Don’t let important issues get buried under Covid-19

With media around the world focused, it seems, solely on the subject of the global pandemic Covid-19, it is easy to forget that life goes on and there is a general election in New Zealand on 19 September 2020.

On Friday last week, 1 May, Justice Minister Andrew Little released the complete and final version of the Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill. This replaces the previous draft – which RTF had criticised as woefully incomplete – and will not be further updated before it is voted on by the public in a referendum at the 2020 general election.

The wording of the cannabis referendum question has also been confirmed as a straight Yes/No question:

Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?

Yes, I support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

No, I do not support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill

I worry, that at a time when people are both consumed by the health crisis that is Covid-19 and are largely being fed news specific to that only, this important referendum vote will not be exposed to the sunlight necessary for informed choice. Covid-19 is not the only health risk we should be focused on.

There are many aspects of this legislation that concern those of us in safety sensitive industries. And our objection to this legislation is based on the principle of safety – on the road and in the workplace.

There is no consideration for workplace and road safety in a country where the number of people being killed on the roads by drug impaired drivers is higher than those killed by drivers above the legal alcohol limit.

We have some of the strictest workplace health and safety laws in the world where responsibility ends with business owners and boards. You can bet this legislation will mean massive increases in insurance premiums.

We have a drug problem in New Zealand. Road freight transport companies know that and have drug testing regimes to ensure safety within their companies. But if this legislation passes, there will be no guarantees for those professional drivers going out onto the road where there are other road users who are legally high.

We care about road safety and cannot see how this Bill will in any way contribute to safer roads.

We want political parties to be clear on how road and workplace safety, particularly in safety sensitive industries, will be managed on the back of this potentially binding referendum (if the current Government is re-elected).

We want to know exactly what is planned by all parties for this draft legislation and the referendum result.

We want the public to understand this referendum is about recreational, not medicinal marijuana.

This is a huge social shift for safety sensitive issues such as road freight transport. We don’t want these implications buried under the Covid-19 blather.

This is another very important reason for New Zealand to come out from under the carefully crafted daily messaging around Covid-19 and get back to some kind of normal life where people can focus on other things that matter.

We would contend that the health impacts of this legislation are also worth consideration, expert opinion, credible data and open debate.

The full Bill and information about the referendum is available here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

More questions than answers on binding cannabis referendum

Remember the referendum that was Brexit, where people in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar merrily voted to leave the European Union, until they realised that that actually meant, and that it was binding?

In hindsight, quite a lot of people felt they didn’t really have enough information and didn’t quite realise what would happen after they made that tick on a referendum paper. Some were quite shocked it was binding.

We are worried that New Zealand voters will find themselves in a similar position come the 2020 general election day, 19 September, when they vote on whether or not to legalise recreational cannabis use in New Zealand. That’s recreational, not medicinal.

We believe there is not enough information to make a vote that the current coalition Government would consider binding.

The only information available from the Government is a badly written and half-finished Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill – Draft for Consultation. It looks a bit like a copy and paste job at this stage and I’m not sure anyone with a law degree has been involved to this point. This is a Bill that people will be asked if they support (yes), or not (no).

We were surprised to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answer a question in Parliament this week on the referendum by saying: ‘‘what we prepared is a draft bill so that there will be that full information to members of the public – that if they support the bill, that is the legislation that at least three parties in this House have said that they will then support to enact” (Hansard).

We think maybe the Prime Minister hasn’t read the bill. There are holes you could drive a truck through. Some of those for us are around road safety and workplace health and safety. The bill is silent on these matters.

In fact, the Minister who introduced the bill (Hon Andrew Little) was quoted as saying that exploring the risks of drugged driving and workplace impairment would be pushed back until after the referendum vote. Vote now and see what happens later!

We don’t believe that’s good enough. In this country, employers and Boards are bound by strict health and safety legislation – that if flouted can result in them going to prison – and we cannot see how this bill in any way correlates to that legislated responsibility.

This bill, if enacted, will have serious consequences for safety sensitive industries, such as trucking.

