Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: The shifting debate about asset sales

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Mighty River Power's Nga Awa Purua Geothermal Power Station. Photo / The Daily Post
Mighty River Power's Nga Awa Purua Geothermal Power Station. Photo / The Daily Post

Today marks a qualitative shift in the highly contentious asset sales programme with the launch of the Mighty River Power shares offer. As John Armstrong says today, 'Opposition MPs can keep arguing the wrongs of state asset sales' but 'Those MPs will now only be talking to themselves' because the debate has moved on - see: Ad campaign waste of taxpayer money.

In fact, the debate moved on properly last week with the Supreme Court's green light to Government. Any other decision would have been a disaster for National. For although the Government's polling has shown sturdy resistance to their many blunders over the past year, the prospect of the asset sales grinding to a halt would have challenged even their Teflon coating. None of the fall-back options: overriding legislation, negotiation with iwi, retreat from the policy or even an early election, would have been politically palatable according to Armstrong's other recent column on the issue - see: Water rights remain political hot potato. So the relief in the Beehive would have been huge last week - even if there are still quite a few bumps on the horizon. Politically, the decision was a crucial win says Vernon Small: 'the short-term battle for Mr Key and his Government is getting big numbers of Kiwis to snap up the shares and, in that, they are well on the way to victory' - see: Mighty River likely to prove mighty tempting.

The decision may have bigger implications than just an immediate political boost for National, however.

The Supreme Court didn't stop the sales but it clearly signalled that it could if it considered Treaty obligations were not being met. For John Roughan this confirms what is currently being debated in the Constitutional Review: 'The citizen panel and its opponents are likely to waste a long conversation on whether the Treaty can or should be at the heart of our constitution. It is' - see: Asset sales go ahead on trust. This is a view reinforced by Geoffrey Palmer in Audrey Young's We can all take comfort when the court speaks as one.

The Government itself may provide its own next hurdle to a successful sale according to David Beatson. He says the prospect of a new charging regime for freshwater - 'a resource the power generators currently tap for nothing' - must 'reflect adversely on the sums that the Government will receive for shares.... It looks like a very limited success in the Supreme Court has gone to a few heads around the Cabinet table' - see: The Mighty River Battle is on again. There will be much focus on the price of Mighty River shares in the next few weeks, but it's unlikely that many analysts will go as far as strategy consultant Wayne Cartwright, who says 'The assets are likely to be worth at least double the amount the Government is prepared to accept'. He says that our cheap renewable hydro will be increasingly valuable - see: Asset sale is 'strategic blunder'. And as John Armstrong points out about the new $1.1m advertising sales campaign, 'The public could be justified in questioning the publicity campaign because it is not really necessary', as 'the offer is likely to be heavily over-subscribed and applications will have to be scaled back'.

National appears to be on safer ground, electorally, despite such criticisms. After all, the record over the past year would indicate that such arguments, further blunders and even a resounding 'no' in a referendum will not dent National's polling. Tracy Watkins has a very good summary and analysis of recent events, including Solid Energy, SkyCity, the Hobbit and Defence civilianisation - see: Starting gun sounds for asset sales. She says 'the last couple of weeks have been a return to the worst days of 2012, when National's economic programme seemed stuck in quicksand and Mr Key and his ministers spent most of their time fighting bushfires. Cue 2013 and here we go again'. But the polling is the same as well. David Shearer may have crushed any immediate challenge but he faces the same yawning poll gap that unnerved many of his MPs last year.

Also, crucially, the voters that are unconvinced by the asset sales might now be more inclined to ask what the Opposition will do about them once elected. Labour is particularly weak on this question, as discussed today by Chris Trotter in his blogpost, The Opportunity Cost Of David Shearer. Trotter points to Shearer's recent comments that he's '"not sure" that the case for public ownership of state assets "stacks up"', and according to Trotter, Shearer uses 'precisely the argument of the Minister of Finance, Bill English' to avoid committing to repurchase shares in the energy companies. This just reinforces how much the asset sales programme has now moved on, and that National will be much happier with this new phrase of the debate.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

• There is a debate raging as to whether Paula Bennett has increased welfare dependency or not - see Kirsty Wynn's Records reveal Bennett's 'dirty little secret': Ardern, and TVNZ's Paula Bennett denies hiding benefit figures. David Farrar is frustrated that the facts don't seem to be getting in the way - see: Why not inform people of whom is right?, while Anthony Robins at The Standard is not sure this is the issue Labour should be attacking National over - see: Welfare is not a pissing contest.

• Solid Energy's Don Elder wouldn't front, but that didn't stop Campbell Live doing a hard-hitting item on his record at Solid Energy, including the explosion of high salaries, millions lost in risky investments, and failure to react to market changes. The main critics are miners who have lost their jobs, but the PM also makes an appearance - watch: The Story of Solid Energy.

• The Herald has an excellent investigation into the 'con' of the '20 hours free childcare' - see Kathryn Powley's Kiwi families conned by promise of 'free' childcare.

• David Shearer 'must be careful about silly promises which could prove an albatross in an election campaign' says Bob Jones. Forget promising thousands of houses, he says, and stick to 'Safe stuff like raising the minimum wage and shifting the school holidays to February' - see: Labour should leave out cheap promises.

• Can you name the current Minister of Broadcasting? In his blogpost, Where is Broadcasting?, Russell Brown asks whether there has been any decent broadcasting ministers in the last two decades. If you can't answer the question, he's interviewing the current one on Media3 this week.

• Journalists shouldn't get too friendly with politicians says Steve Gray at the Daily Blog, and if they do have close connections we should know about them - see: Full Disclosure OR Do You Know Where That Journalist Has Been?.

• It was all in the wording rather than the intent. The Press' Philip Matthews caught up with the MP for Wogistan and looks at some of his other revealing columns - see: Richard Prosser after 'Wogistan'.

• The Teachers Council 'has every appearance of a protection racket' says Rodney Hide in Closed council scorns justice.

• Business leaders want more time in between elections - see William Mace's Support from business for longer terms. The reply from No Right Turn is: 'Exactly' - see his blogpost, Want a reason to oppose a 4-year term?.

• Chris Trotter reflects today on the 'Hobbit deal' and suggests that the dispute became an important litmus test in an ideological struggle for the future of New Zealand - see: Lovers And Haters: Further Thoughts On The Hobbit Dispute.

• Finally, they come not to bury him, but to praise.... Steve Braunias looks at The Secret Diaries of Ralph Hotere's Obituary Writers.

- 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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