Editorial: Little point to one-issue polls

Last updated 05:00 16/12/2013

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OPINION: As a means of directly influencing government policy, citizens' initiated referendums have been a resounding flop.

Right from the first one - a union-driven poll on the number of firefighters, of all things - both Labour and National-led governments have ignored them.

There was never any chance the present Government was going to take any notice of the latest one.

In any case a botch-up by the organisers meant it was delayed so that by the time it was held, the programme it was meant to influence was almost over.

But that, perhaps, is not the point. As a political stunt it can be counted a success.

It has kept the issue of the sale of some of the Government's share in a few state assets to the fore to the discomfiture of the Government and possibly some cost to its standing in opinion polls.

Whether that was what referendums were intended for, and whether taxpayers really want to go on paying up to $9 million for what amount to between-election political campaigns, is debatable.

The latest referendum was not strictly a citizens' initiated one.

Unlike earlier referendums - on the number of MPs there should be in Parliament, on the proper punishment for violent offending, and on smacking of children - it was not led by any great popular groundswell.

Instead, it was largely promoted by the Green Party.

It spent a significant sum organising the petition for it.

Even then on the first try the Greens failed to get sufficient verifiable signatures to justify it, which is why it was delayed.

In the end, the outcome was pretty much what was expected.

Most of those eligible did not bother to vote. The turnout was the second-lowest since citizens' initiated referendums began.

Much of that indifference was no doubt acceptance that the exercise was pointless.

But a significant number also probably accepted the Government's point that it had an entirely valid mandate from the general election, in which the question of asset-sales was well argued, and a single-issue campaign should not be set up to retrospectively overturn that.

To the loaded, if muddled question, a clear majority of voters signalled their opposition to asset sales, although not in such large numbers as some had expected.

In all the previous referendums, the vote for the position supported by those promoting the issue has been won by majorities of at least four to one, and in one case (in the poll on violent offending) by nine to one.

In the latest poll the margin was two to one.

Considering the concerted campaign run by those supporting the no-vote, who would have been expecting better, it was not a striking result.

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Referendums are a crude instrument for influencing public policy. They require simple yes-no answers.

Most political questions are more complex than that and involve trade-offs.

It is for that reason that few countries bother with them. The latest one was a prime example.

The issue it dealt with was decided with the result of the last general election. Whether voters are still happy about that will be properly judged at the next one.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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