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Those of us living in Wellington, New Zealand’s political hotbed, are rightly accused of speaking our own language. It’s foreign to those outside of the “beltway” and it consists of insider code words, nudges and winks.
There is one particularly insidious word that I loath for its cynicism: ‘Optics’. Often spoken by government policy advisers, optics is code for “how does this look?” or “how can we spin this?”
Optics is, sadly, becoming a popular euphemism in Wellington. It refers to the impression a particular decision or action will have on people who you would prefer to keep on your side, i.e. the voting public. The use of optics characterises a situation in which we worry about the public perception of a decision more than the substance of the decision itself.
In my opinion, it was the optics of the legal high situation that caused the rapid U-turn performed by New Zealand’s Parliament last month. Because, when given sober analysis, the Psychoactive Substances Act was working pretty well. The number of products, and places where they could be sold, reduced dramatically; good health regulations were introduced; hospital presentations were down.
Yet those new controls weren’t enough to satisfy a worried public. Out-of-the-blue came intense media scrutiny of the law, of the interim products and of health problems caused by unknown substances. Coupled with community dissatisfaction that products were still on sale, local council politicians frustrated at the limited powers they had to respond to that concern, anger at possible animal testing, and delays by health officials in promulgating tougher regulations, this created some pretty ugly optics for politicians heading into a general election.
The new law is still sitting on the books, but it remains to be seen whether any government will have the appetite to getting it working. Once bitten, twice shy.
It remains our firm view that the law must be allowed to work. But a few things need to be addressed before that can happen. One of the most urgent matters is the role of local government in supporting these new regulations. Some bridges need to be mended for that to happen.
And that raises a bigger question of what exactly is local government’s role in reducing drug harm in their communities. Our alcohol laws give councils extensive powers to respond in a flexible way to local alcohol matters. On the other hand, they have zero power under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and can only dabble with bylaws under our tobacco laws. This is a question we’re keen to engage with local government on. Community needs should absolutely be considered in drug policy, alongside best practice and good evidence. Getting that balance right will always cause tension. But optics should not be the government’s first and last consideration in seeking that balance.