So, we think the general public should be well informed before they answer a yes/no question. The picture they are drawn should be broader than them sitting in their lounge room with a joint and not worrying about being arrested.

We all share the roads – that’s pedestrians, cyclists, car and truck drivers – and everyone wants their loved ones to come home from work each day. Yet already, the number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers on New Zealand roads is higher than those killed by drivers above the legal alcohol limit.

International research shows that with legalisation of cannabis comes higher use and new users. It shows that a lot of the people who currently purchase cannabis illegally, continue to use those suppliers after legalisation, because of price. It shows that people aren’t that well aware or informed of the impact of using cannabis and driving. It shows an increase in road accidents in areas where recreational cannabis is legal.

There is no harm minimisation. There are new markets and money to be made. And the black market remains as it always has.

Higher risk on the roads automatically means higher insurance premiums across the board – insurance is risk priced and you pay on probability. When households and businesses are already managing tight finances, they shouldn’t be surprised by expenses that should be made clear up front.

There is also a whole bureaucracy that will be put in place to manage cannabis legalisation. The bill references a Cannabis Advisory Committee, Cannabis Appeals Authority, and Cannabis Regulatory Authority for starters. How much will all that cost and will it be funded by the tax payer?

There are so many unanswered questions about unintended consequences.

We believe the referendum cannot be binding until people are properly informed on what they are voting for, or against. We don’t want ideology and social engineering. We want facts and figures. This is reality, not fantasy land.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Finding road safety solutions should be more democratic

We are seeing democratic processes being eroded around the world, but we don’t want that to happen in New Zealand, do we?

This week, RTF has experienced a situation where government has chosen process over form on the very serious issue of public consultation about road safety and strategies to reduce the road toll. And we have been told, repeatedly, we must follow the process for submissions on the Road to Zero strategy.

This would be ok, but for the fact that the process is flawed and seems to ignore some basics of democracy and government engagement with the people.

There are three main flaws – internet accessibility; the ease with which the survey process they have opted for can be skewed; and the depth of the process that is allegedly looking for lasting solutions to a complex problem.

The process involves filling in a commercial online survey tool of the type you rate a hotel/airline/restaurant/shopping experience etc. To be fair, it does give you an option to attach a document. But you must fill in the online survey, or your submission is not valid – we were told by the Ministry of Transport, “we are not processing submissions outside of the tool”.

Commercial online survey tools are easily skewed by interest groups who get on line and fill out hundreds of surveys, so it is disappointing to see the government put so much reliance on them. We feel this issue is a lot more serious than a hotel/airline/restaurant/shopping experience where “95% of people rate our business as extremely excellent”. The insistence with which submitters are told to complete the survey suggests there are a bunch of nice infographics in mind to be littered across social media endorsing whatever the pre-determined policy direction is. It doesn’t feel very democratic.

Which brings us to accessibility, in a country that does not have fast internet access everywhere, and an online survey that would be daunting to some age and socio-economic demographic groups that may not have computer access.

What about the rural parents who have lost kids in road accidents, but don’t have great internet access? This survey approach excludes them.

If I want to hand-deliver a hand-written note, barefoot, having walked kilometres to do so, democracy says Wellington officials should duly note my salient points, not turn me away and tell me to fill in an online survey.

And to the third flaw – there is more to finding long-term, effective solutions than agree/disagree statements. Complicated problems such as the high number of deaths by accident on New Zealand roads, require more rigour than this.

Truck drivers who spend their working life on the road tell us the big issues impacting their safety are the condition of the roads themselves, and the behaviour and driving skills of other drivers.

We get the feeling these are not problems the government wants to know about when they can do a survey that tells them “95 percent of people want us to build more cycle ways”.

Public consultation is not a referendum and should never be treated as such. Its purpose is to provide the opportunity for anybody to have a say on an issue that is relevant to them, in the form they choose. It is a basic democratic right of any Kiwi to express the depth of their view, and it’s their right not to be herded into a tick-box exercise that merely meets the needs of those running the process.

Those in the central Wellington bubble need to get out more and speak to real people who are, at the end of the day, paying their salaries.

If you want to read our full submission it is available here.