Gordon Campbell on flirting with Act, and on the euthanasia/cannabis measures

83e49b865865923a50a98b1eeec363ffLess than convincingly, Judith Collins says that if elected to govern, she would not be enacting any of the austerity measures and welfare cuts advocated by her Act Party partner. Yeah, sure. Because the National Party that hand-wrapped and gifted the Epsom electorate to the Act Party in several elections doesn’t ever do deals with Act, right? In reality, Paul Goldsmith, National’s shadow Finance Minister, shares more in common with Act’s libertarian views than he does with say, the moderate economic policies that Bill English used to espouse.

It got even sillier yesterday. While claiming immunity from Act Party demands, Collins was also arguing that Labour would somehow have to fulfill all of the Greens wish-list, including the wealth tax proposal. This compulsion would allegedly prevail even if Labour won enough votes to govern alone. Thankfully, nearly 1.2 million New Zealanders have already voted and will have tuned Collins out quite some time ago. In theory, there might still be a few people stuck out at the party crossroads – centre right or centre-left ? – looking for guidance at the party handouts and policy costings. Surely, that must be a very small cluster by now.

For those who haven’t yet voted, a few micro-decisions do remain. On the centre-left the tactical decision to party vote Green has been made easier by recent polling showing the Greens up above 5%. Meaning : the spectre of losing that entire chunk of the centre left vote is now a lot less likely. Labour’s lead looks comfortable, so a tactical party vote Green would not only keep the Greens in Parliament, but in numbers sufficient to deliver meaningful future policy decisions on climate change, welfare reform, and inequality. Alas for Collins, no one seems scared anymore of the Greens, at least not under their current leadership. Taxing assets above one million dollars at a (slightly) higher rate? Zounds. That hardly sounds like the triumph of godless socialism.

On the centre right, the decision – National or the Act Party ? – is a grimmer choice. National have been a train wreck all this year. So why not indulge a fling with Act, the perennial Morris Dancers of the extreme right ? When all else seems lost, why not embrace raw meat capitalism – mindless austerity ! harsh benefit cuts ! irresponsible tac cuts !– delivered by a bunch of trust fund kids oblivious to the extent of their own privilege ?

Here’s why that might not be a good idea. Far be it from me to try and boost the vote for Judith Collins, but…history urges caution. The last time the electoral tide really went out on National (in 2002) the centre-right vote hived off to that nice, rational, plain speaking Peter Dunne. Dunne took United Future from being a one seat electorate party (in a seat virtually gifted to it by National) to having eight seats once the votes had been counted. Yet far from being nice and rational, United Future turned out to be a caucus of Christian fundamentalists who held Dunne hostage with their regular caucus prayer meetings. It was a nightmare, the former hostage once told me.

In 2020, David Seymour is in an almost identical situation, after having converted a one seat electorate platform ( in a seat virtually gifted to him by National) into a situation where current polling could deliver him eleven seats. As with Dunne, the Seymour Spring seems likely to be only a one-election fling.

At least the Greens utopian dreams lay in the future. They’re all about saving the rain forests, cleaning the waterways and driving around in electric cars. Not so with Act. With its warmed over version of Thatcherism, the Act Party’s utopia lies in the distant past. The remnants of Act’s credibility on economic policy were vaporised by the GFC. In its aftermath, the quantitative easing embarked on by the Obama administration – and now being echoed by Grant Robertson – hauled the US ( and the global economy) out of recession far faster than the European countries that followed the dead end path of Act’s policies of austerity.

This history should be posing a dilemma for centre-right voters. (It probably won’t, because the centre right has become addicted to short term gratification). But it bears thinking about for a moment. National is unlikely to win Election 2020. Judith Collins, after a round of applause for her attempt at the impossible, will not be leading National into the next election. So why saddle the next National Party leader with a large number of Act extremists who will be trying to pull National even further to the right, thereby making National more unelectable in future ? To vote for Act in 2020 would do National’s next best hope as leader – hello, Christopher Luxon – no favours. It would simply make the job of winning the centre-ground in 2023 that much harder. For conservative voters with an eye to rebuilding National party for a better tomorrow, a vote for Act is merely a vote for a better yesterday.

It isn’t as if Act has suddenly created a bigger constituency for its 40 year old socio-economic policies. Seymour and Act are riding high right now despite their beneficiary bashing, free market policies of yesteryear, and not because of them. The trigger for Act’s rise has been the euthanasia legislation/referendum that has enabled Seymour to look like the a-political centrist that he really and truly isn’t.

Once the euthanasia referendum is over, and voters realise the true nature of the beast that they have sent in large numbers to Parliament, it will be too late. The only consolation is that by Election 2023, when National will hope to have a genuine crack at governing once again, its cause will be enhanced by the fading of Seymour’s party. Worth noting: in the next election in 2005, Dunne’s entourage shrank back to three seats and then in 2008 back to one again. Act will do likewise.

