OPINION: Yet another hurdle has been placed in the way of the Government's plans to sell shareholdings in four state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand.
The public will have an opportunity to reiterate their opposition, now that a petition to force a referendum - according to the campaigners who have collected signatures - has reached the required threshold.
It is not an insurmountable hurdle. It will give another measure of dissatisfaction with the sales programme, but the Government does not regard a referendum result as binding. The anti-sales campaigners needed 10 per cent of all registered voters - about 310,000 people - to sign their petition. The reported number of signatures collected is about 340,000, enough to trigger a referendum, but not to support Labour MP Chris Hipkins' claim that New Zealanders "overwhelmingly" oppose the asset sales. His insistence that "the Government is now panicking about it" looks fanciful too.
He was right to say the vote will give an opportunity to demonstrate the weight of opposition, but governments are apt to cock a snook at the results of citizen-initiated referenda. A formidable 85 per cent of New Zealanders voted in a referendum that a light parental smack for correctional purposes should not be a criminal offence, yet a few weeks later the Greens and the Labour Party - cheerleaders in the campaign for the referendum on asset sales - voted against a bill which would have translated that strong vote into law.
The state share sales face other obstacles. In the Supreme Court, the New Zealand Maori Council has been granted leave to appeal a High Court ruling dismissing its application for a review of Cabinet decisions relating to the sale of up to 49 per cent of Mighty River Power.
In the Treasury, advisers are warning against selling shares in three state energy companies all at once. One sale every six months is recommended, with the final sale next year, to ensure the price fetched is not eroded.
But the biggest obstacle was overcome at the 2011 general election. The Government mustered enough votes to remain in office for a second term. Voters had their opportunity to scuttle the partial-privatisation policy. They did not take it.
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