Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: So, who won the asset sales referendum?

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The Benmore power station during a Meridian Energy Waitaki asset tour ahead of its partial asset sale. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Benmore power station during a Meridian Energy Waitaki asset tour ahead of its partial asset sale. Photo / Richard Robinson

There's been a battle over the weekend about how to interpret, sell, and spin the asset sales referendum results. Of course, this tussle has been mostly self-serving, with Labour/Green partisans declaring the referendum a resounding defeat for the Government, and National partisans promoting equal reasons to celebrate. So, who really won the referendum? Or did we all lose?

The 'spin wars' over the referendum results have hardly been illuminating. As Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) said on Twitter when the results were announced, 'Meaningless platitude follows: partisans are going hard with their view on the referendum. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between etc'. Similarly, James Cardno (@jamescardno) captured the debate perfectly saying, 'This whole referendum thing has been like those old optical illusions - do you see a vase or two faces? And old woman or a young girl?' Some of the most interesting and witty reactions can be found on Twitter, and you can see the best of these in my blogpost, Top tweets about the asset sales referendum. Scott Yorke also parodies the spin wars in his blogpost Analysing the asset sales referendum results.

'Labour and Greens won'

Labour's blogging spin-doctor Rob Salmond had one of the most interesting (and self-serving) blogposts about the result, in which he tried to make an argument that the Government's own voters had deserted them over the issue - see: At least 225,000 Nats said "No" to asset sales. The extent of the spin was too much for some, with Blaise Drinkwater (@BKDrinkwater) tweeting to say Salmond was simply tying himself up in knots, and 'his reasoning is supernaturally unpersuasive'.

Others on Twitter pointed out how Labour and the Greens had done very well in keeping the issue alive. Lew Stoddart (@LewSOS) said 'The asset sales referendum was an agenda-control play; to keep the issue top of the public mind. It's worked admirably for that purpose'. Today's Press editorial says something similar: 'As a political stunt it can be counted a success. It has kept the issue of the sale of some of the Government's share in a few state assets to the fore to the discomfiture of the Government and possibly some cost to its standing in opinion polls' - see: Little point to one-issue polls.

Lewis Holden has argued that the exercise itself had been useful for Labour/Greens: 'What the government will actually worry about is that the CIR represents the Greens and Labour working together. Speaking from personal experience, these referendum campaigns are invaluable for political campaigners. You make a lot of connections and gain knowledge about how to run a campaign - the essential stuff of winning a general election' - see: Referendum: What the government will worry about.

Some on the left are unconvinced by the anti-asset sales campaign, pointing out that the Labour/Greens policy on the energy companies was in practice just as neoliberal as National's policy. See, for example, Philip Ferguson's Referendum result: voters not moved by either capitalist option and Steven Cowan's Much ado about nothing. Marxist blogger Giovanni Tiso (?@gtiso) also proclaimed on Twitter, 'And - again, to state the bloody obvious - you don't need to privatise SOEs to be neoliberal. You just run them as private companies'. Incidentally, my own view, formulated nearly three years ago when the policy was first announced, and is still relevant: A leftwing perspective on asset sales.

'National won'

John Key has been running the line that only a quarter of New Zealanders voted against asset sales, and the remanding three-quarters of voters are supportive or don't care too much - see, for example, Neil Reid's Asset sales programme to continue: Key.

It takes a certain chutzpah to claim victory in a referendum where the votes went two-to-one against you but the political right was quick to point out that their loss was less severe than expected. Essentially they were happy to come out of the punch-up with only a few scrapes rather than the hiding that they were expecting. David Farrar blogged to say that he had been expecting the 'no vote' to be over 80%, and that he thought many of those in favour of asset sales hadn't bothered to vote, including himself - see: Much higher yes vote than I expected.

Matthew Hooton wrote that the result was almost a 'debacle' for Labour and the Greens, as it was less decisive than expected and the depth of feeling on the issue was just not present: 'It is clear that for hundreds of thousands of people, it is something they oppose but not passionately so. The referendum result confirms it - see: No joy for left from referendum result (paywalled).

