On the strength of its election result, the Green Party has been given a great deal more public money to spend at Parliament. It needs to be careful how it spends it. Taxpayers might be surprised to learn the party is spending $76,000 of its allowance to hire people to collect signatures on a petition for a referendum on asset sales. This is not a proper use of the money.
The country pays for a Parliament that has been set up to resolve public issues and Parliament provides elected parties with funds to ensure they can research issues, question ministers and contribute to legislative debate.
The law provides a separate procedure for citizens outside Parliament to petition for referendums when they are so moved. The citizens' initiative, as it is called, is supposed to be exactly that. It is not a second chance saloon for those who have the privileges of Parliament.
The Labour Party is also sponsoring the petition for a referendum against asset sales, with the Council of Trade Unions, Grey Power, Greenpeace and the Union of Student Associations, but the Greens have hired the equivalent of eight fulltime staff to collect signatures on the streets of Auckland.
There appears to be nothing in Parliament's rules to prevent a party using its leader's office allowance in this way, though that may be because it has not happened before. The Parliamentary Service's general manager said the Greens were within the rules because the petition does not ask the public for money, membership or votes. But that is a rule for election spending and referendums held separately from an election should not be promoted by parties with public funds.
In this case, of course, the country has had a referendum on the subject - at the last election. Opposition parties did even more than the Government to make the election a referendum on asset sales. Labour and the Greens put opposition to the sales uppermost in their campaigns. It was the main thrust of their advertising and they lost no opportunity to bring the issue into election debate.
Thanks to them, National now has an undeniable mandate. The Greens are wasting their time, as well as our money, trying to put the issue to a second test. Their effort can only undermine the system of citizens' initiative yet again by forcing another poll that the Government would safely ignore.
Most, like the smacking referendum, have produced results Governments can ignore. The citizens' initiative still awaits an issue of such resounding importance, and official neglect, that the country can compel Parliament to act.
Every time a referendum is demanded as a recourse for parliamentary defeat, those demanding it run the risk that Parliament will decide the whole system is a waste of money and repeal it. That likelihood looms larger if parties are going to use their parliamentary allowances to hire signature-gatherers.
For a party primarily concerned with the environment, the Greens are surprisingly active against asset sales. Why does it matter whether an asset is publicly or privately owned from an environmental point of view? Private property can encourage conservation and public ownership is no guarantee of green standards. Regulation, not ownership, determines environmental results.
But the Greens in our Parliament have always had socio-economic pre-occupations. They take positions to the left of Labour on most issues. Under Russel Norman they appeared to be moderating somewhat but they have reverted to character of late on trade and asset sales. To win a place in a future government they should start showing more responsibility with funds entrusted to them now.
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