Monday, 14 January 2013

Indisputable Mandate

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.


Dave Kennedy said...

The National Party received a tenuous mandate to govern when elected in 2011, their claim that the election was a resounding victory is a huge exaggeration. In one of the worst turnouts in New Zealand's election history (74%) National failed to win a clear majority with only 47% of the vote and therefore 53% of those who voted did not vote for them.

The election was not fought on policy as National has tried to claim but on the personality of John Key and some of that popularity was based on the perception that he listened and responded to public concerns. Even during the election campaign the policy of a partial sale of state assets was not well supported and the details behind it were deliberately hidden. If the sale of state assets was a major pillar of their campaign then this was not well promoted and voters were not provided with the information to vote on this in an informed way.

To progress the asset sales the Government has had to pass new laws and 1430 written submissions to the related "Mixed Ownership Model" legislation were received and 100 of those submissions were presented orally to the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee. Practically all submissions (1421) were opposed to the Government's plans and, given the enormity of these plans, one would expect full and careful consideration of the evidence provided. Not only were submitters treated with some disdain from the National Party members of the committee but the chair, Todd McClay, demanded that the deliberations be cut by six weeks. This undemocratic process became even more pronounced when it was revealed that Treasury Officials had written their final report before all the submissions had been fully heard and considered.

With the sudden change to the original timeline the Green Party were forced to present their rushed minority report without the opportunity to circulate it amongst their caucus, totally against existing conventions. The bill was passed with a majority of one (61/60).

This National led Government has not given due diligence to either establishing the long term value of the asset sales nor to ensure good democratic process is followed. John Key led a personality based election campaign that largely relied on the public perception that he listens to public concerns and his election was a actually just a mandate for him to continue listening. John Key has no mandate to sell our state assets and he has stopped listening.

Indisputable mandate...I think not!

Peter Hooper said...

Chris you have a profile as a commentator on the left in NZ politics and I find this piece a clever move. In my books it show you are not a blind follower of any political party while being attentive to the left and its perspectives. Commentators who blindly support a political party, no matter what, end up being shallow. In my books you have positioned yourself well. It seems your next move would be to give a pointer to those inside the political parties that are interested in a 'left' view some idea of where they should be putting thier energy into from this date forward. I look forward to your next post.

Chris Trotter said...

To: bsprout

I'm sorry, bsprout, but I find this line of argument specious in the extreme.

First. If people choose not to vote (and it is a choice) then they become what the Ancient Athenians called "idiotes" - private persons without a role in the civic government. (And, yes that is where we get the word "idiot" from.) Take yourself off the board by not voting and, I'm sorry, but you simply don't count in the debate over the extent of the Government's mandate.

Second: The sale - partial or otherwise - of state assets was the subject of widespread discussion and debate in the run-up to the election. Indeed, by signalling his intentions well in advance, John Key adhered to the finest traditions of democratic accountability. This was not a policy sprung on an unsuspecting electorate (like Charter Schools) it was a policy submitted to the electorate for its endorsement. Receiving 47.3 percent of the Party Vote (which was an increase on its 2008 share BTW) must count as exactly that.

I wish New Zealanders had voted differently, but the essence of democracy is that a policy is presented to the electorate and if enough electors vote for it, then it gets implemented.

When the party which explicitly campaigned for asset sales receives 20 percentage points more than the party which campaigned against them - well - that's called receiving a mandate.


Alex said...

On the debate over whether asset sales were clearly flagged before the election, I think that depends on what media you consume. They were a large part of the left parties campaign, so if you do things like read political blogs you would have been aware of it. However, if your news consumption is a glance at the newspaper in the morning and the 6 oclock news at night, you may have been much less aware of the possibility of asset sales as it wasn't covered very heavily by the MSM.

Anonymous said...

All this discussion/arguement over whether or not National has a Mandate to sell assets or not is well overstated.

According to the logic, those of the Left Persuasion, are trying to attach to the elected government of the day that because less than 50% of the populous voted for National then it is not the will of the people.

The same must be said of every election we had under MMP as nobody has ever had such a mandate, albeit the last election was closest yet!

One would have to be of a certain political persuasion to argue the JK and the Nats don't have a mandate to govern but the previous administration of Helen and Labour somehow did with even less percentage of the vote.

Or is somehow my logic wrong?

Mark F

Dave Kennedy said...

Chris, I guess this is really a debate in semantics.

