Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: A better way to discover what the voters think

Prime Minister John Key was an Auckland-based money trader in 1993. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key was an Auckland-based money trader in 1993. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The asset sales referendum was Guy Fawkes. A hiss and a roar and $9 million of hard-earned cash up in smoke. Then the day after, posses of politicians raking through the detritus, seeking the odd double-happy that failed to explode, hoping to reignite it and lob it across into the enemy camp.

Prime Minister John Key is concentrating his derision on the 43.9 per cent turnout, saying it's too low to take seriously. What must he be thinking about the legitimacy of the nation's new crop of local mayors and councillors then. In October's triennial polls, they were returned with an even worse voter turnout - 41.3 per cent nationwide. National's showcase Auckland Super City brought up the rear with only 36 per cent of electors bothering to vote.

However Mr Key tries to spin the result, the 67.2 per cent to 32.5 per cent vote against asset sales was emphatic. Even a majority of the 40.5 per cent of voters in his Helensville electorate who returned their ballot papers voted against the Government's policy, 52 per cent to 47.7 per cent.

Only two electorates nationwide were in support, the Act stronghold of Epsom and National's Tamaki bastion.

None of which comes as any surprise. Opinion polls have long recorded lack of support for asset sales. The difference about this poll was the vast waste of taxpayers' money involved. Why in the 21st century do we waste public money on such an archaic method of checking the popular mood when there are much cheaper - and more accurate - ways of divining public opinion?

It dates back to 1993 when Mr Key was an Auckland-based money trader. The National Government passed legislation introducing non-binding, citizen-initiated referendums, promising, hand on heart, to listen to the people.

It was an attempt to cuddle up to an electorate which had become deeply distrustful of politicians after the Muldoon and Lange-Douglas Governments.

Murray McCully, now Foreign Minister, told Parliament the new referendum tool would "profoundly change the way in which we conduct our democracy". Justice Minister Sir Douglas Graham said: "We will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result." How untrue this proved to be.

Mr Key is the latest leader to prove Sir Douglas and Mr McCully totally wrong. The asset sales referendum will be the fifth since the legislation was passed and with every one the Government of the day has ignored the public will. This despite the other four gaining between 81 per cent and 91.8 per cent public support.

Given that they backed retrograde moves such as restoring the right to whack children and inflicting harsher prison sentences and the like, New Zealand is a better place for the politicians' contempt for the process. But 20 years on, it's time to end the hypocrisy and scrap the legislation. They brought it in hoping to improve public trust in politicians. By mocking it, they're just boosting public cynicism.

Also, as commentator Matthew Hooton has argued, for $100,000 the Government could have commissioned a large-scale opinion poll that would have given the same result.

Could I suggest going one further and replacing the non-binding referendum "polls" with regular opinion surveys masterminded by Statistics New Zealand.

Of course the sort of polling on big issues of the day that I'm suggesting is already conducted by the larger political parties - and from time to time by various media organisations. Indeed, National - and even Labour if it has the cash - will have been monitoring the asset sales controversy through focus groups on a long-term basis.

The difference with using Statistics NZ is that the public will be able to see the results of the polling, while the party polling results never see the light of day outside party headquarters.

It's hardly a revolutionary idea. The compulsory household labour survey and five-yearly Census are both vital tools used by Governments to inform and guide policy decisions. They quiz citizens on all sorts of facts and figures. It's hardly a giant leap to sound out public opinion on policy issues as well. The British are doing it.

In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron started a "Measuring National Wellbeing" project through the Office for National Statistics as an alternative measure of national performance to gross domestic product.

This year 165,000 adults over 16 were asked how satisfied they were with life on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being "completely". The average was 7.45, up from 7.41 in 2012. Young adults and pensioners were happiest.

If you can poll for happiness, why not issues of the day, such as asset sales or SkyCity convention centre deals. Like referendums, they will be non-binding. But much cheaper, more prolific and timely.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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