It’s not a vote, it’s a survey

I’m trying to figure out what to do with the referendum voting paper that landed in my letterbox this week. It asks a big question: Do you support the government selling up to 49% of Air New Zealand and some power companies, yes or no?

You either hold a strong position on asset sales or you don’t. I don’t, because the economist part of my brain is underdeveloped. I deal in apostrophes, not decimal points. I genuinely don’t know what the best answer is here.

It seems that the patriotic course of action with this particular referendum is to tick no and then yell very loudly that you’ve done so. The ‘yes’ tickers are being very quiet about it.

On this basis I could make an assumptive hunch about which way to vote but it’s hardly an informed opinion. I have much stronger views on other things.

Energy drinks, for example. I’d ace a referendum about those. ‘Do you support banning energy drinks, yes or no?’ Yes, get rid of them. The number of people I’ve seen sucking on cans of sugar first thing in the morning is depressing. All that fizz in your stomach for breakfast can’t be good. Whatever energy you think you’re getting is false economy.

I also think there should be a referendum about noisy neighbours. ‘Do you support the people at number 27 going to bed earlier, yes or no?’ I predict a landslide.

There should possibly be a referendum about the quality of Secret Santa presents. ‘Do you think disposable plastic toys should be banned as office Christmas party gifts, yes or no?’ Yes, absolutely, otherwise you spend five bucks on cheap plastic that goes straight to landfill. The environment deserves better than that for Christmas.

Whatever the results of my home made referendums, they would all have to be non binding. That’s the law for any citizen initiated referendum. The same goes for this asset sales one. The government is not obliged to pay it any attention.

At the end of the day a citizens’ initiated referendum is not actually a vote, it’s a survey. A very expensive survey at that. They’ll have to sell another asset just to pay for it.

So here’s what will happen. Most people will vote no to asset sales. The government will say, “Thanks for all the completely unsurprising feedback.” Then they’ll do whatever they think is best because that’s their job.

Afterwards, a lot of people who voted against the government will be indignant and complain. “But you didn’t listen to us. It’s an outrage! All referendums should be binding.” All referendums should certainly not be binding.

That would be a dangerous way to govern, especially when the referendum is badly written, like the smacking one was.

There’s an interesting list of New Zealand’s referendums on the Elections website. Our first referendum was about horse betting and our second was about compulsory military training, both initiated by the government in 1949. (The vote was 78% in favour of compulsory military training.)

This asset sales question is our fifth citizens’ initiated referendum. At $9 million I’m sure there are less expensive ways to get the government to ignore an issue.

By all means we should raise a fuss when we object strongly to things, but the one binding referendum that counts most is the general election. That’s the vote that gave the National Party the right to make choices lots of people inevitably disagree with.

Good on the government if this referendum leads them to change their mind. But I’d be surprised if it does. At the end of the day it’s not a proper vote, it’s just a survey.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 29 November 2013. Reproduced with permission.