A guest post by Bob McCoskrie of Family First:
This was despite an avalanche of favourable media support which even experienced broadcasters observed as very bias – (“the prominence of the pro-campaigners in mainstream media, the lack of balance”, and “The media in general has featured, to my eye, favourable coverage of why we should be legalising the stuff, as opposed to why we shouldn’t”).
There was also a strong campaign by the Electoral Commission to enrol young voters using the enticement of being able to vote in the dope referendum – a group of voters more likely to vote yes.
And there were accusations of bias by the government. In a paper in the NZ Medical Journal, the academics described the claims in the government pamphlet delivered to all voters as “inflated”, “unrealistic”, and “unlikely to be achievable”. The BERL report – which the government tried to hide – revealed that pot shops will be as noticeable in number as fast food outlets, and that usage will increase by almost 30%. And government advice – which the government also tried to hide and was forced to release by the Ombudsman – said that “there would almost certainly be unintended and unanticipated consequences of legalising cannabis for personal use”, and that “there is insufficient data to understand the medium- to long-term impacts”
So, with all the inertia behind the YES campaign, why did they still so spectacularly fail?
- they used Helen Clark as the front person. Prime Ministers who have been voted out can express their opinion, but not lead controversial campaigns – especially when they’ve already annoyed people opposing charity concerts being held
- they used Green MP Chloe Swarbrick who comes across as condescending and lectures people. Labelling the opposition as ‘juvenile’ ‘fear-mongering’ and not being mature in their attitude alienates thinking voters. It also reminded people of the extremism of the Greens (which many voters tactically voted to reduce their influence)
- the YES campaign slogans “On our terms” (because it hasn’t worked anywhere else?), “We Do” (sounds like a debate about marriage), “Make it legal” (make what legal?), were vague and boring and didn’t even include the key word ‘”Yes”. The YES campaign was disjointed with no unity and clear messaging – compared to the NO campaign which was clever, clear and edgy – “Too precious to be wasted”, “Say Nope To Dope” (in our humble opinion).
- the NZ Drug Foundation’s ‘nuclear’ $300k campaign before the official campaign period annoyed the hell out of people – especially when the YES campaign was accusing the NO campaign of having ‘deep pockets’. Labelling NO voters as needing to ‘get mature’ also annoyed people.
- the YES campaign spent more time and energy attacking the ‘messenger’ rather than the ‘message’
- nobody believed the claims that the NO campaign was somehow being bankrolled by American interests – which of course they weren’t
- the NO campaign peaked at just the right time (when advance voting was about to begin). YES campaigners like Helen Clark were delivering pamphlets after most people had made up their mind
- the majority of voters didn’t believe the narrative that legalisation would reduce harm (it will increase harm), or that it would get rid of the gangs (it won’t), or that young people would be less likely to want to use it (despite adults being able to legally grow and consume it far more freely).
- the “it will make lots of tax money” argument simply didn’t add up – because voters recognised the excess social harms and fiscal costs already experienced with alcohol and tobacco
- arguing that “lots of people doing it justifies changing the law” didn’t work. Otherwise we would need to liberalise the laws around child abuse, family violence, assault, fraud, meth (P) use, drunk driving, shoplifting & sexual assault
- arguing that the “law was racist” didn’t work. Most thinking people realised that bias and racism is a far bigger issue than saying that allowing people the legal right to get wasted & suffer addiction harms will solve the problem. Telling people that if they vote no they’re racist also didn’t help.
- the attempt to legalise smoking cannabis directly contradicted the successful SmokeFree2025 messaging and campaigning
- the YES campaign supporters tried to bring alcohol into the debate, but that actually reinforced the concerns people had about big corporates exploiting communities for profit and addiction, not health
- neutral voters who tried to engage with YES voters on Facebook were treated like imbeciles and dismissed
- YES voters trolled the NO campaign pages but, through their commenting style, actually reinforced the perception that cannabis use was not good for the intellect! Threats made against the NO campaign also didn’t help.
- The Patrick Gower documentaries and the movie “Toke” (conveniently timed to air just before the referendum) simply reinforced stereotypes of an unrelatable subculture which turned middle New Zealanders off.
The one thing the YES campaign did get right?
They used medicinal marijuana as a smokescreen – which fooled a lot of people into voting yes. Exit polling showed that 60% of Yes voters voted in order to make cannabis available for medicinal purposes such as pain relief. This is despite the fact that medicinal cannabis has already been legalised, and the Government clearly spelt out on the official referendum website that “Medicinal cannabis is not included in the proposed law that will be voted on in the referendum.” The silence by the media and YES campaigners around the private members bill of Dr Shane Reti which was drawn just before the election confirms that the YES campaign was keen to use the medicinal aspect to increase the yes vote.
But overall, the YES campaign still blew it.