Simon Bridges' surprising stance on cannabis and euthanasia

by Graham Adams / 06 August, 2018

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Opinion.

Simon Bridges has made himself look more dynamic than Labour on the issues of assisted dying and recreational marijuana. Photo / RNZ

National’s leader puts a rocket under Labour.

During a meeting in Wellington in May as part of his whistle-stop tour of the country, Simon Bridges said he intended to “modernise” the National Party. He reassured his audience that We’re not going to suddenly not be the National Party” but added: We do have to have the capacity every now and again to surprise.” 

And he certainly has. First, he backed an alternative medicinal cannabis bill put into the members’ ballot by Dr Shane Reti and followed that manoeuvre by announcing a National-led government under his leadership would legalise recreational marijuana and assisted dying if referendums showed that’s what the public wanted.

This is revolutionary talk for a leader of the National Party. It’s not that Bridges has suddenly become enamoured of either recreational marijuana or assisted dying — and his comments on both issues indicate he isn’t — but he does appear to be in favour of following the electorate’s will even if that means putting his own socially conservative values aside.

Whether he would be as good as his word if he became prime minister, and whether it is even possible given his mostly conservative caucus, he has put a rocket under Labour by suddenly appearing more dynamic than them on both issues and at the same time exposing their complacency and inaction. It’s worth remembering that we have the Greens to thank for a referendum on recreational marijuana and NZ First for the possibility of one on assisted dying — not Labour.

And, of course, Act MP David Seymour is responsible for the End of Life Choice Bill currently before the Justice select committee, with NZ First having said it will continue to support it only if a binding referendum is held before any law change.

And although the Greens rarely mention it, it has been their party policy from 2016 to allow the terminally ill the right to medical assistance to end their life. 

Labour's cautious stance

Labour doesn’t have a proudly progressive record on either issue. It has taken an extremely cautious stance on liberalising drug laws over many years and has actively thwarted the possibility of progress on assisted dying laws.

In 2013, Labour MP Maryan Street — reportedly under pressure from senior party members — withdrew her assisted dying bill from the member’s ballot because she didn’t want it to become a political football in the run-up to the election. And in the aftermath of Labour’s defeat in 2014, Andrew Little refused to allow Iain Lees-Galloway to take up the cause himself when Street lost her seat in Parliament. 

Helen Clark was no better. When Peter Brown’s Death with Dignity Bill was narrowly defeated in 2003, he asked Clark — who voted for it — about the possibility of presenting it as a government measure. She told him it was better suited to be a member’s bill.

Brown resubmitted his bill in 2004 but it was still undrawn in the biscuit tin when he left Parliament in 2009.

On the question of recreational marijuana, Bridges’ statement has put Labour’s ministers in an uncomfortable position. When Health Minister David Clark was later asked whether a referendum on marijuana would be binding, he said he would have to ask his colleagues before commenting but added that he personally supported more liberal drug laws, admitting that prohibition hadn’t worked. 

Jacinda Ardern and her Justice Minister Andrew Little are also cagey. In late May, Ardern wouldn’t commit to legalising recreational marijuana even if the referendum gives her government a clear mandate. 

Little was similarly cautious when asked in late July whether a referendum would be binding, and suddenly he and Ardern look like democracy’s slow-pokes. Bridges, however, has put himself firmly on the side of the angels and of direct democracy, alongside Winston Peters, David Seymour and James Shaw, who said: “There's not a lot of point holding a referendum if you don't pay any attention to the result.”

What's behind Bridges' more liberal stance?

There are various reasons why Bridges might be motivated to state his willingness to preside over law changes in two highly contentious areas that are normally no-go areas for the Nats (apart from the possibility, of course, that he really does believe that referendums should always be binding).

The most obvious is that both assisted dying and marijuana reform are hugely popular — including among National supporters — and Bridges may simply see an opportunity to harvest more votes, even if that upsets some of his conservative base. After all, who else can they vote for?

Is Bridges drumming up support for the setting up of a new party? Photo / screenshot

It’s also possible that Bridges’ more open, liberal stance on these topics is part of a broader strategy involving the setting-up of a new party that would give arch-conservatives and the religious a home for their votes and National a much-needed ally in Parliament.

Bridges has spoken of a new party being formed that would give new options for National in 2020.

He told his audience in Wellington: I can’t tell you tonight whether it’s going to be a breakaway from New Zealand First, New Zealand First imploding [or] going with us, a conservative party, a Christian party, a law and order party, a Lance O’Sullivan party, a Maori party, a real green party as opposed to this kind of communist Green Party, but we will have one of those options or potentially several of them.”

If that’s part of National’s grand strategy, it makes sense for Bridges to try to pull more liberal voters into National’s orbit in the knowledge that conservatives will be able to peel off to a new support party if they are unhappy with him.

A big part of John Key’s broad appeal was because he was a social liberal who could play the good cop to Bill English’s conservative bad cop when issues such as assisted dying were raised. Key said in 2016 that, while he was personally in favour of assisted dying, his government would never introduce such a bill even if the public wanted it because of the religious faction in his caucus.

A slightly more liberal National Party running alongside a more conservative party would have a similar effect and reach to that of the Key-English combo.

Of course, Bridges’ stated willingness to legislate in line with the results of referendums also gives Labour a freer hand to agree to a similar position, given that National won’t be able to then accuse it of being soft on drugs or indifferent to the sanctity of life, or whatever line is currently being pushed by those opposed to assisted dying.

The problem of timing

Labour’s big problem will be deciding when to schedule the referendums. If they are held alongside a general election, it might give the Greens an advantage as the prospect of liberal marijuana laws could motivate more people than usual to get out and vote and many of this cohort are likely to also vote for marijuana’s principal parliamentary champion. That could swell the Greens’ share of the party vote and reduce Labour’s dominance on the left. Perhaps for that reason, Shaw is in favour of the referendum being held alongside an election.

If Labour decides to schedule the referendums earlier in the political cycle — say, late next year — it is open to charges of inefficiency and wasting money, especially given that it pilloried John Key over the cost of the flag referendum. It would obviously be simpler and cheaper to make it part of the general election in 2020.

The fate of David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill will decide whether there is a referendum on assisted dying. If NZ First’s votes aren’t crucial to its passing, there will be no need for one. But by signalling that a National government would be willing to pass laws allowing assisted dying in the event of a majority in a referendum being in favour, Bridges has immediately given its MPs greater latitude to support it.

As long as Bill English — a practising Catholic and a staunch opponent of any such law change — was dominant in National’s cabinet on social issues, there was a lot of pressure for MPs to fall into line behind him. Only 21 MPs in Bill English’s caucus voted in December 2017 in favour of the End of Life Choice Bill going to select committee, with 35 opposed.

Bridges has dramatically eased the pressure for anyone in his caucus who worries whether voting in favour of David Seymour’s bill is a wise career move.

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