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State asset sales: A new referendum on an old policy

State asset sales: A new referendum on an old policy

by Anne Russell
March 12, 2013

Around 200 people assembled at the Cenotaph today to present the signatures on the state asset sales referendum at Parliament. The petition has received 393,000 signatures, exceeding the required number of 300,000. The event was emceed by musician Moana Maniapoto, who encouraged the crowd to sing along with a song she had recently written about asset sales. The video also includes a speech from Roy Reid of Grey Power, who organised the petition.

Footage of speeches by Russel Norman, NZCTU spokesperson Peter Conway, AUSA member Arena Williams, Winston Peters, David Shearer, and Hone Harawira can be found at the appropriate links. The speeches closed with Moana Maniapoto, Hone Harawira and the crowd singing Nga Iwi E.

The state asset sales campaign has been one of the most popular activist movements of the past few years; the 6000-strong hikoi on Parliament in May 2012 was the largest demonstration since the foreshore and seabed hikoi in 2004. However, the policy, while unsettling for many, is not particularly new or unusual. Privatisation of state assets was a policy of the fourth Labour government during the 1980s, under then-Finance Minister Roger Douglas (who later founded the neoliberal ACT Party). This economic policy was classified with others under the heading of Rogernomics, as it operated under a similar economic model to the neoliberal Reaganomics in the United States. Rogernomics laid the groundwork for similar privatisation policies under the subsequent National government's Finance Minister Ruth Richardson in the early 1990s, which were jokingly termed Ruthanasia.

Today I briefly talked to Labour's current Finance Spokersperson, Grant Robertson about his party's history with asset sales. Robertson stated that these economic policies are a relic of Labour's past. While the likes of Douglas are now firmly aligned with openly right-wing parties, Phil Goff, who supported deregulation and free trade under Rogernomics at the time, remains a member of the Labour Party. However, Goff's presence at the demonstration today clearly indicates some shift in his position. Listen to the interview with Robertson below.

Click a link to play audio (or right-click to download) in either
MP3 format or in OGG format.

Parallels can be drawn between several of the economic policies under both the Lange government and the succeeding National government under Jim Bolger during the 1990s, and those of the current Key administration. For example, GST was introduced by Labour in 1985, and was increased from 12.5% to 15% under National in 2010. Moreover, the current decline in manufacturing jobs mirrors the loss of 76,000 manufacturing jobs from 1987 to 1992. Likewise, the Key administration's cutbacks to the public sector are arguably similar to the partial privatisation of institutions like tertiary education under Ruth Richardson in the early 1990s. Although it has taken extreme turns in recent years, the general favouring of private over public sector has been an ongoing economic policy of various governments for decades.

The asset sales of the 1980s and 90s had similarly low levels of support from the New Zealand population. Roy Reid of Grey Power, the organiser of the citizens-initiated referendum, noted today that 75% of the population polled opposes these asset sales (listen to the interview below). Similarly, in the documentary Someone Else's Country, director Alister Barry notes that 96% of the population polled opposed the sale of Telecom in 1990. Nevertheless, the fourth Labour government pushed ahead with the sale of state assets, and it unfortunately appears that National intend to do the same this year.

Roy Reid of Grey Power, the organiser of the state asset sales petition on further activism after the referendum.

Click a link to play audio (or right-click to download) in either
MP3 format or in OGG format.

The efficacy of citizens-initiated referenda is questionable; the fifth Labour government paid little attention to the recent referendum on the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, popularly known as the Anti-Smacking Bill. In that case, rejection of the referendum was perhaps appropriate, due to the ideologically skewed nature of the question being asked. However, it is arguable that this lack of attention to petitioning contributed to the Labour government's fall from power in the 2008 election.

One positive effect of the privatisation of the 1980s and 90s was the emergence of a popular movement that eventually enacted electoral reform. Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) was introduced in 1994, as an effective check and balance on executive power that many felt had been abused under First Past the Post (FPP). This more proportional electoral system has enabled minor parties like the Greens to flourish, aiding a vocal opposition to state asset sales in Parliament.


Anne Russell is a Wellington-based journalist with a degree in political science and religious studies. Follow her on Twitter for awful puns: @elvisfchrist.

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