personal use in a national referendum. 

Drug policy hasn’t been traditionally treated as a conscience issue by National but Bridges said last year that his party would not campaign one way or the other. He would leave individual MPs to articulate their own views on the marijuana referendum to be held in conjunction with the general election next year. 

However, his appointment of Paula Bennett last month as National’s special envoy to the drug debate suggests we’re going to be treated to a de facto campaign of opposition as she queries the wisdom of legislative change while presenting herself as someone who has yet to make up her mind.

Assisted dying, on the other hand, has always been treated as a conscience issue by National in attempts to change the law (a bill was defeated resoundingly in Parliament in 1995 and another very narrowly in 2003). That tradition has been continued for David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill currently before a select committee.

Read more: Why is altruism left out of the euthanasia debate?

Maggie Barry has been relentlessly hostile to legalising assisted dying. Photo/Getty

As with marijuana, polls show public opinion is strongly in favour of legalising assisted dying and it is likely we will get to vote on that topic too, especially if Seymour’s bill needs NZ First’s vote in the House to succeed.

Despite strong popular support for liberalisation, however, National has effectively set its face against reform on both issues — or at the very least appears to be running interference on what many regard as the inevitability of law changes.

As leader, Simon Bridges has indicated that he would probably vote “no” on both topics. And his deputy, Paula Bennett, while saying she is “relatively open-minded”, has also said she would be likely to vote no to legalising recreational marijuana “if the vote was tomorrow”. At this stage, she says, she is just raising the questions we need to answer before voting next year. 

Nevertheless, she is already widely perceived as an opponent of any liberalisation, not least after her statement to Duncan Garner on The AM Show that we will be apologising to our kids in 30 years’ time if marijuana is legalised.  

In contrast to Bennett’s pose as a champion of the undecideds, Maggie Barry has been relentlessly hostile to legalising assisted dying, fiercely contesting David Seymour’s bill at meetings throughout the country.

Although she is not an official spokesperson on assisted dying, she is the party’s representative for seniors and has made herself the face of National’s resistance to a law change. She is usually the MP who journalists turn to for views opposed to reform.

So, in two contentious areas in which a clear majority of the public thinks law reform is overdue, National has allowed two of its most polarising politicians to represent opposition to change, whether overtly or covertly. It is difficult to see this as a wise move politically or one that will burnish the party’s credentials in either debate in the 18 months before the next election.

Barry and Bennett are polarising not least because they have a reputation for scaremongering — and a tendency to paint simplistic and inflammatory pictures of the dangers to society if either marijuana or assisted dying is legalised.

Barry’s style of debating was summed up by David Speary in a letter to the North Shore Times last September after he attended a meeting in Auckland’s Devonport: “Maggie distorted statistics and overseas reports like they were ‘fake news’, and many people in the audience got upset at her references to killing people as if it would be indiscriminate elimination of the mentally ill, physically handicapped, or the old and useless.”

In the marijuana debate, Bennett has already come under fire for various statements, including the witless claim that she has “yet to meet someone who’s incredibly successful and having a great life that smokes dope every day” — when it’s obvious she couldn’t have any idea of what most of the successful people she meets as a politician do in their spare time. And on her first outing in her new role she raised the possibility of ice creams and lollies being infused with cannabis.

Read more: Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spice up the next election

She is also known for not being on top of complex issues — an impression that has only been reinforced by her lack of a response so far to a challenge by Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick to formally debate her

Swarbrick told NOTED last week that she hasn’t had “the opportunity to formally nor substantially debate Paula on the topic, and she has not so far responded to requests to join the parliamentary cross-party group on drug harm reduction. Both invitations remain open.”

Bennett’s reluctance to engage in a formal debate is hardly surprising given that it is highly likely she would get “creamed”, as journalist Russell Brown put it

In a nine-minute face-off on Breakfast late last month that TVNZ arranged after hearing about Swarbrick’s challenge, Bennett came off second best — with the younger MP pointing out that some of Bennett’s assertions came from a report that had been widely debunked.

Bennett ended up on the defensive, claiming that Swarbrick’s accusation that her stance was “cynical” was “passive-aggressive” and “trying to put me down”. She said she had “been in politics for far too long to jump at that one”. 

Unfortunately, Bennett’s defensiveness and reference to her length of parliamentary service only served to underline the unfortunate fact that the 49-year-old deputy leader of the National Party — who has been deputy prime minister and is an experienced minister — was struggling to get the better of a 24-year-old backbench MP who has been in Parliament for all of 15 months.

Wide-eyed wonder — and confessing she hasn’t had time to read reports — is Bennett’s stock in trade when she’s faced with a topic she hasn’t mastered. But it’s going to be a long haul for her between now and the election referendum unless she comes up to speed quickly.

There is a squad of formidably well-informed and articulate advocates for legalisation — including Russell Brown and Swarbrick — who won’t let Bennett get away with relying on the force of her bubbly personality to deflect attention from her lack of preparation as she so often tries to do.

As for Maggie Barry, her shortcomings as an opponent of assisted dying were again on full show last December after David Seymour released a report suggesting amendments to his bill.

She was obviously blindsided by his recommendation that, in response to public concern, the bill should be amended to be available only to those with a terminal illness (removing access for those with “a grievous and irremediable condition”); explicitly exclude eligibility on the grounds of mental health conditions and disabilities alone; and incorporate the palliative care bill sponsored by Maggie Barry herself.

Barry’s televised bluster in response to his eminently reasonable but clearly unexpected news was simply embarrassing to watch. She dismissed Seymour’s suggested amendments as an “extraordinary flight of fancy”, “publicity seeking” and accused him of “being cute”.

It is clear that her opposition to the End of Life Choice Bill — centred on alleged risks to the vulnerable — is implacable and no safeguards or restrictions could ever be sufficient to satisfy her.

Indeed, it seems highly likely that even if every assisted death were filmed and the evidence presented immediately to the police to show the dying patient willingly took the lethal medication themselves after all the necessary precautions and paperwork had been observed — as happens at Dignitas’s clinics in Zurich — Barry would still claim the safeguards were inadequate.

National’s strategists still seem largely oblivious to the pent-up demand for change in many areas of New Zealand life that helped relegate their party to the opposition benches in 2017. 

If they are determined to stand against that tide on marijuana and assisted dying and want to be taken seriously in the debates over the next 18 months, they will really need to abandon as a matter of urgency the tabloid approaches Barry and Bennett have adopted so far.

Continuing to scaremonger on two topics important to a majority of New Zealanders will hardly further National’s plan of presenting sound policy proposals that will convince voters it is a viable government in waiting.

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