PoliticsJune 11, 2020

Derailed by Covid-19, euthanasia and cannabis referendum campaigns gear up


With 100 days till polling day, campaigners on both sides of the two big referendums tell RNZ’s Yvette McCullough how their plans have been affected by the recent crisis, and the risks of misinformation in a largely online battle.

In 100 days time, New Zealanders will wake up on a Saturday and be asked to choose the next government, vote on whether to legalise cannabis, and decide whether to allow assisted dying.

Groups fighting on both sides of the two referendums say Covid-19 has blown their campaign plans apart. They worry there may not be enough time to canvass the public face-to-face, and that switching to digital campaigns risked misinformation.

The cannabis referendum

The Covid-19 lockdown saw the Drug Foundation’s campaign to legalise cannabis go up in smoke.

Executive director Ross Bell said: “A big part of what we had planned was essentially a roadshow around the country where we could get to town halls in small towns and have conversations with people”.

Bell said his team had to scramble together a new plan during lockdown – pivoting to a digital campaign. “These things take a lot of planning and I’m not sure that we’re in a position to [rebook]. I suspect that ground game has gone,” he said.

Bell said this is a “once in a generation shot” at reform, and he was concerned that putting everything online risked misinformation and could undermine the quality of the debate.

“You can very quickly get toxic, quite negative discussions happening where what we would like people to do is find some common ground, or at least talk openly and honestly about their fears and concerns, and that’s very difficult to do in the online world,” he said.

Bell said the economic impact of Covid-19 was also being acutely felt by the campaign with funding drying up.

The assisted dying referendum

Euthanasia-Free NZ executive officer Renee Joubert said their campaign was in a similar boat, with Covid-19 forcing them to cancel conferences and events.

“We’ve also felt very reluctant to do fundraising the way we would have wanted to do it because we know that so many people are financially affected. We have lost some volunteers who are now just holding on to their businesses with bare teeth,” she said.

Joubert said the time lost over the lockdown meant the country would not get the extensive debate that was needed.

“I just think that the country hasn’t been in a space to really debate these referendum issues. But now it’s the financial fallout that’s taking over people’s minds. So yes, we are concerned that we can’t get our message across, that we’ve lost several months,” she said.

But Yes for Compassion Campaign’s Jessica Young said while there had been a delay, there was still time to get people’s attention. She believed people had the bandwidth to focus on the Covid-19 recovery as well as issues like assisted dying.

“I think that we’ve been having this conversation for at least the past three years, while the End of Life Choice Bill went through parliament, and before that, we saw the Lecretia Seales case go through the High Court, so I think this topic isn’t necessarily new to New Zealanders,” she said.

Family First director Bob McCoskrie agreed that there was still enough time, and that people would take an interest because these are issues people care about. He said people were still generously backing Family First’s campaign against both referendums, and while Covid-19 had derailed some of their plans, they had adapted well.

“We were intending to have two key international experts arriving at the end of this month. But they can still be reached by satellite, they can still be Zoomed in, they can still do Facebook lives. It loses a little bit but they can still be utilised,” he said.

McCoskrie was not concerned about the risk of misinformation or fake news in an online campaign.

“Oh we’re constantly accused of things like that and it’s generally by people who aren’t willing to debate the facts and they never are able to quantify exactly what is the misinformation they just don’t like what we’re saying,” he said.

Justice minister weighs in

The justice minister, Andrew Little, said he envisaged most of these campaigns would have operated online even before Covid-19 – and the Ministry of Justice was already prepared to closely monitor and call out mistruths.

He said that would operate as planned.

“My concern about misinformation or disinformation is no less or great now, post-Covid-19, than it was beforehand, there was always a risk around that. We just need to make sure that the public know that there are sources of truth that can be relied upon.”

He was not convinced advocacy groups had lost all that much time – and now that the dust has settled on the Covid-19 lockdown, minds would turn to the referendum issues.

This piece was originally published on RNZ.

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