Editorial: A $9 million right of reply

Since the last election, the Government has been ardently explaining - to you - what you think about its asset-sales programme.

Turns out you're happy with it.

Or if you're not, Prime Minister John Key would have you know you're in the minority. Because the electorate delivered a ringing endorsement of asset sales when it voted National into power in full knowledge of its intention.

That's a fatuous argument.

National knows full well it prevailed in spite of this issue; not on the back of it.

Campaigns are decided on each party's package of policies and personalities. By any recorded measure, asset sales were the most unpopular component of National's package. And rightly so.

Economists and business leaders have been adamant the nation would benefit far more from the returns of those stakeholdings than from the proceeds of the sales.

This led to that otherworldly situation of the Government explaining that the share prices would go down - making them a bad investment for the Government, though of course still a splendid opportunity for mum-and-dad investors, not to mention hard-nosed institutional investors.

Now the selldown opponents have forced a $9 million non-binding referendum, albeit at a stage where much of the programme is already in the rear-view mirror.

Mr Key and his senior ministers have sighed heavily and done as much as they could not only to explain, but to ensure, that the referendum will be just a mightily expensive exercise in futility.

In effect, the Government's position on the poll is "feel free to talk among yourselves".

It has placed its fingers in its ears, as far as the result is concerned.

There those fingers will stay unless the turnout is really low, as referendum turnouts have reliably been to date. In which case the Government will instead cup its hand behind its ear to emphasise the faintness of the response, which it will interpret as proof that the public really isn't agitated on this issue.

The referendum can easily be portrayed as a piece of perhaps therapeutic, but otherwise inconsequential, venting.

Mighty River Power, Meridian, Air New Zealand? What's done is done. Genesis and Solid Energy? The Government's not for turning. Further out? Finance Minister Bill English has signalled no further sales are on the horizon.

But here's the thing.

None of the above means any voters should disregard those referendum papers.

There's a difference between token gesture and a symbolic one. The first is a perfunctory act of minimal significance. Pretty much empty, by definition. The second is something you do to show people how you feel and what you think.

Even if asset-sales opponents can't make themselves heeded, they can make themselves heard.

The thing to remember is that, as far as the Government is concerned, our voices would signify little but our silence would speak volumes.

This being the case - whatever you think - it is far, far better to speak up.

The Southland Times