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NZ govts have proud history of ignoring referenda results

Since National introduced the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act (1993), five measures have been put to the ballot.

For better or worse, the wisdom of the mob has been ignored on all five occasions (see RAW DATA below).

Opponents of partial privatisation are the latest to amass enough signatures to force the government to stage a non-binding citizens-initiated referendum.

The government has control of the timing for the vote, and has yet to set a date.

Critics of citizens-initiated referenda point to their cost (the asset sales referendum will cost around $9 million - Labour argues that's a pittance compared to the $100 million spent organising and promoting asset sales so far), and the wording of their questions - which can be seen as emotionally loaded or manipulative in some cases.

And with governments failing to heed the results, you could argue: why bother?

In the case of asset sales [UPDATE: see result below], you could argue it will help promote debate. 

But whether you love or loathe the partial privatisations, there's been no shortage of discussion on the topic.

We already know from opinion polls that a majority of people oppose partial privatisations. Even many on the right are squiffy about asset sales as instictive nationalism clashes with more nuanced arguments about economic security.

But we know from those same opinion polls, and the 2011 election result, that it's not a vote-deciding issue. A referendum will just underline these known facts.

Can't pick and choose
And assuming the referendum result was anti-assets sales, could the Greens and Labour even claim there was a moral imperative for the government to follow the peoples' will? As an NBR commenter has pointed out, that logic would also require them to demand the government uphold the pro-smacking result.

Regardless, the government could well follow precedent and delay the referendum until election day (which, for National, would have the pleasing side effect of preventing the Greens and Labour from using it as a campaign platform). And of course it would make the vote meaningless in terms of the immediate asset sales programme, given stable door will have closed on the Meridian and Genesis IPOs - as the PM has already hinted.

National openly promoted its partial asset sales policy before the last election. And whether pro or con, most would agree the privatisation programme is in keeping with this government's broader agenda, which for better or worse has involved few surprises. People will get to deliver their verdict at the general election in November next year.

RAW DATA: Referenda results 

"Should the number of professional firefighters employed full time in the New Zealand Fire Service be reduced below the number employed on 1 January 1995?"
Yes: 79,475 (12.18%)
No: 572,919 (87.82%)

Should the size of the House of Representatives be reduced from 120 members to 99 members?" 
Yes: 1,678,054 (81.5%)
No: 381,984 (18.5%)

"Should there be a reform of our justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?"
Yes:  1,886,705 (91.8%)
No: 169,699 (8.2%)

"Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"
Yes:  201,541 (11.98%)
No: 1,470,755 (87.40%)
The last election also saw a legislatively-required government-initiated referendum:
"Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?"
Keep: 1,267,955  (57.77%)
Change: 926,819  (42.23%)
"Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power,
Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?"

Yes: 442,985 (32.4%)
No: 920,188 (67.3%)
Informal Votes 4,167 (0.3%)
300,000 signatures are required to force a citizens-initiated referendum. No more than $50,000 can be spent promoting a referendum. 
In the four referenda so far, turnout has varied between 27% and 85%. Higher turnout has been when a referendum coincides with a general election day.

Source:; balance to 100% is invalid or informal votes.


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Comments and questions

The referendum must be held within 12 months of it being tabled in parliament unless 75% of MPs vote for it to be delayed up to a further 12 months. Therefore it won't be held at the next general election.

If the referendum were held in conjunction with the upcoming local body elections the cost would only be $4.5million.

The referendum is only a waste of money if the government ignore the result.

The government has always said (rightly or wrongly) that it has a mandate since it was a key policy at the last election and that Labour specifically campaigned against it.

Key has already said they will ignore any result and it is therefore a waste of money - on that point, there is no disputing that Key is correct.

A postal ballot held between 25 December 2013 and 3 January 2014 would be great - let's do it.

The Dictator has spoken

The arrogance of this government is beyond belief and increases daily.
They have forgotten that they are there to serve the people.
Strengthens the case for a maximum of two terms.

Referendums are just to make people feel good about electing in a dictatorship every three years where there are no real differences between parties.