National's other major tactic to cover any embarrassment has been to continue to challenge Labour to be consistent over its opposition to asset sales, by promising to buy them back. The line that keeps coming out of the Labour and Greens camp is that they might do so - see, for example, the latest: Labour may buy state assets back. Key continues to label such a non-committal position as 'weasel words'.

'Indifference won'

It could be argued that neither side won the debate or referendum. Martyn Bradbury blogs to say Why I think asset referendum represents a political stalemate. My views, along similar lines, are outlined in Rosie Mann's Otago Daily Times news report Victory (just) for asset sales opponents. I argue that the result was certainly bad news for National, but that the anti-asset sales campaign also failed to achieve its two unofficial goals of 1) getting the turnout to the symbolically-legitimate target of 50%, and 2) achieving a total 'no vote' greater than the party vote won by National at the last election.

The turnout was certainly surprisingly low. The vast majority of eligible voters decided not to participate, with a turnout of only about 40.7%. A higher turnout figure of 43.9% has been bandied about, but such a figure is less useful or rigorous as it doesn't include the non-enrolled voters (as is normally done for elections). The low-turnout was also the second lowest for citizen initiated referendums.

So, why did so few participate? The anti-asset sales campaign is arguing that the National Government did its best to lower turnout by holding the referendum just before Christmas, after Parliament had finished, after most of the assets had been partially privatised, and not as part of an election. Rob Salmond is particularly scathing of the Government using a postal mechanism, suggesting that this was a deliberate attempt to exclude certain voters from participating. He says: 'National chose a postal ballot for the referendum knowing it would disproportionately disenfranchise Maori and Pasifika communities. I hope they're proud of themselves' - see: Turnout in the referendum.

Or are CIR's now discredited?

One of the outcomes of the anti-asset sales campaign has been to help kill off the credibility of citizen-initiated referendums. This democratic mechanism was always problematic, and previous referendums had already damaged their perceived legitimacy and usefulness. This latest experience might have finally tipped the balance against the referendums and there is now a widespread feeling that the inadequacies and flaws in the mechanism mean that they should be abolished. Certainly attempts to initiate future referendums will be much more difficult now.

Today's Press newspaper editorial outlines some of the problems with citizen initiated referendums, but reminds readers that the extra problem with the latest one was that it was essentially a political-party driven referendum rather than a 'citizen's' one - see: Little point to one-issue polls.

Today's Timaru Herald editorial is scathing about all politicians involved in the referendum, but says the answer to the flaws of the referendum model is not to abolish such referendums but to make them binding on the government - see: Nothing to shout about. This is an argument we are likely to hear more of from Colin Craig's Conservatives.

Yesterday's Sunday Star Times editorial, 'It's time to do away with stupid referenda' (not online) says that 'CIR have failed spectacularly to deliver on their promise. Most have been poorly devised, with pointless, leading questions that have provided little insight or direction to governments'. That newspaper says that same results could be found through opinion polling: 'But in this digital era, when governments have almost instant access to polls and can constantly monitor social media, it's fair to say they don't need an unwieldy and outmoded referendum to tell them what people are thinking. Couple that with the fact we have elections every three years and there seems little point in having another "vote" on major policy mid-way through that relatively short governance term'.

A similar proposal is put by Matthew Hooton: 'A case can therefore be made that it would have been much better to pay Roy Morgan, UMR or Curia $100,000 to carry out a large-scale opinion poll, rather than spend the estimated $9 million on the MOM referendum. It would almost certainly have delivered a near-identical result and would have ignored just the same as the CIR result'. Yet he says that the asset sales referendum exercise was still useful for democracy: 'despite the fact the government will ignore the result, it can only be a good thing for civil society that over 300,000 people ultimately did put their genuine signature on a petition about a public policy issue they care about, and that 1,332,340 people voted one way or the other - with the 1,705,065 who didn't vote also sending a message about how on their priority lists the MOM sits' - see: No joy for left from referendum result (paywalled).

Finally, now with the referendum over, should the political parties behind the petition exercise be able to use the contact details of all signatories to campaign on other issues? No Right Turn is firmly against this abuse - see the blogpost, Grossly unethical.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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