Editorial: Referendum on asset sales misuses system

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When the Greens couldn't get their own way in Parliament they were wrong to use a device for citizens who can't be heard in the House

The case against asset sales could not have been made more strongly than it has been by Labour and the Greens. Photo / NZ Herald
The case against asset sales could not have been made more strongly than it has been by Labour and the Greens. Photo / NZ Herald

Every registered voter by now will have received postal ballot papers for the referendum on asset sales. Most voters will probably ignore them, quite reasonably since the Government, equally reasonably, will not act on the result. The Government already knows most people do not like asset sales. It also knows it put its sales programme to voters at the last election and won.

The country is well accustomed to governments defying citizens-initiated referendums. It is now 20 years since a National Government gave citizens the right to force referendums on a petition of at least 10 per cent of eligible voters. This is just the fifth time a petition has attracted enough signatures. The previous four have all received the referendum result the petitioners sought and on all four have been disregarded by governments.

But this one is different in one respect. Previous referendums were initiated by groups outside Parliament, they were genuine citizens' initiatives.

This one was initiated by the Green Party. A democratic device designed to give a voice to citizens outside the House of Representatives has been co-opted by citizens who already have a tax-funded voice in the House.

Not only that, the Greens used some of their parliamentary funding to pay people to circulate the petition. All this because they failed to get their way in the House. They have discredited - not to say corrupted - the citizens' initiative, reducing it to a second serve for privileged players.

Discrediting the system might not worry the Greens very much. They've been happy when governments ignored referendum results that would have reduced the number of seats in the House, imposed hard labour on violent criminals and, most recently, reversed the anti-smacking law.

When the inconsistency of their position on the smacking referendum result was pointed out this week, the Greens argued the Government was right to ignore that one because there had been broad parliamentary support for the anti-smacking bill. They clearly miss the point of non-binding citizens-initiated referendums.

They are designed precisely for issues where a considerable body of public opinion feels it has not been heard with sufficient force in Parliament or any other forum. It would be hard for the most inveterate opponents of asset sales to argue their view hasn't been represented with enough force in Parliament and the media.

The case against asset sales could not have been made more strongly than it has been by Labour and the Greens. Labour made the issue the central plank of its last election campaign, plastering the landscape with anti-sale billboards. Both parties then fought the legislation at every stage and finally, on the eve of the first float, announced an electricity policy that helped devalue the stock.

Their view accorded with the majority in every poll on the subject but the issue has hardly made a dent in the support of National overall. Clearly many voters who do not like asset sales, like the Government nevertheless. The referendum will say nothing new.

Is it time to do away with them? They can be a vent for views that are popular but hard to reconcile with reasoned policy and responsible government. They are non-binding but never entirely ignored. They give democracy a dimension beyond Parliament. Parties already represented there should not subvert it.

- NZ Herald

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