Heather Du Plessis-Allan: It’s not Jacinda Ardern’s fault that NZ voted against legalising cannabis


It isn’t Jacinda Ardern’s fault that the cannabis legalisation referendum failed.

Plenty of disappointed pro-legalisation voters are unfairly blaming the Prime Minister. They believe the vote might’ve passed if only she had declared earlier how she’d voted, rather than keeping it a secret until after the results were announced.

As soon as Ardern finally admitted to a “yes” vote, social media filled with messages accusing her of “zero leadership on this issue”, wishing she had “mentioned BEFORE the election”, saying she “was unwilling to spend a cent of her political capital to get it across the line” and arguing that it “could have made a difference to the results if she had told us beforehand”.

It might’ve made a difference, it might not have. Maybe Ardern could have led a few undecideds to follow her into the “yes” camp through her moral leadership.

Maybe it would’ve backfired in the way Sir John Key’s preference in the flag referendum is thought to have, with people voting to oppose his preference just because it was his preference.

Who’s to know?

Really, this wasn’t Ardern’s battle to fight. It was the Green Party’s. They are the ones who have let the “yes” camp down badly.

This was an issue so important to the Green Party that they made the referendum a precondition of supporting Labour into government last term, and yet, once they secured the referendum, they hardly did anything to make sure it succeeded.

There was nowhere near enough of a national, organised campaign to get this thing across the line.

While the “no” vote swung into action in an impressive way, the “yes” vote was AWOL, bar Chloe Swarbrick’s hard work and frequent media appearances. Good as Chloe is, one MP is not enough against an organised campaign of opposition.

Either the Green Party couldn’t all agree that they cared enough to mount a campaign, or they didn’t have the money, or they fell into the trap of thinking enough New Zealanders agreed with them that they didn’t need to try to convince anyone.

Their inability to finish what they started will set back the pro-legalisation camp for years if not decades. It’ll be a long time before New Zealand gets another crack at this.

In light of that, it’s a smart political move by Swarbrick to try to pin the blame of this failure on the PM.

Asked if the PM should have declared her vote, Swarbrick gives answers like “all politicians who had a view on this should have said”, and suggests that Ardern doesn’t have the courage of her convictions.

While that will appeal to Ardern’s critics, the truth is it was never really Ardern’s battle to fight.

In any case, it’s naive of anyone to have expected Ardern to burn political capital on another party’s issue. This is far too much of a progressive and polarising subject for her to touch.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned and are learning every day, it is that Ardern is a middle-of-the-road politician. She is a centrist, not a transformer. She takes moral positions on things that most Kiwis already agree on: euthanasia, anti-terrorism, saving lives from Covid. It’s not a big political risk. Ardern does not waste her political capital on anything contentious.

Nor should she have to. If her main goal is re-election, why would she risk that by taking a stance on an issue that her minor government partner is pushing? If Ardern was prepared to back away from the capital gains tax – which she still “believes in” – why would she stick her neck out for cannabis?

It is not Ardern’s fault the cannabis referendum failed. It is the Green Party’s.

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