Good reasons abound for slowing down on the passage of the Mixed Ownership Model Bill, the legislation that will enable the partial sales of a bundle of state assets. Among those reasons is the prospect of the global economy becoming more sluggish, reducing the sum the Government hopes to fetch for shares in three state-owned power companies and the Solid Energy coal company.
Prime Minister John Key optimistically counters that concern, saying the prices fetched for such shares are not always directly correlated to the overall feeling in the economy. Moreover, the Government can back out of a sale if it doesn't think it will achieve a good result – "but our intention at this point is to go ahead".
Not so compelling is the case for stalling while signatures are gathered for a petition to force a referendum on the issue. The Keep Our Assets coalition, which is collecting signatures, says no-one is clamouring to sell the assets, but many are saying "no". Tens of thousands of petition signatures are claimed, and more are said to be flooding in.
The coalition says the change of heart over class sizes shows the Government can listen to public opposition. It should do likewise with asset sales and allow the referendum to run its course. But there's a fundamental difference between the two issues. Asset sales were set down as a key component of National policy at the last election. The party's move to change teacher:student ratios in schools was announced last month without warning or consultation.
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman maintains it is important for people to get the opportunity to give their voice on whether the Government should proceed with asset sales. He points to opinion polls showing New Zealanders clearly disagree with the privatisation programme. But the polls showed strong disagreement before the election.
Mr Key can reasonably claim partial privatisation of the nominated SOEs was the main election campaign issue. National won with the biggest result for a party in the history of MMP while Labour had its lowest result. That was the referendum that mattered because it gave Mr Key's team the mandate it is now exercising. If partial privatisation is as unpopular as its opponents insist, it won't get a mandate for its policies at the next election.
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