Guest Post: Why the Yes campaign went up in smoke (against all the odds)

A guest post by Bob McCoskrie of Family First:

Despite starting the campaign with a 36-point lead two years ago (according to Horizon Polling), the YES campaign lost the cannabis debate by 2.3 points (an incredible 38-point turnaround).

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?

  • 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.

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