I'm no great fan of referenda, but when phrases such as "elected dictatorship" start getting bandied around we all need to draw breath and remember how this 'running the country' thing really works
Well, it's been less than 24 hours since the Keep Our Assets groups nailed their petition, metaphorically, to the door of parliament, and there's already been a fair bit of tosh spoken about it. Some of the worst has come from Greens co-leader Russel Norman, but he's not alone.
On its second crack, 327,224 valid signatures - 18,500 more than required to initiate the referendum - were collected by the Keep Our Assets coalition and yesterday delivered to the Speaker. The referendum question will be: "Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?"
Driving home last night I heard Norman on Checkpoint, rejecting questions that National had won the election and therefore had the right, y'know, to govern. Norman said that people vote for an against numerous issues in an election, so it didn't mean National had a mandate for partial asset sales.
"That's not how democracy works," he told Mary Wilson.
Except that's exactly how democracy works. Elections are never single issue referendums and a party like National, which for two elections has been clear as a newly polished pane of glass on a summer's day (with not too much light, but not much cloud either) about its intentions, has every right to, y'know, govern. To argue otherwise makes no sense.
Because by Norman's logic a governing party has no right to implement policies in its manifesto that don't get a majority in separate polls. Well, that's not how democracy works. If it was, you could look at this random measure from 2003 and say Labour had no right to cut us off from the Privy Council.
Indeed, republicans have never won support for New Zealand to cut ties with the monarchy in any poll ever, so by Norman's logic it would be anti-democratic for any future Labour-Greens government to even consider such a move until it had won at least a few polls.
But we don't want government by polls. Y'know, the sort of polls that urged the US and Britain to go to war in Iraq, for example.
Norman went on to say that we're not "an elected dictatorship" and that Key must listen to the voice of the people. So let me go on with another couple of examples. Because by Norman's rhetoric it's surely more oppressive for National to have started implementing the Greens' insulation scheme in its first term – at least asset sales were a clear part of National's manifesto!
But fair play, if you want to isolate an issue and test the mandate of a single policy, then a referendum is your go-to tool. Just as the anti-smacking brigade did in 2009 with its push to amend the 2007 Crimes Act and the removeable of "reasonable force" as a way to teach your kids a lesson. Fully 88% of those who voted, voted against the Greens-driven law change.
Was it an example of "elected dictatorship" to ignore that referendum? No. Labour rightly decided it had the right to, y'know, govern when it was in government. But by Norman's logic Sue Bradford's amendment should have been repealed; and no he doesn't get to say that one doesn't count because he didn't like the question. If you're going to use rhetoric like "unelected dictatorship" you'd better be willing to stand by the principle, not just the examples you prefer.
Happily, our referenda are non-binding. Norman should be careful what he preaches about, or he will find himself with 'binders' for friends, which I don't think is where he wants to be. I certainly don't want governments bound by referenda; I want them to have flexibility, to use their judgment and to, y'know, govern. They have a mandate to do just that; that's how our democracy works and that's exactly what any Green Party minister would say if he or she were in government one day.
As Andrew has said on radio, a referendum is "a very expensive opinion poll", of little tangible use. But I'd disagree with him and John Key when they say there's no point in holding it. Key went so far as to call it an "utter waste of money".
That's a step too far. And yes, it is arrogant of Key. If he really thinks it's such a terrible waste he should put his money where his mouth is and add the abolition of referenda to his party's manifesto next year. Because this is how our democracy works.
It may be nothing more than symbolic, but as much as I'm not a fan of referenda as a way of, y'know, governing the country, it is a legitiamte form of political activism. It's a statement, a release valve for the people, a form of political pressure that allows groups to isolate an issue of unusual concern to the community and tell the governing party they will pay a price politically for pursuing its agenda.
Yes, you can argue that polls serve just such a purpose and National knows exactly the risk it's taking. But there's something different about every voter being able to exercise a direct expression of opinion on an issue of note.
Governments have every right to respectfully decline to take the requested action, but the debate is worthy. We know how this story ends, sure, but that's no reason to stop it playing out.
Oh, and by the way, are you also tired of journalists using taxpayer costs as a way of creating some tension in every story that involves the workings of our democracy? We want MPs to travel, for example, and we want public debate and for voters to feel engaged in the way the government is run. Or have you not noticed the falling voter numbers all round the democratic world? Spending $9 million on a postal ballot for this referendum is peanuts, you know it is, so please stop doing silly vox pops and pretending people are scared about spending money to have a voice.