Oh it was such a good idea. People upset about this or that Government policy could organise and force a vote. It would give people a direct say in running the country.
Well, that was the idea back in 1993. Five citizens' initiated referendums have since made it through to a full vote. Each has proved a total flop.
The first was promoted by the Firefighters' Union. They romped home with 88 per cent of voters saying no to cutting firefighter numbers.
Politicians took no notice. It made as much sense to vote on the number of firefighters as the number of motor mechanics, typists or journalists. Subsequent to the referendum, the number of firefighters was cut by more than a third.
Next came two votes at the 1999 election. The first called for minimum sentencing and hard labour for criminals. The second was to knock the number of MPs back to 100. Both propositions bolted home with 85 per cent support.
The freshly elected Labour-led Government subsequently made violent criminals eligible for parole after serving just a third of their sentence and ordered judges to impose "the least-restrictive sentence that is appropriate in the circumstances". The number of MPs resolutely stayed at a 120 minimum.
We then had 88 per cent of voters vote that a smack as part of "good parental correction" should not be a criminal offence.
That vote, too, was totally ignored. The politicians declared they knew best.
Contrary to popular political wisdom, there has been no electoral consequence to politicians ignoring the result of the referendums.
Now we are all to vote on whether or not we support selling a part of five Government businesses. The trouble is that National won the last election promising to do just that. The opposition parties campaigned against the sale and lost.
For National to reverse its policy on asset sales would mean breaking its election pledge. John Key has made it plain that the referendum won't affect Government policy. Besides, the referendum doesn't present the trade-offs involved in not selling state assets. The asset-sales referendum has one advantage over the others: we know it's a waste of time before we vote. It won't make one bit of difference.
The Greens and Labour will huff and puff about democracy.
But neither party took any notice of the smacking vote. Labour and the Greens only agree with the results of referendums when they suit them and, to date, they haven't.
The 20-year citizens' initiated referendums experiment has proved a flop. The asset sales vote should be the nail in its coffin. The next vote should be to get rid of the referendums act and to save the money and the trouble.