John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Referendums past their sell-by date

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Greens' hypocrisy an example of how experiment has failed

Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

The time has surely arrived to dump New Zealand's failed two-decade-old experiment with American-style citizens-initiated referendums.

Anyone questioning that recommendation should look no further than some of the self-serving behaviour following last Monday's official authorisation of such a plebiscite on National's partial privatisation programme.

The will of the people - David Lange once observed - was a fickle beast. It could be an awful tyrant; it could be a terrible slave.

Someone should have told the Greens. They are happy to accept the will of the people when it comes to the results of the forthcoming referendum on asset sales. But not so when it came to the 2009 referendum on smacking. That is hypocrisy, pure and simple. If you accept the will of the people once, you have to accept it for good. And that is not a recipe for good government.

If you do accept it, you accept your Cabinet decisions are going to be proscribed by referendum.

The Greens would not like that happening to them. So why impose such restraints on National.

There has been a lot of talk this week about the will of the people. The Greens and Labour argued that had been ignored by John Key following the referendum announcement.

The Prime Minister was accused of being anti-democratic in refusing to halt the upcoming floats of shares in Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy, plus the sale of shares in Air New Zealand, until the referendum has taken place. He was castigated for saying National would ignore the result of the referendum because it had a mandate for the sale of up to 49 per cent of those state-owned electricity generators courtesy of its stunning result at the 2011 election.

To top things off, Key then dismissed the referendum as an "utter waste of money".

That line got wide pick-up with editorial writers across the country asking why $9 million in taxpayers' money was being spent on a postal referendum solely so Labour and the Greens could make a political point that everybody already knew - that a lot more people oppose asset sales than support them.

Sensing they were on the wrong side of the argument regarding cost, the two major Opposition parties the next day offered to help pass legislation which would enable the referendum to be held at the same time as next year's general election - a move that would be cheaper than a postal ballot. That remained conditional, however, on National putting asset sales on hold until then.

That drew a scathing response from Acting Prime Minister Bill English, who said it was typical of Labour to offer something that was not within its power.

Suddenly it was apparent the referendum horse had bolted in the four months since the petition seeking a referendum initially failed for lack of sufficient valid signatures. The public's desire for a referendum has cooled substantially. Once again, John Key had outmanoeuvred his opponents and captured the high ground when they thought they held it.

The political stakes in all this are high and not solely because the subject matter is a core feature of National's second-term economic agenda.

National is understandably wary. This is the first time the indicative referendum process has been used to try to shoot down a specific Government policy. While Labour and the Greens might tread more carefully when it comes to taking positions on aspects of asset sales, this is one issue where Labour has been on the offensive for months. It will want to remain there.

Arguably though, the referendum carries big risks for Labour and the Greens. Everyone expects National to get a walloping - more so because the sale of shares in Mighty River Power has been a relative failure.

However, National's opponents are at the mercy of a low turnout. That is normal in such referendums, but may be worse because people will think the asset sales are going ahead come hell or high water.

Key might have been better advised not to be so provocative in his dismissal of the referendum. But he does not want anyone thinking that voting "no" to asset sales is actually going to stop them.

Regardless, citizen-initiated referendums have never sat comfortably with the Westminster tradition which dictates that governments - whether majority or minority ones - hold all power and live and die as to how they exercise it.

The country's politicians should daily give thanks to Sir Douglas Graham, National's astute Justice Minister for much of the 1990s, for making the referendums non-binding.

He was obliged to implement a promise inserted in National's 1990 election manifesto following demands from the more reactionary elements in the National Party

When the law allowing voters recourse to these devices was passed by Parliament 20 years ago, Labour's Michael Cullen described the measure as "an ill-thought-out piece of political flummery" and predicted correctly that it would end up satisfying no one. He was too kind. Making it mandatory for governments to implement the results of referendums risks making good government nigh on impossible.

Making such referendums non-binding on governments, however, renders those referendums as next to useless.

At the time the law paving the way for citizens-initiated referendums was being debated, National MPs were confident that governments would take the results of referendums on board.

"I am absolutely sure that the moral force of public determination by way of referendum will be enormous and overpowering as far as the Government is concerned," said one National MP at the time. Murray McCully's optimism has proved to be misplaced, however.

New Zealand's unwritten constitution would be no poorer were the asset sales referendum to be the last such example of these utterly useless exercises in supposed "direct democracy".

Even when they have (rarely) acted as a safety valve for easing discontent, the fact that they are not binding on the Government-of-the-day has seen that discontent become even more entrenched.

In fact, such is their futility that their very existence seems to have been forgotten by the current Maori Party-instigated "Constitutional Conversation", judging from the lack of material on the advisory panel's website. Indeed, this constitutional review is the ideal non-partisan forum for recommending the abolition of citizens-initiated referendums.

No politician - certainly not anyone in the current risk-averse Government - is going to leave themselves open to charges that they are abrogating people's rights, even though those rights are largely illusory.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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