Editorial: Disquiet casts shadow over asset sales

Last updated 05:00 20/02/2013

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The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous. Frederick Douglass (1817-1895).

It seems the only thing that is capable of stopping John Key's Government selling off 49 per cent of some state assets is the Supreme Court.

This week the court's learned judges advised they would need more time to mull over their Maori water-rights options before announcing their decision, and it will now be early next month.

While that decision could be an important milestone in this country's history, it could ultimately be little more than a political inconvenience if the Government decides to override it with more legislation.

There's no guarantee that will succeed. The Government's tenuous parliamentary majority could be eroded if coalition partner the Maori Party does not support it on this issue.

Just as intriguing is the public disquiet that continues to cast a shadow over the whole concept. If the numbers are verified, as seems likely, the country will have its say on asset sales this year after a petition to force a referendum reached the 300,000 signatures needed.

An unlikely coalition of Grey Power, the Council of Trade Unions, the Green Party and Labour collected signatures for the petition. The collectors included New Plymouth woman Stuart Bramhall, who collected close to 9000 monikers over many months.

These disparate groups recently reached the threshold of 10 per cent of all registered voters, or about 310,000 people, to sign the petition to force a referendum.

Unlike some earlier topics which resulted in citizens-initiated referendums being held, the question asked was scrupulously fair: "Do you support the Government selling up to 49 per cent of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?" It was all the better for not being loaded in favour of a particular outcome, which only adds weight to it.

While Mr Key has consistently pointed out that referendum outcomes are not legally binding, he must be concerned by this strong show of support.

The makeup of the entities behind the petition mirror the opposition parties in Parliament.

Grey Power can be said to equate to NZ First, the unions to Labour and with support from the Green and Labour parties. They could well form the next government.

In his five years as Prime Minister, Mr Key has shown himself to be highly pragmatic and has been quick to dump unpopular policies and ideas. Yet the whole concept of asset sales appears to be non-negotiable.

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Two recent polls, including a Fairfax online one, have put public opposition at around 70 per cent. Ever since Rogernomics briefly took over the Labour Party in the 1980s, public disquiet on selling off state assets - or up to 49 per cent of them - has remained, and possibly hardened.

In a pure economic sense it may well make sense, but that does not include the emotional attachment that comes with our country owning key strategic assets.

It evokes memories of the New Plymouth District Council selling its shares in then publicly listed Powerco. The resulting "nest egg" is struggling to give satisfactory returns while Powerco continues to do well.

Opposition continues to this day.

It's hard to imagine a different result if the Government continues to pursue the partial sales at any cost.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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