Fervent euthanasia opponent Maggie Barry is giving her party a headache that may last right up to next year’s election.
When Judith Collins tearfully told Parliament during the second reading of David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill in June that she had been on “the wrong side” of the debate and now she was on “the right side” by voting in favour, it was impossible not to hear her sniffing the winds of political change.
It has gone mostly unremarked that of the five MPs who are commonly tipped as contenders to replace Simon Bridges as leader — Collins, Paula Bennett, Mark Mitchell, Nikki Kaye and Todd Muller — only Muller voted against the bill in June.
Departing Selwyn MP Amy Adams, who ran Bridges close in last year’s leadership race, also voted for it as did two MPs touted as future leaders — Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop.
Collins is smart and canny. Why would she want to remain not only on the wrong side of a majority of New Zealand voters, but also on the wrong side of a majority of National supporters — especially if she guesses the bill is likely to pass?
A Horizon poll published in May showed 65% of National’s voters approve of an assisted death for anyone with an end-stage terminal illness aged over 18 who is of sound mind and suffering unbearably.
Fifty-eight per cent of National voters also support assisted dying for adults with neuro-degenerative conditions, such as motor neurone disease, and who are suffering unbearably, even if their death may not occur in the immediate future.
However, while nearly all of National’s potential leadership contenders favour assisted dying, the bulk of the party’s MPs are dramatically out of step with the people they represent.
The second reading of the End of Life Choice Bill showed this glaring disjunction very clearly. Two-thirds of National voters want some form of assisted dying but only a third of National’s MPs — 18 out of 55 — voted in favour.
Another worry for National is that North Shore MP Maggie Barry is by far the most prominent opponent in the debate. Her campaign of opposition is often seen as being pursued with a reckless disregard for evidence and couched in exaggerated and inflammatory language.
And that is a problem for Bridges and his party because her aggressive and obstructive stance is unpopular with much of the public and her fellow MPs.
Before the End of Life Choice Bill returned to Parliament last week, Judith Collins told journalists that she hoped “people don’t play silly buggers” and abuse the process as it is debated.
Collins didn’t identify the “silly buggers” she was referring to but her comment has been widely interpreted to mean Maggie Barry and her religious allies.
Last Wednesday, hours before David Seymour’s bill was due to be debated, Barry fronted the media — accompanied by National colleagues Simon O’Connor, Chris Penk, Alfred Ngaro and Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi — to reaffirm their intention to lodge more than a hundred amendments.
National Party strategists must wonder what they have done wrong in an earlier life to deserve photos of a posse of their MPs splashed across the news media under headings such as: “Euthanasia critics look to drag out battle in Parliament.”
That banner could easily have read: “National MPs intend to filibuster a very popular bill that even their voters support.”
Barry denied that the 120 amendments they will lodge constitute filibustering. In fact, she doubled down, telling journalists: “I would imagine it could quite easily go beyond that  because you can make amendments on amendments.”
Proposing 120 amendments for a bill of only 28 sections is extraordinary but threatening amendments to amendments looks unrepentantly vexatious and a clear example of the abuse of process Collins warned against.
National has currently got the wind at its back after a successful party conference and a Colmar Brunton poll that put the party at 45%. What it really doesn’t need right now is months of negative publicity as Barry and her confreres are portrayed in the media as niggling spoilers.
Some of the sharpest critics include those normally sympathetic to National. After last Wednesday’s parliamentary debate, Mike Hosking told his Newstalk ZB audience: “Now, this [debate] ain’t over yet, not by a long way thanks to Maggie Barry and her mates who, despite what she claims, is doing herself no favours by stalling with her 100-plus amendments.”
And it’s not the first time he has criticised her.
At the time of the second reading of the bill in June, when he asked National’s Mark Mitchell what he thought of Barry’s role in the assisted dying debate, the Rodney MP replied: “No comment.”
Hosking later told his Breakfast audience, “When Mark Mitchell says ‘no comment’, you know exactly what he’s thinking. I just wonder… internally, within the party… if she is doing herself a little bit of damage with her stance at the moment.”
Hosking, of course, will know very well from National insiders just how much Barry’s aggressive stance is alienating her colleagues, including some of those who oppose legalisation. She has always been polarising but her crusade against assisted dying has turned the former garden-show host into Roundup on legs in the opinion of many both within and outside Parliament.
The radio host told Mitchell he thought Barry was “giving politicians a bad name” and said: “Even if she doesn’t like [the bill]… there’s not 120 amendments required.”
The North Shore MP’s threat to unleash an avalanche of amendments has been widely seen not only as an attempt to stop the bill or delay its passage, but also to make its criteria so restrictive that it will be more or less unworkable in practice if it does pass.
A big problem with such a diehard stance, of course, is that the bill is not nearly as contentious as the media likes to depict. That much was made clear once again last week when a Colmar-Brunton poll showed 72% of the nation are in favour of assisted dying with only 20% opposed.
That such a substantial majority persists after several years of a vociferous campaign of opposition to Seymour’s bill makes it clear just how popular such a law change would be.
Simon Bridges voted against the bill at both the first and second readings but he must be very aware of the damage Barry and her allies could do to National if the debate continues to run hot in the media until a referendum is held at the next election.
Bridges told Magic Talk radio in June that he was unhappy with NZ First’s call for a referendum before the bill becomes law — which is a condition of the party’s continued support and would be held at the next election alongside one on marijuana for personal use. “I think if we get to the point where we’re having a number of referendums it becomes very distracting from choosing a government to lead this country into the future.”
There will be no referendum, of course, if the bill is defeated at the third reading.
However, if it is passed and requires a plebiscite to become law, the battle will only intensify as opponents mount a desperate rearguard action to defeat it. And that will suck up a lot of oxygen in an election year.
National will consequently be identified in the run-up to the election as the face of fierce opposition to a popular law reform — and that face will inevitably most often be Barry’s.
Like Bridges, Jacinda Ardern is not in favour of a referendum but has said she would vote for one if it was the only way to get the bill over the line. However, she would undoubtedly also prefer not to have the election campaign dominated by two referendums.
The prime minister, who is firmly in favour of assisted dying, reckons a referendum on assisted dying “isn’t required to ensure that the voice of New Zealanders has been heard and to reflect the will of Parliament and the people they represent” — which could be interpreted as a recommendation for MPs to pass the End of Life Choice Bill with enough of a margin to sidestep Winston Peters’ demand for a plebiscite.
The vote at the second reading was a healthy 70-50 in favour but if the nine NZ First MPs vote against the bill at the third reading because a referendum isn’t approved, that majority would become, on current numbers, wafer thin.
However, the changes Seymour has proposed may make his bill palatable enough to some conservative MPs to win their vote and possibly gain sufficient cross-party support to ensure a healthy majority — which means a referendum could be avoided even if NZ First votes against it.
If that happened, the bill could become law before the end of the year.
There are obviously strong incentives for both Labour and National to sort the issue without letting it drag on to the election. Consequently, it’s quite possible that Judith Collins’ switch to the “right side” of the debate will not be the last Road to Damascus experience we see as MPs try to clear the decks before next year’s election campaigning begins.