A referendum on state asset sales has come too late to stop most of the sell-offs, but the question remains: has it been worth it? Political reporter Adam Bennett canvasses the experts on whether the Government's big privatisation gamble has achieved its objectives

As Prime Minister John Key said yesterday, the citizens-initiated referendum will almost certainly deliver his Government's partial asset sales policy a thumbs-down from the public.

The question now is whether New Zealanders' feelings on the issue are strong enough to get them to vote in sufficient numbers to force him to take notice and even shelve the remaining part of the programme, the sale of Genesis Energy next year.

The "mixed ownership model" is the Government's highest profile and boldest policy, and in a tactical assault on their enemy's perceived strength, the Opposition will seize on the result as an indictment of the Government's economic management.

Despite acknowledging the programme won't hit even the lower figure of the $5 billion to $7 billion target range set before it began, and the fact that shares in Mighty River, Meridian and Air NZ have failed to fire since investors bought them, Finance Minister Bill English told the Weekend Herald the programme has still been a success.


"We've met the objectives we set three years ago, which have been to reduce our need for debt by getting cash from New Zealand investors buying these assets."

The proceeds mean Crown debt will peak at around $70 billion rather than $74 billion and though that doesn't sound like a huge impact, Mr English says it is as much about demonstrating to ratings agencies "a pretty clear political commitment to getting debt down" as the actual effect.

Meanwhile, "the companies will benefit from market scrutiny and therefore perform better and contribute to a more competitive electricity market".

Furthermore, he says" "We've created an opportunity for tens of thousands of New Zealanders to invest in large New Zealand companies which gives them more choices for their savings, and we now have the most active sharemarket we've had for a long time.

"We're happy that we've got about the right balance of getting value for the taxpayer's money and a reasonable opportunity for investors".

Labour Leader David Cunliffe says the sales simply don't make good economic sense.

"By the time the lost dividends are factored in, in the case of the energy companies, the net proceeds of the sales are negligible and the risks have been high."

He says the pace at which the programme has been forced through for political reasons has meant sales prices have not been maximised, "and taxpayers' money has been wasted. The inordinate amount of fees being paid to the intermediaries, the accountants, the merchant bankers, etc, runs to well over $100 million, closer to $150 million, and that's a dead weight loss to the public and to the Crown."


In spite of the mandate the Government claims from its victory in the 2011 election, which was largely fought on the issue, Mr Cunliffe says the assets were not the Government's to sell. "They belong to all New Zealanders."

The programme has travelled a rocky road so far, with the Maori Council's legal challenge over water, the near collapse of Solid Energy, which rendered it unsellable and New Zealand Aluminium Smelters' ruthless exploitation of the Government's commitment to the sales, which won it a $30 million taxpayer subsidy to keep it from kneecapping the electricity market by closing down the Tiwai Point smelter.

Retail investor participation has clearly fallen far short of what the Government and investment industry hoped for, and with shares in Mighty River, Meridian and Air NZ this week all trading below the price investors paid for them, even fans of the programme such as Milford Asset Management fund manager Brian Gaynor say it has been botched.

Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman says the sales programme is "pretty universally viewed now as a bit of a catastrophe. It really does speak to the National' Party's economic credibility. If it was roundly rejected in the referendum then that would be rejection of their central economic strategy".

But Mr English says the referendum, which was sent to letterboxes yesterday, was motivated by the Opposition rather than some groundswell of broad public activism and at the end of the day it is redundant. "We've said it doesn't make any difference to our programme, we've executed most of it, we've signalled we're near the end of it".

If there is a big turnout and the vote goes against the Government, "the question is whether Labour and the Greens will follow the logic of their own arguments and public support and buy the assets back". Though he won't rule that out, he says it would be irresponsible to give such a commitment and it will depend on the state of the Crown's books if Labour forms the next Government.

Dr Norman says ultimately the value of the referendum is in the message it will send the Government. "It's only public pressure that stops the National Party from doing more privatisation.

"That's why it's important that people speak out loudly about this."

Mana Party Leader Hone Harawira said a clear statement of opposition to the sales, "will carry weight all the way through to the election".

Having consistently said his Government would ignore the result of the referendum, Mr Key appeared to have subtly shifted his position yesterday. He said a vote against the programme over the coming three weeks which matched the support his Government received in the 2011 election would be "interesting".

That's likely to fuel speculation over whether the Genesis sale will go ahead, in spite of Mr Key restating his commitment to it yesterday.

Mr Gaynor told the Herald this week he didn't believe there was "a hope in hell" it would go ahead unless Mighty River and Meridian's share prices recovered.

The referendum with little future

Like previous polls on the number of firefighters, the number of MPs, tougher sentencing, and the right for parents to smack their children, the public vote on the current asset sales programme looks likely to become the latest citizens-initiated referendum to be largely ignored by the Government of the day.

Citizens-initiated referendums, which became a feature of New Zealand's democracy in 1993, are by their legal status "indicative" or non-binding on the Government.

There have been five since the first one in 1995 and though they have all delivered the results their promoters were looking for, they have not generated the desired response from governments.

Prime Minister John Key has said his Government will ignore the current referendum and continue with the programme, under which Genesis, the final state-owned enterprise to be partially privatised, will be floated in the first half of next year.

He has also said it is hypocritical of Labour and the Greens to suggest his Government should halt the sale in response to an unfavourable result given they didn't support the repeal of the anti-smacking legislation after the 2009 referendum on that question came out against the law.

Just over 87 per cent of those who voted said "a smack as part of good parental correction" shouldn't be a criminal offence.

But Greens co-leader Russel Norman says the asset sales referendum should carry more weight because Parliament was more evenly divided on the issue than on Sue Bradford's anti-smacking bill, which Parliament passed by an overwhelming majority.

Given the mixed-ownership model legislation passed by a single vote, "this is exactly the kind of issue that should be settled by the people rather than Parliament".

But even if the asset sales referendum delivers a strong result against the programme, it will be easy for the Government to dismiss it as an issue the public doesn't particularly care about if turnout is low.

Referendums so far have not attracted a high voter turnout unless they take place at the same time as a general election.

The first one in 1995, over the number of professional firefighters, got just 27 per cent of eligible voters while smacking got 56 per cent.

Both were conducted, like the asset sales referendum, via postal ballot.

Voting papers began arriving in letterboxes yesterday and must be returned by December 13.