28 mins to read

NZ POLITICS DAILY: So, who won the asset sales referendum?

Bryce Edwards
Wed, 11 Jul 2018

There’s been a battle over the weekend about how to interpret, sell, and spin the asset sales referendum results. Of course, this tussle has been mostly self-serving, with Labour/Green partisans declaring the referendum a resounding defeat for the Government, and National partisans promoting equal reasons to celebrate. So, who really won the referendum? Or did we all lose?

The ‘spin wars’ over the referendum results have hardly been illuminating. As Morgan Godfery (@MorganGodfery) said on Twitter when the results were announced, ‘Meaningless platitude follows: partisans are going hard with their view on the referendum. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between etc’. Similarly, James Cardno (@jamescardno) captured the debate perfectly saying, ‘This whole referendum thing has been like those old optical illusions - do you see a vase or two faces? And old woman or a young girl?’ Some of the most interesting and witty reactions can be found on Twitter, and you can see the best of these in my blogpost Top tweets about the asset sales referendum. Scott Yorke also parodies the spin wars in his blogpost Analysing the asset sales referendum results.

‘Labour and Greens won’

Labour’s blogging spin-doctor Rob Salmond had one of the most interesting (and self-serving) blogposts about the result, in which he tried to make an argument that the Government’s own voters had deserted them over the issue – see: At least 225,000 Nats said "No" to asset sales. The extent of the spin was too much for some, with Blaise Drinkwater (@BKDrinkwater) tweeting to say Salmond was simply tying himself up in knots, and ‘his reasoning is supernaturally unpersuasive’.

Others on Twitter pointed out how Labour and the Greens had done very well in keeping the issue alive. Lew Stoddart (@LewSOS) said ‘The asset sales referendum was an agenda-control play; to keep the issue top of the public mind. It's worked admirably for that purpose’. Today’s Press editorial says something similar: ‘As a political stunt it can be counted a success.  It has kept the issue of the sale of some of the Government's share in a few state assets to the fore to the discomfiture of the Government and possibly some cost to its standing in opinion polls’ – see: Little point to one-issue polls.

Lewis Holden has argued that the exercise itself had been useful for Labour/Greens: ‘What the government will actually worry about is that the CIR represents the Greens and Labour working together. Speaking from personal experience, these referendum campaigns are invaluable for political campaigners. You make a lot of connections and gain knowledge about how to run a campaign - the essential stuff of winning a general election’ – see: Referendum: What the government will worry about.

Some on the left are unconvinced by the anti-asset sales campaign, pointing out that the Labour/Greens policy on the energy companies was in practice just as neoliberal as National’s policy. See, for example, Philip Ferguson’s Referendum result: voters not moved by either capitalist option and Steven Cowan’s Much ado about nothing. Marxist blogger Giovanni Tiso (‏@gtiso) also proclaimed on Twitter, ‘And – again, to state the bloody obvious - you don't need to privatise SOEs to be neoliberal. You just run them as private companies’. Incidentally, my own view, formulated nearly three years ago when the policy was first announced, is still relevant: A leftwing perspective on asset sales.

‘National won’

John Key has been running the line that only a quarter of New Zealanders voted against asset sales, and the remaining three-quarters of voters are supportive or don’t care too much – see, for example, Neil Reid’s Asset sales programme to continue: Key

It takes a certain chutzpah to claim victory in a referendum where the votes went two-to-one against you but the political right was quick to point out that their loss was less severe than expected. Essentially they were happy to come out of the punch-up with only a few scrapes rather than the hiding that they were expecting. David Farrar blogged to say that he had been expecting the ‘no vote’ to be over 80%, and that he thought many of those in favour of asset sales hadn’t bothered to vote, including himself – see: Much higher yes vote than I expected.

Matthew Hooton wrote that the result was almost a ‘debacle’ for Labour and the Greens, as it was less decisive than expected and the depth of feeling on the issue was just not present: ‘It is clear that for hundreds of thousands of people, it is something they oppose but not passionately so.  The referendum result confirms it – see: No joy for left from referendum result (paywalled).