You appear to be claiming that because National won enough votes to govern (with support) and the asset sales were part of their campaign, then they have a political mandate to continue with them. This line of thinking is very much in keeping with the old FPP political philosophy that has been well and truly abandoned by New Zealand voters. Surely under MMP and in this new political age such archaic ways of thinking can be put well and truly behind us.

Polls and surveys during the election campaign demonstrated clearly that around 75% of voters were opposed to the asset sales and recent polls have produced similar numbers.

"When the party which explicitly campaigned for asset sales receives 20 percentage points more than the party which campaigned against them - well - that's called receiving a mandate."

This may have been true if the election was fought on this issue, but it wasn't. The National led Government was elected based on a very clever presidential style campaign centered around John Key. Voters appeared to think that Key was pragmatic PM who was in tune with what the majority of New Zealanders wanted and probably wouldn't sell the assets if it wasn't widely supported.

I accept that on a purely legal standpoint one could say that because National won enough votes to govern then they have the majority to do what they wish, especially if they had campaigned on a particular policy. Morally however they have no mandate to sell the assets. They know the majority of New Zealanders oppose them, the policy wasn't crucial to winning the election (in fact they won despite the policy) and the huge majority of submissions to the select committee opposed them. There is not one sound fiscal reason for them to go ahead and even Treasury has voiced concerns.

Unless you can prove otherwise, as far as I know we have no constitutional definition of what determines a mandate other than who has the right to govern. You have chosen to take a narrow legal standpoint, just as Key did to justify retaining Banks and tobacco companies use to sell cigarettes. I prefer to use a deontological approach to what should constitute a mandate, you may call it specious, but to me it is perfectly valid.

Anonymous said...


Your article is indisputable, lazy nonsense.

All that the election demonstrates is that a certain number of people voted for each party, on the day.

Your claim relies on the assumption that the majority of National voters voted for the asset sale policy (whatever they understood that to actually mean). However, a proportion certainly voted for National *despite* the asset sale policy.

So, there is no way to know from the election result alone what the support for this specific policy actually is. You also seem to be rather arrogantly dismissing the possible opinion of those who did not (or could not) vote in the election.

Peter Malcouronne said...

I find the assumption that every person who didn't vote is, ipso facto, a socialist, desperate, even delusional.

The logic, as I understand it, is that great legions of comrades become disillusioned by a succession of disastrous opinion polls and so don't vote. Of course, you could also argue that some of the stay-at-homes were fat, smug Tories, confidently anticipating a landslide (and so unwilling to ease themselves out of their jacuzzis).

Of course, the reality is that the Left, the so-called Left, was given a pants-down thrashing. I just hope one day they accept that they actually lost and don't seek solace in that other comradely delusion - that is, that the voters are a pack of dumb-ass morons who voted the wrong way and so deserve all they get.

Maybe then, they'll take a good hard look at themselves - and I'm mostly talking Labour, here - and ask why so many working-class peeps vote for the enemy.

Anonymous said...

You have it backwards, Chris.

To vote is to enter into an agreement with all other voters to have one's vote counted equally. That means that voting is actively consenting to the outcome, so it is more correct to say that those who vote have less of a right to complain than those who don't.

Forgive me for not wanting to participate in mindless mob rule.

Anonymous said...

Chris, look forward to your power bills rising out of control, once these assets are sold.

Can't believe your support Labour. Under half the population voted for National and their allies. How can that be a mandate at all? We gave an elected dictatorship, once again.

MMP has been rotten for this country,
Our power bills, already too high, will increase even more. As MPs of course, get pay rises.

M. Lee said...

Nice piece Chris. And well argued as usual.

As an aside, maybe I’m na├»ve, but I reckon they may yet change their mind on the sales.

(To: Alex
It received front page attention on a number of occasions, no? Admittedly I haven’t delved into the archives…..)

The Whiteboard said...

The question of whether or not an elected Government has a mandate to implement stated policy is a diversion from the question of why referendums in New Zealand are non-binding.

Spiffles said...

It's far past time to stop calling Labour "Left", it is not left at all. It's Centrist, fer gawds sake!

The old dichotomy of 'Left and Right' politics are long over. Get a life people!

M. Lee said...

To Whiteboard:
I don't think I want binding referenda. But maybe I'm a minority.

Bogusnews said...

I'm surprised at some of the responses as I believe Chris has hit the nail on the head. To be complaining that a left leaning commentator is by logic supporting a centreist government is irrelevant and silly.

