Jacinda Ardern casting her vote in Auckland. (Photo: RNZ / Jo Moir)

The government has delegated its duty to a public which has decided that it’s morally better to choose to die than it is for many to access a regulated form of pain relief, writes Leah Damm.


I voted “yes” for cannabis legislation. And I voted against the End of Life Act.

When it comes to euthanasia, I’m naturally drawn to think about my loved ones. I think of my Pākehā gran, who’s been the love of my life and the strongest woman I’ve known, and who has many times said she’d want the choice if it ever came down to it.

It’s not a conversation I’ve had with my Cook Island nana, although our family all share the unspoken memory of my grandfather’s passing.

I was about 13 when he died, and I remember my parents’ hushed conversations about whether to let me travel back to Raro to see him in his final days. They eventually decided that I would stay in New Zealand, reasoning that I was too young to bear witness to his suffering.

And suffer he did. By the time he was finally released from his pain to lie with the family that went before him, on the land where he built our family home, his sight had gone, and the cancer had spread throughout his body. Between us, Dad and I both know Grandad wanted to go long before it got to that point.

So, I am pro-euthanasia. I believe in and champion the right to choose a death with dignity rather than to suffer to the end as my grandfather did. It’s a choice I want to give my loved ones, if they want it. And it’s a choice I’d want some day as well.

However, the concerns expressed by health professionals and disability advocates were enough to give me pause about the inequities entrenched in our healthcare and palliative care. Māori and Pasifika are less likely to receive equitable treatment or access to quality palliative care. And, worryingly, we’re also more likely to present late for diagnosis of terminal illnesses because of the systemic barriers such as poverty and lack of access to health and screening services.

We’re told that there are sufficient safeguards to protect the vulnerable. But those safeguards don’t even acknowledge some of the problems in the healthcare system and the inbuilt inequalities that could provide a disproportionate pipeline to assisted suicide.

Relying on the power of the settler colonial state to address inequity problems as they arise, is naïve if not willfully obtuse. We need only look at the government’s lacklustre response to lowering the bowel cancer screening age for Māori and Pasifika — a very comforting “you must wait”.

The very fact that our society remains entrenched in inequalities for Māori and Pasifika across the board, is an indictment of this government’s commitment to truly “transform” the social fabric of Aotearoa.

So, it was a heavy-hearted vote on my part to say “No” to euthanasia right now. Neither outcome was ever going to feel like a win, and I made my peace with whichever way the decision would happen to fall. I’m still apprehensive, although open, to what the future of this legislation looks like.

My vote was simply a conscience vote for the safety of vulnerable communities.

Much the same as my cannabis vote. I don’t smoke but it’s hard to deny the logic of cannabis legalisation as a means to health and justice reform.

This is what makes it all the more frustrating that our government washed their hands of doing their job in favour of both these referendums — delegating their duty to a public which has said that it’s morally better to choose to die than it is for many to access a regulated form of pain relief.

Such is democracy. Or is it? To me, if feels more like a dereliction of duty. To make the hard decisions for the greater good, ensuring our most vulnerable people are protected and cared for, is the job we pay our parliamentarians six-figure salaries to do. And yet there seems to be very little pattern as to what things we, the humble public, do and don’t get a say in.

In 2013, the National government under John Key held a referendum on the selling of state assets. New Zealand said: “Nah, we’re good.” Key and co responded with “Noted!” . . . and went and did it anyway. (And then New Zealand re-elected them in 2014.)

Fast-forward to 2020 and Jacinda Ardern has re-affirmed that she won’t bring in a capital gains tax while she’s in power — despite polling in 2019 indicating that there was strong support for it.

But, if we’re handing out decisions to the public, why not give us the CGT referendum as well?

We didn’t put marriage equality or abortion up for referendum, and I’m glad they didn’t. I wouldn’t trust women’s bodily autonomy and the legal rights of LGBTQ+ to the whims of the general public.

The very purpose of our elections is to select the few people we feel should represent us to make informed decisions for us.

So the fact that cannabis and euthanasia were so cavalierly left up to the public feels barely shy of irresponsible. We handed these major decisions to a public informed by their own prejudices and privilege and sources of information. Never mind that the world is still grappling with the issue of misinformation in the midst of a global pandemic.

A relatively small margin now separates the “yes” and “no” vote for cannabis — and, as one of the most popular prime ministers in modern history, it’s a fair bet that Ardern had the capital to shift the needle. Her considered view on an issue where the science and evidence mattered might’ve tipped a decision that so disproportionately criminalises Māori.

And yet she chose to stay silent.

The fact that Ardern revealed her position on the cannabis vote only once the results were in — rubbing salt in the wound after the fact — shows, at best, a leaning towards a conservative-tinted centrism, and at worst, cowardice.

No cannabis legislation. No capital gains tax. And a resounding and symbolic “we’ll see” about equitable screening for terminal illnesses for Māori and Pasifika. Just to name a few.

That this government has chosen to take an indifferent and hands-off approach to drug reform and the social contexts that underpin terminal illness and disability, indicates a lack of concern for those who are most affected by those issues.

The expectation that we should trust the process in a system that produces high rates of chronic illness and lower life expectancies among Māori and Pasifika, is as unrealistic as asking us to “trust” the discretion of our police to apply cannabis laws equitably.

Unfortunately, neither of these things are happening — with or without these referendums.

I remain torn on the End of Life Bill. Until our government starts taking inequality seriously, it’s difficult to see how the End of Life law could be safeguarded from the same structural inequalities in our healthcare system. It’s no small or simple task to fix — especially without the gumption to do so.

But cannabis is slightly different. It’s not too late for the government to decriminalise cannabis. What’s the point of a once-in-a-lifetime majority if you’re not going to use it? So use it.

With an almost split decision about fully legalisng cannabis, there’s still a significant consensus for some change, and decriminalisation seems like a reasonable compromise. Don’t leave the criminalisation of Māori up to the discretion of individuals in a police force that’s openly admitted its own “unconscious bias”.

So, do a John Key. And . . . do it anyway, Jacinda.


Leah Damm was born in Auckland. She’s of Cook Islands descent from the district of Tupapa in Matavera on the island of Rarotonga, and also has Chinese heritage through her mother. She has a daughter who is also Sāmoan, and is currently doing her master’s in sociology at Te Wānanga O Waipapa/ University of Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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