Key Policy: In 2011 Labour made opposition to a partial sale of the state's energy assets the centerpiece of its election campaign. National's long-signalled privatisation plans were thus thrown into sharp electoral focus. Significantly, the final result put Labour 20 percentage points behind National. With nearly 50 percent of the votes cast, Mr Key's Government not surprisingly claimed a strong mandate to proceed with its sales programme.
THE TARGET of 310,000 signatures has been reached – or so we are told. The coalition of interest groups and political parties seeking a Citizens’ Initiated Referendum (CIR) on the National Government’s plans to partially privatise the state-owned energy generators has yet to submit its petition to the Clerk of the House for checking. But even if this final hurdle is cleared, the petitioners will still have to find their way around a much more daunting obstacle: the Government’s mandate.
That the Government has a mandate to sell-off 49 percent of Mighty River Power, Genesis, Meridian and Solid Energy is hotly contested by the four organisations petitioning for a CIR. Grey Power, The NZ Council of Trade Unions, The Labour Party and The Greens all deny the legitimacy of the Government claiming a specific electoral mandate for its partial privatisation programme. According to the petitioners’, the voters have (at best) given the National-led Government a general mandate. To claim a specific mandate, they say, it must first ask the electorate a specific question – hence the need for a referendum.
This argument would carry more weight if the National Party’s principal challenger in the 2011 General Election – the Labour Party – hadn’t itself specified National’s privatisation plans as the best reason for voting it out of office. “Stop Asset Sales” was the Labour Party’s most coherent slogan in 2011. That only 27.4 percent of the voters were prepared to back its flagship policy with their ballots strongly suggests that privatisation was not the electoral game-changer Labour’s focus-groups had suggested.
The Greens’ were much less willing than Labour to give the privatisation issue such critical electoral salience. They promised New Zealanders “a richer future” of which the retention of state assets was certainly an important (but not an essential) feature. How, then, can the Greens argue that National’s claim to a specific electoral mandate is illegitimate when their own policy pitch was so general? If National isn’t entitled to claim a specific mandate for asset sales, then, by the same logic, the Greens cannot claim one against them.
The same applies to all the other political parties offering manifestoes in which, inter alia, the Government’s plans to partially privatise the State’s energy companies were opposed. It’s simply not fair to aggregate the Greens 11.6 percent, NZ First’s 6.5 percent, the Maori Party’s 1.4 percent, Mana’s 1.0 and the Conservative Party’s 2.6 percent of the Party Vote with Labour’s 27.4 percent to claim a minimum anti-asset sales bloc of 50.5 percent. Opposition to asset sales was not deemed important enough to preclude a confidence and supply agreement between National and the Maori Party. Nor would it have been had the Conservatives managed to cross the 5 percent threshold.
National, of course, has no need to aggregate percentages for its partial privatisation programme as desperately as its opponents. With 47.3 percent of the Party Vote, the governing party came within an ace of securing an absolute majority of the votes cast. It would have been an outstanding tally even under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system, but coming within 2.8 percent of an outright majority under our Mixed-Member-Proportional system was close to miraculous. Any political party racking up such a total is entitled to claim a very strong electoral mandate for all its policies.
National’s claim to a specific mandate for its asset sales programme is, accordingly, very strong. The policy was announced nearly a year prior to the election and was subjected to the intense scrutiny of not only the parliamentary opposition, but also the news media and a broad cross-section of civil society. The 2011 election was no 1980s or 1990s exercise in duplicity and fraud: the public understood that a vote for National was a vote to privatise 49 percent of Solid Energy, Meridian, Genesis and Mighty River Power. Nearly half of them voted for the Government anyway. If Prime Minister John Key’s government doesn’t have a mandate to proceed with its privatisation policy, then the word no longer has any political meaning.
New Zealand’s representative system of government entrusts the administration of the nation to the political party, or parties, which alone, or in combination, command a majority in the House of Representatives. National and its allies played by these rules – and won. Their performance referendum is scheduled for 2014 – and it’s binding.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 11 January 2013.