I also think it is entirely appropriate to point out that if people did not vote they have no business in complaining now. Further, if they could not get the motivation or interest to learn what a party (that everyone could see would win) was going to do then more fool on them.

In my view, the complaints against asset sales are a smoke screen. National won clearly stating this specific policy as a key part of their manifesto. Labour was trounced clearly stating their opposition.

End of story.

Anonymous said...

Focussing on National's individual share of the party vote is a mistake: they got it by cannibalising the support of all other right-wing parties, and the overall vote share for the Right dropped between 2008 and 2011.

That said, a wafer thin majority is still a majority, and people should not be protected from the consequences of their own electoral stupidity.

Gaetano said...

While it is true that National and partners won the election, which naturally gives them the right to govern. It is also true that those who are against the asset sales have a right to get enough signatures to have a referendum. It is also true that the Government has the right to ignore the referendum and sell the assets any way. But at the very least, following the referendum we will have a much clearer idea of how many New Zealanders don't want them sold. This will be one historical fact that can't be shrugged of as a matter of opinion. I've signed the petition and collected signatures and although I can see the seeming futility of it, I've felt good about doing it anyway, and it is only actions that determine the course of future historical events, so who knows? I'm sure something positive will come out of it. PS i really enjoy reading Bowalley!

Max Ritchie said...

You'd have to agree with bogusnews. The National Party made its intentions very clear before the election and is now the Government. Mostly all Governments ignore referenda unless it suits them to do otherwise. National has as much of a mandate as they need, although getting a move on would be a good idea - the next election is on the horizon and it will certainly result in a very different Parliament and Government, perhpas not National-led.

Frankie Lee said...

If winning an election dosen't give you a mandate to implement your programme, then the concept is rendered completely meaningless.

TM said...

National campaigned openly on asset sales. The voting public put this into the mix and still voted them in. NZ has a representative democracy, so we don't need to have a referendum on every contentious issue.

I voted for the left, and while not happy about the government's direction, I wouldn't like to see the right wing parties demanding a referendum if Labour introduced an effective ETS or carbon tax for example.

blueleopardthinks said...

I find this article odd. What are you trying to achieve by writing it? Your logic all points to the referendum being a good thing; something to confirm the claimed mandate that National reckons it has, clear up the controversy; however you appear to be concluding that there shouldn't be a referendum?

I agree with bsprout 12:37pm "This may have been true if the election was fought on this issue, but it wasn't." You know as well as bsprout that voters don't vote over a single policy. So why are you repeating National spin on the matter?

We all know at least one person who voted National and do not agree with asset sales. The numbers are pretty clear that there are plenty who voted with this conflict.

This state of opinion; people having voted for National, yet not supportive of asset sales clearly puts National in a very tricky position. To NOT go ahead with the sales; undermines all their economic plans, which are calculated with the sales to go ahead, however thems the breaks if you wish to manipulate the electoral vote in the way they did; (and very successfully they did so). So why are you supporting this spin?

The election results could be interpreted as a contest in the popularity between asset sales and the superannuation issue that Labour put on the table; it can be interpreted many ways; has there been any serious research into the results?

Lastly, if the election results are to be used as an indication of what the majority voted with regard to asset sales, the answer is negative for asset sales. More people voted for parties stating opposition for asset sales.

Paulus said...

Under a Labour Green Winston coalition Government after November 2014, at what time will they but back the shares to be sold by the current Government.
Will it be in Labour's manifesto or as expected they will chicken.

blondewithaniq said...

Curious as to what you intended with this post too Chris?
But I do agree that mandate in a political 'sense' (sic) has long lost its original intent!
Allow me please.

1st Example..
Mandate (Political ): USED: to be a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative

Mandate (Political): NOW : decision to act in a particular way and to hell with treasury advice, hired consultants who DISAGREE & ALL the public who didn't give them one, were conned into it, or are too innumerate to do mandate maths when only the 2x1 man parties & Nat party investors not the country would have been those to profit from the Asset Sales!

Man-date (Political as will be remembered in NZ:Post 2014

Two Right Dissed Honourable Johns. Teacup-Gate Rent a Messy Mainstream media Scrum. Transmission of Brain-fadementia with cross infection of Dubiously Denied Donations & Dotcom dealings Amnesia?

Assets sales to reduce a debt borrowed to give tax breaks to the richest are asinine in times of global 'austerity*'?
*Another 'doublespeak' word, and I am pretty sure you know that as well as the Treasury.