Jacinda Ardern signalling things during the 2017 campaign. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

The void in Labour’s justice policy

It is not too late for Jacinda Ardern to show real leadership on cannabis law reform, writes criminologist Liam Martin.

Jacinda Ardern won’t reveal how she voted on the cannabis referendum or take a public position on the issue either way. She leads a party that came to office promising sweeping changes in criminal justice, but three years later, refuses to support cannabis decriminalisation and harm reduction measures that should be essential steps in this process. The decision is undermining a historic chance for progressive justice reform.

There was no mention of cannabis reform in Labour’s justice policy announced on Friday. One revealing but easily missed detail was included though: prison numbers have fallen below 9,000 for the first time in years. From a start point of around 10,500 when the party took office, this 14 percent reduction is almost half the target of 30 percent they set with a 15-year timeframe, already reached after a single term as government.

This is Labour’s signature progressive justice achievement to date. Yet they have barely mentioned it during the campaign for fear of losing swing voters to National attacks they are soft on crime. Their justice policy document is more focused on efforts to increase the number of police officers and control methamphetamine. Labour waited until eight days before the election to announce any justice platform at all (National released theirs in August). When early voting started, they had released only a vague 550-word blurb under justice policy on the Labour website that said almost nothing about their plans if re-elected.

It is not too late for Ardern to change course and spend some of her large stock of political capital backing a ‘yes’ vote on cannabis reform. But Labour are adopting a ‘low target’ strategy to the election across the board: offer few obvious proposals for change to give opponents few targets to attack. It is a conservative strategy built on steady-as-she goes appeals to middle New Zealand, usually employed by more conservative parties, that relies on Ardern’s popularity in the wake of an impeccable performance through the Covid crisis.

The same mass appeal that makes this strategy possible makes Ardern’s refusal to back cannabis reform so damaging. The most recent polls suggest the referendum result hangs on a knife edge and relies crucially on centrist swing voters among whom Ardern is hugely popular. Her decision over whether to abstain from the issue or support a change may be decisive in the result.

Ardern personally almost certainly supports reform. The decision to keep this preference from the public is part of Labour’s conservative campaign strategy in which controversial problems of law and order are being treated as not worth the electoral risk and talked about as little as possible. Judith Collins has goaded her publicly for weeks to reveal her vote. It is an obvious effort to gain ammunition for attacking Ardern as soft on crime.

There needs to be more pressure from the political left. It is not hyperbole to say Ardern likely holds the fate of the cannabis referendum in her hands, and if she refuses to use this power to advance a basic step in the progressive criminal justice change New Zealand so desperately needs, this should be counted as a colossal failure based on cynical electoral politics. And there are other options available to voters: like the Green Party, who forced the referendum in the first place and are generally standing on a far more thoughtful and progressive justice platform.

In 2018, Ardern addressed a crowd gathered for Waitangi Day and became the first woman prime minister to speak at the upper marae on the grounds where the Treaty was signed. She used this opportunity to not only declare record levels of Māori imprisonment a defining social problem of our time, but asked to be held responsible for her actions in government. “Hold us to account,” Ardern said.

These are the moments when her words take on their meaning. She has an immediate chance to help dismantle an institutionally racist system of cannabis prohibition that allows white New Zealand to smoke with impunity while imposing crushing criminal sanctions overwhelmingly on Māori and the poor. With election day looming, there is still time to do the right thing.

An old version of this article was posted in error for a short time. Apologies.



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