National’s other major tactic to cover any embarrassment has been to continue to challenge Labour to be consistent over its opposition to asset sales, by promising to buy them back. The line that keeps coming out of the Labour and Greens camp is that they might do so – see, for example, the latest: Labour may buy state assets back. Key continues to label such a non-committal position as ‘weasel words’.

‘Indifference won’

It could be argued that neither side won the debate or referendum. Martyn Bradbury blogs to say Why I think asset referendum represents a political stalemate. My views, along similar lines, are outlined in Rosie Mann’s Otago Daily Times news report Victory (just) for asset sales opponents. I argue that the result was certainly bad news for National, but that the anti-asset sales campaign also failed to achieve its two unofficial goals of 1) getting the turnout to the symbolically-legitimate target of 50%, and 2) achieving a total ‘no vote’ greater than the party vote won by National at the last election.

The turnout was certainly surprisingly low. The vast majority of eligible voters decided not to participate, with a turnout of only about 40.7%. A higher turnout figure of 43.9% has been bandied about, but such a figure is less useful or rigorous as it doesn’t include the non-enrolled voters (as is normally done for elections). The low-turnout was also the second lowest for citizen initiated referendums. 

So, why did so few participate? The anti-asset sales campaign is arguing that the National Government did its best to lower turnout by holding the referendum just before Christmas, after Parliament had finished, after most of the assets had been partially privatised, and not as part of an election. Rob Salmond is particularly scathing of the Government using a postal mechanism, suggesting that this was a deliberate attempt to exclude certain voters from participating. He says: ‘National chose a postal ballot for the referendum knowing it would disproportionately disenfranchise Maori and Pasifika communities. I hope they're proud of themselves’ – see: Turnout in the referendum.

Are CIR’s now discredited?

One of the outcomes of the anti-asset sales campaign has been to help kill off the credibility of citizen-initiated referendums. This democratic mechanism was always problematic, and previous referendums had already damaged their perceived legitimacy and usefulness. This latest experience might have finally tipped the balance against the referendums and there is now a widespread feeling that the inadequacies and flaws in the mechanism mean that they should be abolished. Certainly attempts to initiate future referendums will be much more difficult now.

Today’s Press newspaper editorial outlines some of the problems with citizen initiated referendums, but reminds readers that the extra problem with the latest one was that it was essentially a political-party driven referendum rather than a ‘citizen’s’ one – see: Little point to one-issue polls.

Today’s Timaru Herald editorial is scathing about all politicians involved in the referendum, but says the answer to the flaws of the referendum model is not to abolish such referendums but to make them binding on the government – see: Nothing to shout about. This is an argument we are likely to hear more of from Colin Craig’s Conservatives.

Yesterday’s Sunday Star Times editorial, ‘It’s time to do away with stupid referenda’ (not online) says that ‘CIR have failed spectacularly to deliver on their promise. Most have been poorly devised, with pointless, leading questions that have provided little insight or direction to governments’. That newspaper says that same results could be found through opinion polling: ‘But in this digital era, when governments have almost instant access to polls and can constantly monitor social media, it’s fair to say they don’t need an unwieldy and outmoded referendum to tell them what people are thinking.  Couple that with the fact we have elections every three years and there seems little point in having another ‘‘vote’’ on major policy mid-way through that relatively short governance term’.

A similar proposal is put by Matthew Hooton: ‘A case can therefore be made that it would have been much better to pay Roy Morgan, UMR or Curia $100,000 to carry out a large-scale opinion poll, rather than spend the estimated $9 million on the MOM referendum.  It would almost certainly have delivered a near-identical result and would have ignored just the same as the CIR result’. Yet he says that the asset sales referendum exercise was still useful for democracy: ‘despite the fact the government will ignore the result, it can only be a good thing for civil society that over 300,000 people ultimately did put their genuine signature on a petition about a public policy issue they care about, and that 1,332,340 people voted one way or the other – with the 1,705,065 who didn’t vote also sending a message about how on their priority lists the MOM sits’ – see: No joy for left from referendum result (paywalled).

