Social fault lines to the fore as referendums loom

Parliament's narrow vote in favour of a referendum on euthanasia has moved the End of Life Choice Bill one step closer to reality - but it will also mean a more complex and messy election campaign next year, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

After a week of damaging news about the Auckland light rail fiasco, Jacinda Ardern must be sick of third rail issues.

Yet the Prime Minister is now set to navigate a treacherous public debate on not one, but two politically charged and polarising social topics as she and her government seek to win re-election at the ballot box next year.

On Wednesday night, Parliament voted by a slim 63 to 57 majority in favour of amending David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill to make its entry into force conditional on a binding referendum - a change which puts long-debated legislation a significant step closer to fruition.

While it must still pass a third reading in Parliament next month, New Zealand First's support - provided in earlier stages on the understanding a referendum amendment would be introduced - gives the ACT leader breathing room should he lose a few of the 70 MPs who supported the bill at its second reading.

For Seymour, Ardern and some other euthanasia supporters, a referendum is an undesirable but necessary evil to get the legislation across the line, after attempts to change the law under previous parliaments fell short.

Proponents point to healthy levels of public support for reform, with upwards of 70 percent in favour of legalising some form of assisting dying in most polls.

That may explain Seymour sees a referendum as an acceptable compromise - but recent trends for the other referendum topic which the End of Life Choice Bill will likely feature alongside next year would caution against any complacency.

ACT leader David Seymour has expressed confidence in the public's support for euthanasia reform. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Like euthanasia, legalising the personal use of cannabis has attracted the backing of a sizeable majority of the public, with 60 percent in favour and just 24 percent against in a Horizon Research poll a year ago.

But in the face of political attacks from the National Party and the 'Say Nope to Dope' group warning of cannabis-laced gummy bears being sold to children, support has plummeted. In an August poll from Horizon Research, 47 percent were now opposed to legalisation and 39 percent in favour - a 44-point swing from just under a year ago.

The cannabis referendum faces some difficulties that euthanasia does not, such as the lack of political advocates for change, with Ardern and most of the government outside of the Greens steering clear of any endorsement or campaigning.

There is a broader lesson that may be of concern to euthanasia advocates, however: that it is relatively easy to scaremonger and instil uncertainty in the public than it is to assuage all their concerns.

The individual referendums, and the sentiment they stir up, are almost certain to bleed into each other too.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the cannabis referendum is more likely to motivate those in favour of legalisation, while the euthanasia vote will bring out social conservatives, religious voters and others opposed to change.

It may not be that simple, but running duelling referendums risks muddying the waters, with a particularly adept campaign from one side of one vote having knock-on effects with the other.

Their impact will not be restricted to whether or not any legislation changes, either, with political parties almost certainly calculating how the emotionally laden issues may affect their own electoral prospects.

Jacinda Ardern will be thinking about how the euthanasia and cannabis referendums could affect Labour's party vote. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Greens would have been hoping for a boost to their party vote from the cannabis referendum, but may now wonder whether any gains will be offset by euthanasia opponents lifting up conservative parties.

New Zealand First could benefit from the euthanasia vote given its streak of social conservatism and desire to grow its support in regional New Zealand, but the very public way in which Tracey Martin was undercut on abortion reform shows the caucus is not always on the same page when it comes to social issues.

But the biggest headache may be reserved for Labour, which already have to plan for coalition partners starting to distance themselves and now faces the spectre of conservative lobby groups targeting the Government.

Take the ever nuanced Family First, which warned social media users on Wednesday evening: “The Government wants to promote debate on giving your kids legal weed, they now want to promote debate on coming for your grandma.”

That the End of Life Choice Bill is not government legislation matters little, when Ardern serves as the face of the establishment and an obvious target for discontent.

Message discipline could also suffer as MPs and ministers are repeatedly asked for their personal perspectives on each topic (National will face the same conundrum, but has the ability to pivot to boilerplate attacks on the Government).

The Government could hold a euthanasia referendum separate from the election, but given the costs of doing so would run the risk of wasting money for political expediency.

Ardern will consider it a small mercy that abortion reform appears to have enough support across Parliament that New Zealand First will be unable to force a referendum in exchange for providing a majority.

That could only be the smallest of mercies though, and the Prime Minister may end up wishing light rail was the most contentious topic of public debate come 2020.

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