John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Labour push against asset sales doomed to fail

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Phil Goff argues that a 'specific' mandate should be obtained for each privatisation. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Phil Goff argues that a 'specific' mandate should be obtained for each privatisation. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour's private member's bill has about as much chance of becoming law as Namibia has of lifting the Rugby World Cup. Probably even less.

It will need something close to a miracle even to make it onto Parliament's playing field this side of November's election.

If the bill does make it to the floor of the House, it will be voted down by National at the first opportunity.

Were Labour to win the election and try to push the bill through Parliament, one of the measure's crucial provisions would almost certainly founder.

The clause requiring any asset sale to have 75 per cent parliamentary backing would never take effect. That is because Parliament's rules stipulate that such an "entrenching" clause itself requires 75 per cent backing from the House to be enacted.

For that to happen, National's party vote in November would have to fall below 25 per cent, along with Act and United Future not being re-elected. All in all, hardly likely.

Labour's rationale is that John Key cannot claim that victory at the election would give him a mandate for a plan to partly-privatise the assets.

Phil Goff argues that a "specific" mandate should be obtained for each privatisation because once such assets are sold, they are sold forever. That would require the support of 75 per cent of Parliament or a simple majority at a referendum.

It is here the problems start. First, the bill has to be lucky enough to be drawn in the irregular ballot of private member's bills. At last count there were 24 other competing bills in the ballot.

As Labour's opponents point out, the order paper is now clogged with 11 private member's bills at various stages of debate because Labour has been filibustering an Act bill promoting voluntary membership of student unions.

The killer blow, however, is the provision in the 1995 rewrite of Parliament's standing orders that any requirement for a 75 per cent majority for altering or removing something must itself get a 75 per cent majority to become entrenched.

To top things off, were the bill to hurdle that obstacle and become law, a future National-led Government could still repeal it with a simple 50 per cent-plus majority.

That still leaves the referendum option. Labour might have been better advised to stick with that even if Labour has traditionally been against governing by referendum.

The private member's bill is largely symbolic, being released in the final week of the Te Tai Tokerau byelection campaign as a means of underlining Labour's opposition to state asset sales in more concrete fashion.

The entrenching clause is designed to show the high priority Labour gives to stopping asset sales. Expanding the scope of matters that cannot be touched or mucked about with beyond the electoral or constitutional is a new development, however.

Extending entrenchment to matters which are subject to intense ideologically based argument would cut both ways. Labour could find things it wants to do put out of its reach by National.

That will not happen thanks to the change in standing orders in 1995. Entrenchment is best left for matters where there is consensus across Parliament - not matters of fierce debate like privatisation.

- NZ Herald

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