Finally, with the referendum over, should the political parties behind the petition exercise be able to use the contact details of all signatories to campaign on other issues? No Right Turn is firmly against this abuse – see the blogpost, Grossly unethical


Today’s links


Asset sales referendum results

Stuff: Labour may buy state assets back

Dan Satherley (TV3): Asset sales referendum 'complete nonsense' - Collins

Philip Ferguson (Redline): Referendum result: voters not moved by either capitalist option

No Right Turn: Grossly unethical

The Standard: Muppets

Radio NZ: Cunliffe rejects asset buyback challenge

Rob Salmond (Polity): Turnout in the referendum

Peter O’Neill (Timaru Herald): Editorial: Nothing to shout about

Neil Reid (Stuff): Asset sales programme to continue: Key  

Radio NZ: Key issues asset sales challenge

TVNZ: PM steadfast on asset sales despite referendum

Rebecca Quilliam (Herald): Asset sales proceed in spite of referendum

Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): Key dismisses referendum as political stunt

Radio NZ: Asset sales will go ahead, says Key

Newswire: Assets referendum a 'stunt' – Key

Rosie Mann (ODT): Victory (just) for asset sales opponents

Newswire: Vote will disappoint Opposition – Govt

TVNZ: Referendum voters reject asset sales

Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): Two-thirds of voters oppose asset sales

Brook Sabin (TV3): Asset sales referendum results announced

Adam Bennett (Herald): Resounding vote against asset sales in referendum

Rob Salmond (Polity): At least 225,000 Nats said "No" to asset sales

Chris Keall (NBR): English claims victory, of sorts, as referendum voters say no to asset sales

Matthew Hooton (NBR): No joy for left from referendum result

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Much higher yes vote than I expected

Steven Cowan (Against the current): Much ado about nothing

Scott Yorke (Imperator Fish): Analysing the asset sales referendum results

Grumpollie: Do the Nats care about the referendum result?

Lewis Holden: Referendum: What the government will worry about

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why I think asset referendum represents a political stalemate

Frank Macskasy (Daily Blog): Has Key just insulted 1,058,638 National voters?

Kirsty Wynn (Herald): Labour gaining votes as National 'ignore' referendum results

The Press:Little point to one-issue polls

David Kennedy (Local Bodies): Key Desperately Spinning Referendum Result

Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): Cunliffe hopeful asset sales will drive voters his way

Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): Government urged to re-think Genesis Energy plans

Newswire: 'Call off the Genesis sale now' – Cunliffe

Keeping Stock: Correcting a Labour porkie

Efeso Collins (Daily Blog): Victory for Labour

Greg Presland (The Standard): Herald poll has Labour at 40% because of asset sales

David Farrar (Kiwiblog):HoS Poll

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): The Green Party data scammers: look at their guidelines

Tim Selwyn (Tumeke): Asset sales referendum: Nats smacked

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The Press on referendum


Len Brown

Bernard Orsman (Herald): Brown refuses to pay part of inquiry bill

TV3/RadioLIVE: 'Disappointed' councillors to question Brown

Pete George (Your NZ): Brown a repeat cheat and liar

TVNZ: Len Brown's calls, hotel freebies revealed in review

Radio NZ: Auckland mayor didn't declare hotel rooms

Angela Beswick (Newstalk ZB): Len Brown's hotel upgrades total more than $32,000

RadioLIVE: Report rigorous, but not sensational

Heather McCracken (Herald): Len Brown report reveals extent of spending

Bernard Orsman (Herald): Len Brown: I'm staying

Fran O'Sullivan (Herald): Compromised mayor has to be held to account

Stuff: Councillors still support Len Brown

Radio NZ: Auckland councillors must decide mayor's fate, says PM

Bryce Edwards (Liberation): Top tweets about the Len Brown report

No Right Turn: Unacceptable

Grant Duncan (Policy Matters): Should Len Brown resign?

Pete George (Your NZ): Len Brown – free room at Sky City

Pete George (Your NZ): Len Brown from the left

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Len Brown’s additional hotel nights questioned

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Len Brown report – media roundup

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Have EY accessed all of Len’s emails and txts as part of their investigation?

