Everyone loser in this futile exercise

Last updated 13:00 17/12/2013

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OPINION: Much has been made about who won the latest exercise in futility: a non-binding referendum on the Government's asset sales programme.

With both sides claiming victory with arguments that fail to convince, a stronger case could be argued that everyone lost.

Certainly, the $9 million the poll is estimated at is a cost to taxpayers. It might be a drop in the fiscal bucket and a small price to pay for reinforcing a foundation of democracy, but there are plenty of tangible programmes in any New Zealand community that could do something useful with a funding boost of that nature.

As laudable as well-organised, meaningful, citizens' initiated referendums could be, this country's experience of them has been anything but. Rendered impotent by successive governments' refusal to take any notice of them, their credibility has been damaged with each outing - five so far.

Perhaps that is one message that can be taken from the weekend's low turnout. Voters can't be bothered participating in pointless exercises supposed to offer a democratic voice when our politicians have spelled out forcibly that any result will be treated with (undemocratic) disdain.

Rather than an expression of a groundswell of popular opposition to National's asset sales, the petition that launched the referendum process was politically based. That is one reason it failed dismally to galvanise voters.

Another was that, not only did the Government promise to ignore the result, by the time the poll was held it was largely academic with the asset sale programme well down the track.

The Greens and Labour hoped for a resounding "no vote" with which to embarrass the Government. They are claiming victory with two-thirds of voters saying "no" to asset sales. They were counting on a clamour, but wore some of the embarrassment themselves, failing to meet either their participation or "no" vote targets.

And then we have John Key, also claiming a victory of sorts. His take - that only a quarter of New Zealanders actually voted against asset sales, so the referendum is a "dismal failure" for his opponents - is the sort of warped thinking that politicians, crims and their lawyers often show a talent for.

Mr Key's continual claiming of a mandate from the electorate for asset sales by virtue of winning the last election is nearly as disingenuous. No general election is fought or won on a single issue.

So politics, in general, joins the ranks of the losers in this particular debacle. The main parties have both been happy enough to support the concept of referenda when in opposition and then ignore them when in power.

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The only way to really establish a clear mandate on a specific issue is to run a poll on it - which can only be valid if it is binding. The message from Saturday is that we should either restructure the citizens' initiated referendum mechanism to give it real teeth, or abandon it altogether.

- The Nelson Mail

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