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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

CHRIS BISHOP (National—Hutt South): Thank you very much, Madam Speaker. Look, let’s be very clear: this is a substandard piece of legislation, deficient, by an—

Hon Shane Jones: Have you read it?

CHRIS BISHOP: —incompetent Government that is—now, Mr Jones, I don’t think today is the day to be asking if I’ve read something, my friend. But if you want to go there, that’s all good, I’m happy to go there.

This is a deficient piece of legislation, and it has been introduced with the very clear aim of tidying up the law to allow a cannabis referendum to be held at the 2020 election, and to give effect to the confidence and supply agreement between the Labour Party and the Green Party. Now, if the Government had done its job properly, they would have immediately established after the election a group to go out and consult on what a regulated cannabis scheme would look like; they would have done the policy work to do that; they then would have put that model and the mechanism to the people and allowed the public to have a say on all of that; and then have a referendum at the 2020 election with a simple binary “Yea” or “Nay”, up or down vote: “Do you want the regulated legalised cannabis scheme”—or words to that effect—”to come into force” and the public would have a say.

Now, that’s not what is going to happen; that is best practice, OK? That’s actually what’s happening with the End of Life Choice Act. On the End of Life Choice Act, the public knows exactly what they’re getting. Members in this House will have different views about the actual end of life choice substantive provisions and they might have different views about the referendum as well, but no one can be in any doubt—when they come to vote at the 2020 election on the End of Life Choice Act—what they’re voting for. It’s a very simple up or down binary question. Now, that is not the case when it comes to cannabis.

But I want to make three points in my contribution. Firstly, I’m going to argue the process behind this bill is wrong. Secondly, I’m going to argue the principle behind the bill is wrong. And, thirdly, I want to return back to some of the remarks that I’ve just made about the shambolic process behind the cannabis referendum.

Regardless of your views about the legalisation of the personal use of cannabis—regardless of your views—the process that we have got to on this point has been a debacle. The first point is that the process is wrong. Referendums—or “referenda”, whatever you want to call it—

Hon Tracey Martin: “Referendai”.

CHRIS BISHOP: Well, I sense that I could get into the next five minutes going back and forth. So we’ll just say “referendums” because that’s what’s been decided. Regardless of your views on those things, they matter. We don’t hold them very often in New Zealand. We don’t have the tradition, in New Zealand, of delegated democracy or putting votes to the people; actually, they’re used surprisingly rarely. They’re typically reserved for constitutional questions, four-year term, introduction of MMP—

Hon Tracey Martin: Flags.

CHRIS BISHOP: —and things like that—the flag referendum, which you could argue was a quasi-constitutional thing. I accept that views differ on that. I think there’s a very plausible argument that flags are not necessarily something that you would put to a referendum, but the decision was made at the time to do that.

I acknowledge that New Zealand First has a party view—which, actually, no one should be surprised about, because they’ve advocated this since 1992—that conscience issues should go to referenda because it’s only through, I think this is the argument, the expression of the popular will that social change that is divisive can be legitimate and mandated by the people. I don’t particularly share that view, but that’s the New Zealand First view. But we don’t really use referendums—

Hon Shane Jones: Trust the people.

CHRIS BISHOP: —that much—well, that’s the only thing in the last six months you’ve said that I agree with, Mr Jones: “Trust the people.”; I agree.

We don’t use them very often, so it’s important that we get them right. Unfortunately, this bill—firstly, it’s time limited, right? So it expires at the 2020 election. Bills that are like that are never good lawmaking practice.

Secondly, there has been no engagement with the Opposition. And you might say, “Oh well, why would the Government bother to do that?”—you know, all that sort of stuff—”why would they bother?” But, actually, that does matter. We’re talking about our electoral system here. We are talking about the framework that governs the way in which we decide the laws of this country. So I think that is important. Actually, when we went through the flag referendums bill—people might have a different view about the flag referendums bill, but there was quite a lot of engagement; there was a flag referendum group and there was quite a lot of consultation with the Opposition at the time.