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Len Brown resource use “generally” within the rules. Generally.

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): The Whaleoil “Len Brown” investigation – Reviewing our options

TVNZ: Brown feels 'vindicated' after being cleared in report

Torben Akel (TV3): Tough questions over affair ahead for Auckland mayor

Tony Wall (Stuff): Councillors in talks over mayor

John Weekes (Herald): Mayor to face council as casino row flares

Cherie Howie (Herald): Wewege paid $13k by Palino

Newstalk ZB Staff (Newstalk ZB): Costs of Auckland mayoralty campaigns revealed

Stephanie Flores (NBR): Lessons from America: How politicians carry on after the extra-marital affair

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why I don’t care about Len Brown’s audit

Ele Ludemann (Homepaddock): Bring in the AG

Danyl McLauchlan (Dim-Post): Thinking my way through the whole Len Brown thing

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Censure is the minimum for the Mayor with no contrition

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): New Zealand. The country of talkers. The doers have given up


Rankin vs. Bennett

Colin Espiner (Stuff): 'Catfight' looms in hot seat

Sarah Robson (Newswire): Rankin asked to stand for Conservatives

Danyl McLauchlan (Dim-Post): Why I don’t write politcal satire anymore

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Bennett v Rankin

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): A DPB solo mum ‘catfight’ on the cards in Upper Harbour


Pike River

Radio NZ: Pike mother opposes legal action offer

Dominion Post: Editorial: Pike families let down again

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Pike decision 'firmly based on legal principles'  

Patrice Dougan and Matthew Theunissen (Herald): McCready vows to take Whittall to court

Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Mine emergency protocols strengthened

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The Whittall prosecution

Greg Presland (The Standard): The Pike River deal of the century

Dominion Post: A deal that will never let the Pike River tragedy rest in peace

Colin Espiner (Stuff): Laws out of balance

Timaru Herald: Editorial: Smell won't go away

Deidre Mussen (Stuff): 'Hard questions' for Whittall

Greymouth Star: Whittall unemployed since mine disaster

Patrice Dougan (Herald): Whittall's cash offer to families a bad look – Key

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): A brief word on Pike River blood money

Don Franks (Redline): PIke River injustice: taking up Helen Kelly’s offer

Tom Peters (WSW): New Zealand: Charges dropped against Pike River mine CEO



Hamish Fletcher (Herald): Chorus shortfall may hurt service

Nick Leggett (Stuff): Wrong of Chorus to think of abandoning the Gigatown competition

Claire Trevett (Herald): Analyst sees drop in service from Chorus

Paul Brislen (Herald): Telecommunication in 2013 - The good, the bad and the ugly

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): One of Hooton’s corporate wrecking crew busted with $250k fine

Lance Wiggs (NBR): Chorus: turnaround and go

TVNZ: Report confirms impact of price cuts on Chorus

Stuff: Chorus UFB commitments in doubt

Hamish Fletcher (Herald): Chorus funding shortfall can be improved – report

Chris Keall (NBR): EY: Slash Chorus dividend payouts by $290m

NBR Staff (NBR): EY report shows no need for copper tax

Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): Government labelled 'cynical' over Chorus report

Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Dunne offers to mediate in Chorus snag

Bryce Wilkinson (NBR): Chorus ‘tar baby’ spreads risk from investors to taxpayers

John Harbord (NBR): Chorus: Who wins and who loses

Rodney Hide (NBR): Investors should flee when state moves in

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Options for Chorus



Andrea Vance (Stuff): What future for South Africa?