The referenda questions

At this stage, the outcome of the two referenda seem to indicate – based on polling, anecdotes and sheer guesswork – that the euthanasia proposition will pass, and the cannabis reform is too close to call, but could well fail. The support for euthanasia is understandable, if only because it offers both (a) a genuine and (b) an illusory sense of having some greater control over the process of one’s death. Whether this legislation will deliver what its supporters wish it to deliver – death with dignity is the common catchphrase – seems pretty doubtful.

The tightening of the provisions in the original draft Bill were the improvements needed to get it through Parliament. But if passed on Saturday, the risk is that once euthanasia is bedded in and the narrowness of its ambit becomes apparent, this will create pressure for the criteria to be loosened. Hopefully this loosening will not be as much as in Belgium, which legalised euthanasia in 2002. Earlier this year, Belgian courts absolved the three doctors involved in a 2010 case where a 38 year old woman had been euthanizedf after a bad relationship break-up.

Since 2014, Belgium has allowed minors to be helped to die as well as adults, if they are terminally ill and in great pain and if they have parental consent. According to Belgian media, there were 2,357 cases of euthanasia in 2018, equivalent to more than six a day. The majority involved people aged over 60 and took place in Belgium’s Flemish north.

Canada passed equivalent legislation to New Zealand in 2016, and the Canadian government has embarked on measures this year to expand availability to euthanasia to those not at immediate risk of dying. While the proposed New Zealand law nominally guards against external pressure, it is very difficult to see how this could be detected. Nor can self-generated pressure (to “do the right thing”, and not be a burden to others any longer) be taken out of the equation entirely, once this particular exit ramp has been installed. Unfortunately though, palliative care – even if it worked better, and was more universally available than it is at present – cannot guarantee that death will be painless, or dignified.

In sum, this is not a morally unambiguous decision. If passed, the legislation will take effect a year from now, and will be reviewed after three years, and at five year intervals thereafter. This review process may detect any shortcomings that arise. Hopefully, it will not serve as an engine for loosening the conditions for access to the procedure.

Cannabis reform

Anecdotally, it was initially surprising and then totally unsurprising to hear the extent of boomer opposition to legalising the recreational use of small amounts of cannabis. In the 1960s and 1970s, boomers routinely decried the criminalising of one recreational drug (cannabis) by an Establishment addicted to its own drug of preference ( alcohol). It seems that many boomers have now moved on to alcohol themselves. Not for the first time, many of them seem willing to kick away the ladder for those coming along behind.

Yes, excessive cannabis use can cause physiological, psychological and social harms. But in 2020, it seems absurd to be still having to make the case that the harms of excessive use of cannabis are demonstrably less than those caused by excessive use of alcohol, and that therefore, social and personal gains would be likely from the replacement of one by the other. (Meaning: to a significant degree, it will not be a both/and situation with respect to the use of both drugs, but an either/or.)

Moreover, the de-criminalising of low amounts of cannabis for recreational use will go hand in hand with rules being imposed on growing, product quality, marketing and supply. At a time when people are dying from dodgy synthetic cannabis, this would be a marked improvement. Taxation would be levied on cannabis, and the revenue would go towards funding better educational tools (about the harms of excessive cannabis and alcohol intake) and better drug treatment facilities.

Yes, many of the cannabis shops would be likely to be located right next door to the pokie parlours and loan sharking outlets that prey on lower socio-economic neighbourhoods. But the current criminal black markets already target those communities, and it is those communities that also bear the brunt of the policing of our current laws on recreational cannabis use. Weirdly though, the debates on these two referenda have focused mainly on the potential harms from the less lethal of the two measures on the ballot paper.

A Song for the Pandemic

A few nights ago on Saturday Night Live Jack White reportedly did a crackerjack version of a portion of Blind Willie Johnson’s song “Jesus Will be Coming Soon” a track inspired by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Here’s the original, recorded in Dallas on December 5, 1928, with Willie Harris singing in unison with Johnson’s fierce vocals. Sample lyrics :

Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere.
It was an epidemic, it floated through the air…

The doctors they got troubled and they didn’t know what to do.
They gathered themselves together, they called it the Spanish flu….

Well, the nobles said to the people, “You better close your public schools.”
“Until the events of death has ending, you better close your churches too.”

We done told you, our God’s done warned you,
Jesus coming soon.

And just because it is such a sublime piece of music, here’s Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night/Cold Was the Ground” masterpiece recorded in Dallas exactly a year earlier. This track was sent in space aboard the Voyager 1 space craft launched in 1977. Presumably – as the Youtube commenters suggest – this was to convey to aliens just how humanity feels about being alone in the universe. Currently the NASA website says that Voyager I is over 14 billion kilometres from Earth. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 is due to have its next close encounter, when it will sail within 1.7 light years of a star called AC793888. By 2025 however, Voyager 1’s power supply will have ceased to enable it to send messages back to Earth. Still, it will have Blind Willie Johnson for company. Dark is the interstellar night, indeed :