If history is any guide, the upcoming referendum on the sale of state owned assets will achieve a huge vote in favour of no more sales and the Government will totally ignore the result.

But Prime Minister John Key's claim it will be "an utter waste of money" depends on your point of view about the issue.

To many, letting Trade Minister Tim Groser run up a $260,000 travel bill in the first three months of the year, seeking a job for himself after politics as head of the World Trade Organisation, would more accurately fit that bill.

What must be rattling Mr Key is that some time in the run-up to next year's election, the Opposition parties will now have a platform on which to pillory a major plank in National's economic policy.


The Government can either decide to go for a quick $9 million postal ballot and get the embarrassment out of the way, or hold off and conduct it in conjunction with the general election. The latter would overshoot the 12-month deadline required by law unless a 75 per cent vote in Parliament agrees to an extension. But Labour has signalled it would support this option, seeing the obvious mischief in such a move.

Neither option will be particularly palatable to the Government. As with the current Labour Party leadership road trip, the referendum, whenever it is held, will be a news grabbing saga with an agenda not set by Mr Key and his advisers.

In recent days, the political news agenda has been dominated by the Cunliffe versus Robertson versus Jones tussle. Night after night, three Labour front bench leaders are on our television screens promoting Labour policies and savaging the Government. For Labour it's three weeks of priceless partisan exposure, without the right of reply requirements their opponents would get in a general election campaign. The run-up to the asset sales referendum will require more balanced coverage, but it will bring a single issue to the news pages and airwaves, about which the majority of voters are consistently opposed to the government view.

A month-long campaign of Government-bashing in which the end result will be - bar a miracle - a bloody nose for Mr Key, is not something any government would look forward to.

Of course the simple way to avoid the abuse would be to listen to the majority of New Zealanders. That's what National Party leaders promised to do when they introduced and passed the legislation establishing non-binding, citizen-initiated referenda in 1993.

The bill was National's reaction to the widespread public distrust of politicians following first the Muldoon then Lange governments.

Our now Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, promised it would "profoundly change the way in which we conduct our democracy in this country". He said "our system permits the executive to have too much power".

As sponsor of the bill, then Justice Minister Sir Douglas Graham conceded referenda would be non-binding on governments but said reassuringly, "it is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result".

History has proved both he and Mr McCully wrong. All four of the referenda held since the act was passed gained overwhelming voter support - between 81 per cent and 91.8 per cent - but all were ignored by the government of the day.

All were talk-back radio type topics, including maintaining the number of fulltime professional firefighters, reducing the number of MPs, imposing harsher prison sentences, including hard labour, and decriminalising child smacking.

Personally, I'm pleased Mr Key's predecessors made referenda non-binding. Parliamentary democracy should be a buffer against mob rule, not its creature. On the other hand, referenda are a useful safety valve. Mr McCully and Sir Douglas seemingly thought so back in 1994 as they shepherded the legislation through Parliament.

Asset sales will be the first referendum that challenges a central policy plank of the government of the day. It has surmounted the formidable barrier of gaining the signatures of 10 per cent of registered electors - 300,000 plus people. As Green leader Russel Norman has noted, 30,000 submissions was enough to force a Government change of heart over snapper quota, why not one with 10 times the signatures.

Both before the 2011 election and since, Mr Key claimed that poll was, among other things, a referendum on state asset sales. Those who voted National also gave them the green light to sell off state assets.

But the week before that election, results from Massey University's Study of Values Survey of 2000 randomly selected registered voters recorded 75.9 per cent of them against "the Government selling off major assets". Only 9.5 per cent were in favour.

National won, but the asset sales furore refuses to go away. Utter waste of money or not, it's now about to occupy centre stage and there's nothing Mr Key can do to make it go away. Except ...