New Zealand will decide whether to legalise assisted suicide and recreational marijuana, and whether to decriminalise abortion. Conflict-averse New Zealanders may be pushed onto uncomfortable ground.
While conservative populism is now ascendant in some of the world's leading democracies, New Zealand is rushing in the opposite direction, taking on several liberal social issues all at once.
Next year, the country will hold public referendums to decide whether to legalise assisted suicide and recreational marijuana. Separately, lawmakers are considering a bill that would decriminalise abortion.
Those votes will come after New Zealand's Parliament voted 119-1 this month to enshrine in law an ambitious set of targets to reduce the country's carbon emissions.
This burst of democratic action is in contrast to the legislative gridlock that has gripped countries like the United States and Britain. But it also threatens to push a generally conflict-averse New Zealand into uncomfortable territory, and it could overwhelm an election next year that will determine whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern remains in office.
New Zealand is a socially liberal country, though it is not clear where New Zealanders will fall when the three issues come up for consideration in the months ahead. Tackling them simultaneously could "foster an already growing culture war in New Zealand," said Bryce Edwards, a political commentator and lecturer at Victoria University in Wellington, the capital.
"Next year's election could end up being one revolving less around economic issues and more about social and moral ones," he added.
That would be a shift in New Zealand, where election campaigns have long ceased being the province of personal morality debates.
While Ardern has built a global reputation for her brand of cordial, inclusive liberalism, the leader of the opposition center-right National Party, Simon Bridges, has seized on the increasingly fractured tone of the public debate.
In railing against "political correctness, woke politics and identity politics," Edwards said, Bridges is "trying to mobilise the so-called shy Tory voter who feels uncomfortable with some of the progressive changes in New Zealand society." Bridges' party has maintained a lead over Ardern's Labour Party in major polls.
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The government's concerns about the quality of the looming public debate are evident. It is acutely aware of the online misinformation campaigns that have been generated when other countries have put polarising topics to public votes, such as Britain's 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union.
In New Zealand, a team has been set up in the Ministry of Justice to combat manipulation of the public debate in the lead-up to the referendums, Radio New Zealand reported last month.
Ministry officials will work to verify "that if someone claims to have a highly authoritative piece of research, it is that, not some sort of highly partisan, highly skeptical or dubious piece of information," Andrew Little, the justice minister, told Radio New Zealand.
He added that it would be a "very difficult balancing act" for the monitors — public servants who must remain neutral — to avoid being drawn into the debate.
That debate is taking New Zealand onto new ground. While recreational marijuana and euthanasia have been legalised by legislatures in a small number of countries, New Zealand is believed to be the first to put either issue to a public referendum. Both votes will be held at the same time as the election in late 2020.
Support for legalising cannabis has eroded since the referendum was announced, with a June poll by 1 News showing 52 per cent of New Zealanders against it. In another 1 News poll in July, 72 per cent of those surveyed supported legalising euthanasia, but that was before the public learned that it would have to decide the matter itself.
Decriminalisation of abortion, the issue that may be decided in Parliament, is narrowly favoured by the public. Although abortion is technically illegal in New Zealand, it is widely available to those who obtain the approval of two doctors.
The reason for the double referendum is a quirk of New Zealand politics. Euthanasia and recreational cannabis were forced to a public vote by two minor parties that give Ardern's Labour Party the majority she needs to govern.
The left-leaning Green Party insisted that marijuana be put to a public vote as part of its agreement to support Ardern, while New Zealand First, a populist group that holds the balance of power in Parliament, said it would support the passage of the euthanasia bill only if it also faced a referendum.
Mark Patterson, a New Zealand First lawmaker, told Parliament during a debate on the euthanasia law that it was "one of our founding principles" that conscience votes "go to the people of New Zealand" to decide.
A referendum can help make sure that lawmakers do not forge too far ahead of the public on social matters. Paul Moon, a history professor at Auckland University of Technology, said New Zealand's Parliament had in the past passed progressive bills that did not have full public backing.
"Parliament plays this process of setting the social agenda and then public opinion eventually catches up to it," he said.
But one member of Parliament said she was appalled that her colleagues had shunted the euthanasia decision to the public.
"We're actually empowered, 120 of us, to make decisions every day about laws that pass through our Parliament," said the lawmaker, Louisa Wall, a member of the Labour Party.
Wall said she worried that pressure groups — particularly religious ones — might find more influence ahead of a public vote than they would if lawmakers were deciding the matter.
New Zealanders are often wary of religion. The 2018 census revealed that those who said they had no religion — 49 per cent of the population — had overtaken Christians, at 38 per cent, for the first time.
In a debate this year on the abortion bill, none of the 23 lawmakers who cast an initial vote against the act mentioned their faith, the church or God in their speeches opposing it, although some are known to be religious privately.
Church leaders, who do not wield influence in mainstream New Zealand, could nonetheless do well at mobilising their members ahead of the referendums.
Wall said that she had closely followed debates about same-sex marriage in Australia and Ireland ahead of public votes there, and that the euthanasia referendum encouraged people to use "whatever mechanism they can" to promote their particular views.
It led, she said, to the "demonisation" of minorities and "the validity of their lives being debated."
Written by: Charlotte Graham-McLay
Photographs by: Turkiri Cornell
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