Election 2020

Jami-Lee Ross ‘pandering’ to anti-vaxxers

Analysis: Parliament's independent MP has been accused of pandering to anti-vaccine activists after he started a petition and introduced a bill against what he calls "forced vaccination," Marc Daalder reports

Jami-Lee Ross says he started a petition against "forced vaccination" because no one should be subjected to a medical procedure against their will, but leading health experts have said his actions are dog-whistling to anti-vaccine advocates, more often known as anti-vaxxers.

The independent MP who is in the process of starting his own political party, Advance New Zealand, has been accused of attempting to make a name for himself in anti-vax circles.

It started with a petition he launched in May on the Advance NZ website entitled "No Forced Vaccinations" and has been compounded by a member's bill he has submitted which would amend the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020 to make clear that the Government cannot issue an order "that has the effect of requiring a person to be vaccinated without the written consent of the person".

No mandatory vaccination in New Zealand

Ross says he's concerned about Covid-19 legislation because it he thinks it gives the Government too broad powers.

"My wife and I are vaccinated and decided ourselves that our children should be vaccinated. I am certainly not an anti-vaxxer," he said.

"But these are concerns people have that I think are genuine. And they're not driven by some concern about vaccination in general. These are everyday New Zealanders who care about the health of their children, who don't like Government over-reach and who believe that our Bill of Rights is a piece of legislation that gets overridden far too often by the Parliament."

Nikki Turner, a GP, associate professor at the University of Auckland and the director of the Immunisation Advisory Committee says this claim misleadingly implies the Government has plans to mandatorily vaccinate people against Covid-19.

"New Zealand has no mandatory vaccination strategy," she said.

"He's fighting a problem that currently does not exist. This is pandering to a very small percentage of people who distrust science and are anti-vaccination."

However, Ross said a mandatory vaccination policy was not "outside the bounds of possibility".

"The National Party has candidates that believe in that and are pushing that and are on record saying that's their policy," he said, referring to his opponent in Botany, Christopher Luxon, proposing stripping anti-vaxxers of their entitlement to welfare.

"You may say this is never going to happen, what's the point in this. But you know what, if you were to wake up in January and say, 'Hey, do you think we're ever going to force people to stay in their homes for six weeks because of this disease?' people would have laughed and said that's never going to happen."

Turner said that there would be no need to impose mandatory vaccination on the population in order to reach herd immunity levels.

"In our current experience, anti-vaccination in New Zealand is less than five percent. We have got measles elimination in New Zealand, with high enough coverage, without mandation," she said.

"Covid-19 is a less infectious disease than measles, so on current experience there is no need to introduce a bill like this when, to obtain herd immunity with Covid-19, it's likely to require around 70 percent coverage. We expect that more than 70 percent of the New Zealand population would accept a vaccine that has been properly tested and shown to be effective and safe enough for the community through the New Zealand regulatory process."

When asked in May about Ross' petition, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield likewise said that mandatory vaccination was not something the Government would need to do.

"It's not something that's in our thinking, because I don't think we will need to force people to be vaccinated against Covid-19," he said.

"I imagine that everybody, just as they have in their efforts to date, will be keen to ensure that both they and their families are protected, and also that they are contributing to our wider community effort and are protecting others, particularly vulnerable New Zealanders, who would not do well if Covid-19 was still circulating in the community."

Then-Health Minister David Clark also responded to questioning from Ross in the House in May by reassuring him that mandatory vaccination was not on the cards.

"This Government - and, indeed, previous Governments - have never compelled any individual to get vaccinated against their wishes. That is not about to change. We will not force people to get immunised against their will," he said.

'Dog-whistling'

Nonetheless, Ross has continued in his advocacy. In a June 5 Facebook video, he claimed that his petition had garnered over 13,000 signatures.

"We need those politicians to hear that people in New Zealand don't ever want to see the ability for Governments, this one or a future one, to force vaccinations on the population," he warned.

Then, at the end of the video, Ross got to the heart of the issue: "If you want to make your voice heard on this issue throughout the election campaign, then I need your help. Advance New Zealand is going to register with the Electoral Commission. We need to show the Electoral Commission that at least 500 people believe in these causes and want to have this discussed in the election campaign."

Parties require 500 dues-paying members to register with the Electoral Commission and contest the party vote. Joining Advance NZ is cheap - just $2 - and Ross has evidently garnered enough signatures after his Facebook video to lodge an application with the commission, a spokesperson for the commission told Newsroom.

Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Auckland, told Newsroom that Ross' plea at the end of his video indicated his motivation for starting the petition.

Ross said he didn't raise the issue to increase his party's membership, but because he cared about the issue.

"There's many issues that I've been raising around democracy and freedom and this is one of them. Just as every political party does, it says back our party, back our candidates if you believe in these policies," he said.

Wiles sees Ross' advocacy as something more insidious.

"He is very much planting his flag amongst a certain part of the New Zealand community who will be very concerned about this. And they're being whipped into a frenzy by lots of people and lots of conspiracy theories," she said.

"It's a worry actually. I'm very worried about the anti-vaccine sentiment because those who really believe in that space are very active at the moment. They're clearly preemptive striking and so he is playing into that, which is rather worrying, because a lot of it is based on huge amounts of, if not massive misinterpretation of things, downright lies.

"It does sound very much like the dog-whistling type thing."

Ross said that anti-vaxxers were not his target demographic.

"I have never intentionally sought out people who hold those views," he said.

"In fact, when I've been asked about it, I've said I don't feel I'm qualified to pass judgment on the health impacts or otherwise of vaccinations, but what I do feel qualified to talk on is that rights and freedoms in this country are important, that the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act went far too far and that we need to protect our rights and freedoms."

M. Dentith, a conspiracy theory researcher at the University of Waikato, agreed that Ross was dog-whistling to the anti-vax movement. He said anti-vax activism in Australia had affected the country's herd immunity against measles. While New Zealand is in slightly better shape, the movement still poses a threat to public health, he said.

"There is a little bit of a hippy-ish movement here of people who like to use alternative modalities for their medical practice," he said, citing the situation in which Kiwi wellness gurus Art and Matilda Green interviewed anti-vax activist Pete Evans on their podcast.

Dentith said minor parties often target niche, single-issue voters to bolster their support. The ACT Party, he said, was doing this with firearms owners ahead of the September election. Now Ross seems to have turned to anti-vaxxers.

"It's a sop to get a soapbox to then campaign upon," Dentith said.

"I can't really see a way in which this is responsible behaviour, given the global pandemic we're undergoing at the moment. It seems like Jami-Lee Ross is fighting more for team virus than he is for team humanity."

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