Every time I hear someone advocating a referendum I cringe. Surely the $9 million anti-smacking charade is evidence enough that asking the great unwashed to say yes or no to a complex, many-faceted conundrum is a dumb way to go.

In recent weeks we've had Labour leader Phil Goff demanding a referendum on the Auckland Super City, and now Labour's Auckland issues spokesman, Phil Twyford, is introducing legislation requiring a referendum before any publicly owned community assets are sold. But, oddly, only when Auckland assets are at risk.

"Aucklanders are worried," explains Mr Twyford, "that assets such as water, transport and many others, which ratepayers have built up over generations, are now under threat from the Government's changes to Auckland governance."

Perhaps I've been snoozing of late, but the only Aucklanders I'm aware of who worry themselves to sleep about such things are professionals hand-wringers like intrepid water rights campaigner Penny Bright and a few old-style lefties who keep Roger Douglas voodoo dolls on their mantelpieces to remind them of the bad old days.

Mr Twyford's a tad late in launching his secret weapon. Over the past 30 years, successive Governments of both the right and the left have left the community-owned asset cupboard almost bare. The locally owned savings banks have long gone, as have the council-owned bus fleets and the power boards. Auckland and Manukau cities together retain a 23 per cent stake in Auckland International Airport, but the controlling interest was sold 10 years ago by Jenny Shipley's Government and North Shore, Waitakere and Franklin councils.

I know it won't reassure the worry-warts, but four years ago the tide actually turned when publicly owned Auckland Regional Holdings, headed by Act supporter Judith Bassett, bought the 20 per cent of Ports of Auckland shares in private hands, returning the port company to full public ownership. A few weeks ago, when port company chairman Gary Judd refloated the idea of privatisation, he was unceremoniously sacked. Even more recently, the right-dominated Auckland City Council endorsed a 10-year city plan with a commitment not to sell its airport shares.

Despite this, some are still convinced that the Super City revolution is just a smokescreen, covering up a dastardly grand plan to privatise the remaining community-owned assets. The grand-daddy of the conspiracies is that Mark Ford, former chief executive of publicly owned bulk water supplier Watercare and now chairman of the Auckland Transition Authority, is a tool of the forces of evil, integrating Watercare and the local retail water companies into one, in preparation for handing Auckland's water system over to a private international water mogul.

At the risk of looking very stupid if this plot comes to pass, I'll stick my neck out and say it's not going to happen. Not unless Aucklanders vote for a mayor and council committed to such a course of action. Or if central Government orders it.

Mr Twyford's bill will also outlaw the sale of parks, swimming pools, libraries, halls and public housing without referendum support.

The bill seems fuelled by the more extreme planks of the Act Party's election manifesto restricting local government to "core" business. Act leader Rodney Hide is the Minister of Local Government but he's a minister outside Cabinet, with little real sway. All he has is his toothless ideological bark. The left, instead of wetting themselves every time he yapped, would be smarter to pat him on the head, and walk on.

Referendums are expensive, and easily manipulated. In his Super City poll, what question is Mr Goff proposing? How do you decide such crucial details as the powers of the local boards by referendum? The issue of asset sales is slightly more complicated than a simple yes or no.

Back in 2007, I saw nothing wrong with selling Auckland City's 12.75 per cent of airport shares, as long as the cash was spent on new infrastructure, something like the restoration of the St James Theatre, or repairs to the Aotea underground carpark. But I backed full public ownership of the port because I saw that as a way of ensuring future waterfront developments would be done for the good of all Aucklanders.

It's impossible to reflect these kinds of nuances in a referendum. What we need to concentrate on is creating a truly democratic, ward-based model of governance, in which every Aucklander feels represented. That way the perception that referendums were a good thing would fade away.