National's economic locomotive on track

19:02, Feb 27 2013

At last some unalloyed good news for the Government. Buffeted in recent weeks by the critical SkyCity report, a dodgy process around the bailout of Wanganui Collegiate, some harmful revelations about The Hobbit saga, and Solid Energy's distress, John Key and his team will feel like hugging the full bench of the Supreme Court for its judgment clearing the way for the asset sales programme.

The whiff of bad government process, which was everywhere in the ether, will at least be blown out of the headlines for a few days.

Dame Sian Elias and her fellow judges have defied the label of judicial Treaty-friendly activism some have pinned on them. They have not delivered the rumoured split decision which supposedly would have seen Dame Sian leading the liberals to a narrow loss against the conservative majority of the five judges.

Now the main locomotive of National's economic programme, give or take the $800 million once expected from selling half of Solid Energy, is back on track. The proceeds might be closer to the bottom-of-the-range $5 billion than the top-end $7b, but the way is now clear for the three state assets in any shape for sale - Mighty River Power, Meridian and Genesis - to be brought to the market by the first quarter of 2014.

That will mean the unpopular policy is brought to a head well before the highly-charged election period gets under way.

The Opposition will have another bite at the politics of it all with the referendum against asset sales.


The signatures have reached 391,000 against a "necessary" 309,000 and the 390,000 the referendum's supporters estimated were needed to ensure at least 309,000 were valid.

It will now be in the Government's interests to fast-track the non-binding referendum, making it likely - or at least highly politically desirable - to run in conjunction with the October local body elections so it can be tidied away as quickly as possible.

If, as Labour had insisted, the Government's economic programme was "in tatters" with doubts over the right to sell Mighty River, then by definition it has been darned back together by the Supreme Court's judgment.

Labour can now only console itself with the thought that while a win for the Maori Council would have given it endless sport attacking the Government's economic plans, it may not have played so well with the floating Pakeha voters. Now at least it is free to harvest the public anger over asset sales without having that message scrambled.

From the point of view of the Maori Council, the loss in court has come with a spoonful or three of sugar. The Crown is now in open talks with iwi over water rights, which stop only just shy of full ownership. And the Supreme Court gave the council some limited wins over the extent the Treaty should be considered and about how the asset sales process impeded - though not to a material extent - the Government's ability to meet its obligations under the Treaty.

It is not clear what the Government would have done if it had lost the case and the partial asset sales had been seriously delayed.

Some reporters asked Key this week if he would call a snap election, but that seems fanciful unless he at the same time lost the confidence of the House.

His answer was odd, though; that he would not comment lest it be seen as running interference with the Supreme Court's decision.

The more likely option would have been legislating over the top of the decision - let's call it Son of Foreshore and Seabed - that would have burned off the Maori Party at the least.

But the best of all fall-back options would have been to bite the bullet.

As Finance Minister Bill English put it: "If we can't sell them, we'll have to keep them - that's plan B - but we have spent a lot of time on plan A".

The proceeds were tagged for capital expenditure, so the debt track would have ticked higher. But the impact on the budget balance - crucially that 2014-15 surplus target - would have been minimal to positive since the loss of dividend income would likely outweigh the savings on interest payments on the extra debt. But that is now just water under the bridge.

English and his team can now gear up for the sale of 49 per cent of Mighty River Power and the shares will be on offer well before the May 16 Budget.