Government to ignore asset sales referendum

RUSSEL NORMAN: The Government would be "incredibly disrespectful" to New Zealanders to ignore the referendum.
RUSSEL NORMAN: The Government would be "incredibly disrespectful" to New Zealanders to ignore the referendum.

Two hundred people have gathered at Parliament to hand over a petition trying to force a referendum over the Government's asset sales programme.

The Government has vowed to proceed with asset sales irrespective of whether the referendum comes out against the issue.

Grey Power president Roy Reid said the petition, with about 392,000 signatures, was the largest ever presented to the New Zealand Parliament.

Supporters hope to force a referendum on asset sales.

DAVID SHEARER: "We call on John Key to listen."
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
DAVID SHEARER: "We call on John Key to listen."

Labour leader David Shearer said National must pay attention to the opposition.

"More than 80 per cent of New Zealanders are against the sale of our assets. We call on John Key to listen to the will of the people."

If the Clerk of Parliament accepts that 10 per cent of New Zealand's eligible voters signed, it would force a citizen-initiated referendum some time over the next 12 months.

Shearer said the petition would make the Government listen.

''This is about the transfer of an asset we all own, into the hands of a very few. That's what it's about, it's about fairness, it is not fair.''

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said the crowd ''stand here on behalf of the millions of New Zealanders'' opposed to asset sales.

''It is despicable that the Prime Minister has said the people who signed this are children and tourists. Prime Minister you do not know New Zealanders.''

NZ First leader Winston Peters congratulated Grey Power for initiating the petition, and vowed that after the election ''we intend to take those shares back at no better price'' than they were sold for.

Transport Minister Bill English says there is interest in the proposed ferry move to Clifford Bay
MAARTEN HOLL/Fairfax NZ
Transport Minister Bill English says there is interest in the proposed ferry move to Clifford Bay

Finance Minister Bill English however said a referendum would make no difference to the process.

"The sales are going ahead," English told TV3's Firstline. "We've already launched the Mighty River Power float and there will be others.

"This is an issue that was campaigned on right through election year, we laid out the policy in detail, the opposition parties had a year to debate it, and they didn't win the election so we're proceeding with the sales on the basis of that mandate."

English said the Opposition had taken a year to collect 300,000 signatures with the help of "paid Parliamentary staff" collecting names.

"We've now got 250,000 plus New Zealanders interested in buying the shares in 10 days," he said, referring to the number of people pre-registering for shares in Mighty River Power.

The Government has made the asset sales a flagship policy, with up to 49 per cent of Mighty River Power set to be sold by the end of June. Partial sales of Meridian and Genesis Energy would follow.

Speaking from Brazil, Prime Minister John Key said that while in Opposition National had strongly opposed some Labour policy but "we didn't bother with a citizens initiated referendum on that because we knew we had a referendum called the election".

Key said of the opposition petition you could be as "sure as little green apples [that] huge numbers of them are not bona fide names on the list" and would have to be struck off.

"They've probably taken over a year to get maybe 300,000 names, we've had 285,000 pre-registrations in a matter of days".

Green Party leader co-leader Russel Norman said it was "incredibly disrespectful" to New Zealanders to ignore the referendum.

He also dismissed suggestion that the numbers of people signing up to pre-register for Mighty River shares was a genuine show of support.

"We know from the Contact Energy float, and more recently the Queensland Rail float, that the number of people who pre-register [for shares] is much, much higher than the number who actually buy shares," Norman said.

"Secondly, I've had plenty of people contact me who are opposed to asset sales who are planning to buy shares to keep [Mighty River] in New Zealand ownership as much as they can through their small stake."

The Opposition said three-quarters of New Zealanders opposed the sales.

Those attending included Grey Power President Roy Reid, Council of Trade Unions Secretary Peter Conway, and the leaders of all of the political parties which have supported the petition, Labour, the Greens, NZ First, and Mana.

Reid said Grey Power had opposed the sale of state owned assets ''for a number of years'', a fact reaffirmed at its annual meeting two years ago, and conveyed that to all political parties.

''Our generation worked hard, we paid the taxes, to build our existing assets. They're not for sale,'' Reid said.

Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway praised the efforts of those who collected the signatures.

''It might have been easier if we'd had the backing of a $1 million advertising campaign, if you'd been able to do it all online, right?'' Conway said, referring to the large numbers who have pre-registered to buy Mighty River Power shares.

Reid said the Government should not simply ignore the issue.

"The Government should listen to what every day New Zealanders are saying about asset sales, and give them a chance to vote on just their asset sales plans," he said.

"Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kiwis have got behind this referendum, both signing the petition and helping to collecting signatures. It has been a real citizens' effort.''

The counting of the petition is expected to take around two months. Assuming it is accepted, once it is reported back to Parliament, the Government has one month to determine how and when the referendum will take place. It must be held within one year of the verified petition being presented to Parliament.

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