Not much can be said with certainty about what a new year may bring, but one thing we know is that 2020 will ask New Zealanders to make two important decisions: whether to legalise cannabis, and whether to do the same for euthanasia.
It is many years since Parliament gave the public a referendum on more than one subject at a time. Citizens' initiated referendums have often been held simultaneously but not those initiated by Parliament.
Older readers will recall that one such time was in 1967 when they were asked two questions: whether to extend pub opening hours beyond 6pm, and whether to extend parliamentary terms to four years.
They voted to abolish six o'clock closing by a majority of two-to one, and against a four year term by almost the same margin.
Disappointed advocates of extending the electoral cycle, which naturally had a great deal of support in Parliament, noticed the similarity of the margins and speculated that, given two propositions, many voters were unlikely to approve both.
Human nature, it was implied, can be contrary. Nobody likes to feel like a rubber stamp. Invited to approve two proposals, many people are inclined to say "yes" to one, "no" to the other.
In 1967, the more popular proposition was obvious, though electoral reformers probably hoped their cause would benefit by sharing the ballot. If this year's voters are not inclined to tick the "yes" box on both questions, it is harder to predict which they will reject.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Euthanasia and legalising cannabis have both been backed by majorities in opinion polls but euthanasia has the more consistent support. The margin supporting cannabis law reform declined through last year and December's 1 News Colmar Brunton poll found a 49-43 per cent split in favour of keeping the law as it is.
The Green Party may have chosen a bad time to push for the legalisation of cannabis. Unlike the 1960s, when society was beginning to take a more permissive attitude towards alcohol and other drugs, the prevailing call since the turn of the century has been for more restrictions on the legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
Indeed, the Greens and other advocates of legalising cannabis today are contending that legalising the drug will enable it to be controlled more effectively than prohibition has done. Their case is a far cry from the libertarian outlook of those arguing for legalisation last century.
But as the public looks closely at the restrictions proposed for legalised cannabis, many might wonder whether it is an improvement on the status quo. Police are already under an instruction not to prosecute for possession of small quantities of drugs such as cannabis for personal use. The regulatory regime to be put to the referendum could occupy much more police time.
Euthanasia may be the easier question for most people but it should not be. It involves the rights and values of many more people than drug users. Euthanasia, too, is to be tightly restricted, though opponents fear what is proposed is just a foot in the door.
Both questions need to be given the care and attention they deserve.