Kerre McIvor (Herald): Cunliffe comes in handy

Rodney Hide (Herald): Sorry, but I'm on the 1981 fence

Matt McCarten (Herald): Insult to send tour supporters

John Sargeant (Stuff): Mandela leaves important legacy

Ross Henderson (Stuff): Let's hear it for the progressives

John Roughan (Herald): Mandela made us wait a while

Chris Trotter (Stuff): Unforgiving remnants of racist hatred linger on

Taranaki Daily News: Mandela as symbol remains undiminished

Mai Chen (Herald): Election year could do with the goodwill of Mandela

Redline: NZ politician beatifies Mandela

Steven Cowan (Against the Current): Vividly Confused


Rebstock report

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Climate of fear during inquisition

Tracy Watkins (Stuff): Diplomats reject Rebstock report findings

Radio NZ: Leak report 'unfair' on managers

Laura McQuillan (Newstalk ZB): MFAT leakers 'heroes', says Goff

Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the Rebstock investigation of the MFAT leaks

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): The behaviour of certain MFAT managers


Child poverty and inequality

Dave Armstrong (Dominion Post): Ignorance and want will return to haunt us

Prue Hyman (Stuff): Living wage provides many benefits

Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie (Herald): Creating jobs will not end poverty

Martin van Beynen (Stuff): There's more to poverty than a lack of money

Sam Boyer (Stuff): Food queues already huge, says Mission

Amy Maas (Stuff): Millions more for benefit heroes

Newswire: Government provides help for children

The Standard: The party I will vote for ….

The Standard: Summer service: the real economy

Pete George (Your NZ): Guest post on poverty

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Mathematically challenged expert

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Real poverty or an outcome of poor decision making?



Brian Gaynor (Herald): Next year an economic cracker

Hamish Rutherford (Stuff): Govt change could impact market

Herald: Bernard Hickey: 'Dutch disease' drives rash of losses Downunder

Matt Nippert (Stuff): Kiwis rebuked for going soft on bribery

Herald: Editorial: Failed protest out of kilter with its cause

Newswire: Govt seeks business-savvy immigrants

Corazon Miller (Newstalk ZB): Rich foreign business people need to prove themselves

David Williams (NBR): Union weakened by Ports of Auckland industrial dispute

Josh Martin (Stuff): Taxi dispute still rankles drivers

Rod Oram (Stuff): Govt report on Fonterra scare does not reassure

Max Rashbrooke: NZ govt spending above average – OECD

Stephen Franks: Proud of the team – and consumers will benefit


Blogs and the media

Peter Aranyi (The Paepae): Deceitful “PR blog” questions worth considering

Pete George (Your NZ): Cameron Slater on party funding and influence

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Deceptions and integrity in politics


Police and prisons

Alex Fensome (Stuff): New Zealand's imprisonment levels slammed

Shane Cowlishaw (Stuff): Prison plans expansion for ageing inmates

TVNZ: Taxpayers face rising bills for ageing inmates

Kathryn Powley (Herald): Roast Busters: Sex scandal prompts increase in calls for help

Kerre McIvor (Herald): Good report card for Taser


Maori politics

Rebecca Quilliam (Herald): Crown signs historic Treaty settlement

Radio NZ: Maori Council granted Waitangi Tribunal conference

Matthew Theunissen (Herald): Race-based manslaughter appeal fails

Cameron Slater (Whaleoil): Speaking English “a great offense”



Sam Boyer (Herald): NZ authors sign spying petition

Lance Wiggs (NBR): NZ Customs Seizes Electronics – a full enquiry please

Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Have Customs become the GCSB’s 5th eye at the border?



Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Money runs out for drug research

Rachel young (Stuff): Water quality tops public concerns

Nicholas Jones (Herald): NZ's adult obesity rate tops 30%

Rob Stock (Stuff): Big gaps in home ownership information

Deborah Russell (Telling it Left): Working for a fair society

Kathryn Powley (Stuff): Teacher hearings shake-up

Susan Edmunds (Herald): Census 2013: Immigration at new high

Radio NZ: Battle lines drawn over oil drilling

Matthew Theunissen (Herald): SAS man who stole equipment keeps army job

Nicholas Jones (Herald): 'Informed, thoughtful citizens' at risk of vanishing: academics

Chris Ford (Voxy): On Michael Laws and eugenics

David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Colin Craig says

Cassandra Mason (Herald): Wellington Council admits massive data leak


Bryce Edwards
Wed, 11 Jul 2018
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
NZ POLITICS DAILY: So, who won the asset sales referendum?