Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern did not reveal her stance on cannabis during last year’s election campaign. (File photo)
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision not to reveal her position on the cannabis debate during election campaigning could have been a “decisive factor” in last year’s referendum, academics believe.
Ardern and her Labour Party did not take a public stance on the legalisation of cannabis during 2020’s election campaign, despite facing repeated questions over it.
Efforts to legalise cannabis were ultimately defeated, with 48.4 per cent of voters in favour and 50.7 per cent against.
“Referendum voting is often more volatile and unpredictable than voting in elections based on party politics,” said researchers Marta Rychert and Chris Wilkins, both of Massey University’s College of Health.
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“Adding to this volatility, the governing Labour Party decided the cannabis referendum would be a ‘conscience’ rather than a ‘party’ vote,” they wrote in a research paper.
“The self-imposed neutrality of the centre-left Labour Party and its popular leader may have been a decisive factor in the narrow defeat.”
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A spokeswoman for the prime minister declined to comment. Ardern has previously said she wanted New Zealanders to form their own views.
The research paper, which is described as commentary, was included in the Drug and Alcohol Review.
In it, Rychert and Wilkins explored numerous reasons as to why the referendum did not pass.
Chief among them was what they say was the cherry-picking of information and statistics by campaigners, instead of rational discussion of all the evidence.
The authors noted the NZ Electoral Commission had 15 registered referendum campaigners, with two clearly against the reform and 11 in favour.
Those registered had to anticipate spending more than $13,600 on the campaign, and the authors said the numbers suggested pro-legalisation campaigners outnumbered anti-legalisation groups with regard to a greater allowable campaign promotional budget.
The authors found the leading pro-legalisation reform group, Make It Legal, spent nearly four times more on social media as Say Nope to Dope, the leading anti-cannabis group.
Despite suggestions that anti-cannabis campaigners were sharing misinformation, the authors felt selective presentation of information could be levelled at campaigners on both sides.
For example, anti-cannabis campaigners selectively used statistics to negatively emphasise the impacts of cannabis on road accidents and workplace safety.
Meanwhile, pro-cannabis advocates promoted an advert with a part-quote from Jacinda Ardern that expressed her support for non-criminal responses for cannabis, but left out her concern over youth access.
“The referendum format appeared to create a public campaigning environment that encouraged persuasion and selective use of evidence rather than rational discussion of all the evidences and gaps,” Rychert and Wilkins wrote.
The authors concluded that the referendum’s voting followed established conservative-liberal, urban-rural and age divides.
For example, there was support for cannabis legalisation in major cities, with central Wellington and central Auckland seeing 73 per cent and 67 per cent support respectively.
Young people were a big part of the backing for reform too, as 70 per cent of people aged between 18 and 29 voted in favour.
However, lower socio-economic areas with high conservative Pacific populations tended to vote against cannabis legalisation, with 40 per cent support in Mangere and 41 per cent in Manurewa. Rural Canterbury districts also opposed cannabis.
“This may illustrate the role of long-established moral and religious beliefs in public opinion formation on cannabis law reform,” they wrote.