The second point I want to make is about why this is wrong in principle. The bill takes the power away from Parliament and gives it to the Cabinet. You might say, “Well, why does that matter? Cabinet can just decide on the question.” Except, the question matters, and the mechanism that sits behind the question, the execution of what exactly the referendum is about—

Raymond Huo: What about the Regulations Review Committee? What about that committee, chaired by your colleague?

CHRIS BISHOP: —that matters. It’s our contention on the National side, on the Opposition, that that question should be invigilated and investigated by the whole Parliament. And, unfortunately Cabinet—to your point, Mr Huo—is not the Parliament; it’s a selection of the ministry of the Government of the day—it’s not the Parliament. So a lot turns on the question. I’ll just repeat what Dr Smith said, which is I remember sitting on the Justice Committee in 2015, and the Government introduced a bill to have a flag referendum, that question was put to the Parliament, put to the committee, and Labour members, I remember—including the current Prime Minister—were extremely keen that people be allowed to make submissions about the question. I put it to the House that they were keen to do that because Labour members then, as I think they actually admit now, knew that the question matters and Parliament should have a say.

Now, to respond to Clare Curran’s argument that the Electoral Commission will do a good enough job: I have no doubt that they will do a good job—

Hon Clare Curran: No, no, that’s not all I said.

CHRIS BISHOP: —in providing advice to the Government—you did say that, with respect—they will provide advice to the Cabinet that is good, and I’m sure that a responsible Cabinet will listen to that advice.

She also said that it’s not true that there’s no parliamentary scrutiny because there’s the Regulations Review Committee. I’ve sat on the Regulations Review Committee—with the greatest respect to the Regulations Review Committee, it is not structurally equipped to consider contentious issues like the wording of a particular referendum. Firstly, there are typically no wider submissions on matters that go before the Regulations Review Committee. This is not a committee that goes out and consults widely with the public and accepts submissions; they take finely tailored submissions on points of law; it’s a highly bureaucratic, technocratic committee to do with legalities. So I accept that the Regulations Review Committee could, you know, really get to the bottom of particular questions, but it seems to me like that was a bit of a sop by the Minister—you know, a bit of a desperate flail—to say there will still be some parliamentary scrutiny. Yes, there could a motion of disallowance before the House, and, yes, technically all these things could happen—our contention in the Government is that that inadequate in comparison to the normal parliamentary scrutiny.

That’s my second point. The process has been wrong from the start in relation to this bill. The second point is the bill is wrong in principle.

The third point is about the shambolic process, and I want to come back to where I started. The simple reality is the Government has not done the work when it comes to the cannabis referendum, OK? The simple point is that the public should be able to vote on a simple, binary, up-or-down vote on whether or not a regulated cannabis scheme will come into force. The Government’s argument is that there’s going to be a draft bill published and people will know what the draft bill says. That’s all fine. That sounds fine. Except the draft bill could bear no resemblance to what bill will emerge after the election, because the Parliament will be different. The Parliament will take a different form. The Government may change; it may not. But the Parliament will be different.

Hon Shane Jones: No, it won’t.

CHRIS BISHOP: There’ll be new MPs here—well, again, I’m not sure that’s the right day to be talking about that, Mr Jones, but anyway. The Parliament will be different in some way, shape, or form. So the point is that what the public may vote on at some point next year when it comes to the Government’s draft cannabis legislation may not be what the Parliament eventually decides to enact or not to enact. I don’t like using the Brexit parallel, but there is a parallel there, because with Brexit, the public voted on, yes, we want to leave the European Union, and the details were sorted out later. Actually, as it turns out, the details are quite hard and quite complicated, and now we’re—well, not we, but they are—still going back and forth about what those details are. I accept that Brexit’s far more complicated than cannabis, and I accept that there’s a draft bill, but I think the point is true, which is that the public should know precisely what they are voting on at the 2020 election when it comes to cannabis. They will not, and this bill is an attempt to at least get something around it, but it’s wrong in principle. We oppose it.

MIL OSI New Zealand News