Gordon Campbell on the asset sales referendum victory

All credit to Grey Power and the Greens for getting across the sky high threshold required to trigger a Citizens Initiated Referendum (CIR) on the asset sales programme. It has been a remarkable organizational feat, given the number of signatures required, in the time frame stipulated. Not surprisingly the Prime Minister John Key has already gone on the attack against this exercise of grass roots democracy – calling it an “utter waste of money” that will not be held until the asset sales process is virtually over. Which is a bit rich, given that mindful of the need for urgency, Key has it entirely in his power to bring the referendum forwards, such that it would be more meaningful. His own government seems more than willing to ram legislation through Parliament under urgency whenever it suits him.

Also, other organs of our democracy – such as the Supreme Court – speedily adjusted their timetables so as to grant an early hearing to the Maori water rights case, and thus not affect the planned timing of the government’s asset sales process. Yet when the shoe is on the other foot –ie, when the public wants to have its say – Key’s first reaction is to pull back on the levers of government and delay, apparently in order to render the referendum more ineffectual and thereby turn his predictions of a low turnout into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps Key needs to re-read his stirring attack on the Clark government’s handling of the CIR process over the 2008 referendum on the section 59 child discipline law.

National Party leader John Key said Helen Clark was “arrogantly out of touch” and “running scared” on the issue. “Her government does not like the New Zealand public being able to express their view on democracy. They are about to be stopped from being able to exercise their democratic view through a referendum on the anti-smacking legislation at the election … Why does the Prime Minister not just admit she finds the voters of New Zealand an annoyance?”

Why the arrogance, indeed. This referendum will be on an issue far more crucial to wider issues of fairness, competence, income equality and national wellbeing than the poll on the “right” of parents to use violence against their children in the name of good parenting, allegedly on Biblical authority. Not that this referendum doesn’t have a Biblical ring to it as well – it is about prising the hands of the money changers off of our assets.

Key cannot use the “waste of money” argument either, not with a straight face. When his government wants to fling money at the asset sales process, he never gives it a second thought. Thrift has gone out the window over the unloading these assets. So far, the meter is ticking over at an estimated $115 million bill for the managing of an asset sales programme already unlikely to break even before these extra costs were racked up. The dismal performance of Mighty River shares since the share float earlier this year is also reason to pause and seek a further mandate from us, the owners – before Key begins to unload more of our energy companies onto a sharemarket already crowded with them.

The argument that Key has already received a mandate at the last election and doesn’t need to bother about the CIR result strikes me as entirely perverse. Surely, the notion is indefensible that democracy begins and ends on Election Day, whatever comes to light afterwards, and whatever expressions of public disquiet subsequently surface. In this case, getting well over 300,000 people (in a country of little over four million) to sign a petition in a short space of time is an indication that a very significant level of public disquiet exists with respect to the government going ahead with the unloading of their assets. We are not talking about overturning the wider mandate – this is not a referendum on changing the government, but merely a referendum on one important plank of its programme. One that affects assets that we own. The idea that we cannot revisit any policy between elections (because otherwise the sky would fall?) seems absurd. The CIR hurdle has been set high enough that such a revisiting cannot be done on a whim.

Nor need it be mandatory that the result be implemented. In a healthy democracy though, the government would take heed of its outcome, and bear the consequences at the next election of ignoring it. Bad mouthing the process – or worse, treating the process, rather than the government’s ill tempered response as the main problem – seems a bizarre reaction. To repeat: the cost involved in holding a CIR poll is minimal in comparison to routine examples of government waste, and when compared to the routine cost of the state’s public relations machinery. This is value for money, as a form of public debate and participatory democracy. All we need now is for the government to participate in it, and hold the referendum ASAP.