Asset sale referendum back on

Opponents of partial privatisation have succeeded on the second try in amassing enough signatures to force a referendum on the government's asset sales programme.

The government has control of the timing for the non-binding citizens initiated referendum and Prime Minister John Key can expect questions on a timetable at today's post-Cabinet press conference. The referendum must be held within a year of its presentation to Parliament, expected tomorrow, and a date set within a month.

However, any hopes the government may have harboured that the referendum bid might fail were dashed this morning when Parliament's Clerk, Mary Harris, confirmed that more than 10 percent of eligible voters had now signed a petition seeking the referendum.

Approximately 327,224 voters are estimated to have signed the petition, some 18,500 more than the required threshold of 308,753, after an earlier bid fell short of the necessary numbers, forcing a further round of signature collection.

Greens co-leader Russel Norman welcomed the result as "an historic day", while Labour leadership hopeful Grant Robertson said asset sales "must stop now."

The announcement on referendum timing will coincide with the intended partial privatisation of Meridian Energy, by early November, with offer documents due to be issued by later this month or early October.

The Greens calculate the government has now spent some $124.3 million on the asset sales process, including the costs incurred by the target companies preparing for sale, advertising, legal and organising broker costs, the legal costs associated with the Maori Council opposition to electricity company sales, bonus shares for MightyRiverPower shareholders and the $30 million subsidy to the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter.

The government expects to raise more than $5 billion by selling up to 49 percent of MRP, Meridian, Genesis, and decreasing its shareholding in Air New Zealand, which is already partially privatised.

(BusinessDesk)

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