Making A Mandate

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NATIONAL’S MANDATE to partially privatise the State’s energy assets is strongly contested by the Government’s left-wing opponents. As a political strategy this is not only misguided but risky.

The groups behind the Citizens Initiated Referendum (Labour, Greens, CTU, Greypower) do not appear to have considered the possibility that as many people may end up registering their interest in acquiring shares in Mighty River Power as have already signed their CIR petition. With more than 200,000 Kiwis expressing an interest in the first ten days of the three-week registration period, the enthusiasm for buying shares in the people’s assets would appear to be at least as strong as the people’s opposition to their sale.

The larger danger in contesting National’s mandate is that it forces the Left to second-guess the electorate’s intentions.

Citing the actual policies of the political parties and the level of voter support those policies received doesn’t work for the Left because in 2011 National’s clearly signalled programme of partial privatisation attracted more electoral support (47.31 percent) than the combined support of its anti-privatisation Opposition. (46.21 percent)

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Rather than rely on what the parties actually said and how the voters actually voted, the Left is reduced to offering essentially unprovable arguments based on its assessment of the electorate’s state of mind.

This throws up all sorts of speculative excuses for the 2011 election outcome. People were voting purely on the basis of the Prime Minister’s ebullient personality. Voters were troubled by the gloomy economic prospects and voted for National as the most competent economic manager. The electorate wasn’t convinced by Phil Goff. Thoughtless electors were backing the party that all the polls told them would win.

But this simply will not do. In ascribing a mandate to any political party – Left or Right – the only legitimate methodology is to assess the content of its black-letter policy commitments and then compute the level of popular support they attracted.

It was Queen Elizabeth I who said that she “would not make windows into men’s souls”. To retain their political credibility, left-wing opponents of privatisation should do likewise.

Curiously, the one lesson the Left has steadfastly refused to draw from the 2011 election result is the political potency of positive rather than negative policy commitments.

Rather than saying “No” to asset sales, why aren’t the parties of the Left saying “Yes” to public ownership.

What is it that makes so many New Zealanders tell pollsters that they prefer to keep key infrastructure and vital public services in public hands? The explanation surely lies in the public’s vestigial political memories of the old Left’s arguments for public ownership.

Nationalisation remained a viable political alternative for Labour parties around the world right up until the mid-1980s. It is worth rehearsing the four key justifications which, for more than three-quarters of a century, the Left advanced in favour of nationalising the industries and services crucial to creating a just society:

-One: Entrusting healthcare, education, housing, energy, communications, transportation and the provision of key financial services exclusively to private individuals and corporations gives them an unwarranted and potentially hazardous degree of economic, social (and, therefore, political) power. Nationalisation disperses that power.

-Two: Nationalisation redirects the vast revenues of natural monopolies from private to public stewardship.

-Three: Nationalisation permits the redistribution of these formerly private revenue streams across the whole of society. Resources thus become available for maximising such public goods as the elimination of poverty, cultural development and the protection of the natural environment.

-Four: Nationalisation both establishes and extends the rights of employees to play a significant role in the development and management of large enterprises – public and private.

Privatisation, by reversing the direction of these progressive objectives, can only augment the wealth and power of private owners, diminish the public treasury, impede the public good, and suppress the rights of working people. It is risible to claim that such objectives can be pursued “partially”. Once private interests are recognised in the administration of state assets, the power to assert the public good vanishes.

These are the sort of arguments the Left should be advancing.

That nationalisation remains off the agenda of nearly all the Opposition parties suggests a general left-wing posture of defensiveness and negativity. These are not the qualities that inspire voters to give politicians a mandate for progressive economic and social change. Indeed, they speak of a Left that prefers to simply “wait its turn” to manage the existing neoliberal regime under which New Zealanders have been systematically stripped of just about every instrument for making a good life generally accessible.

The ballot box remains one of the few places in which a mandate for progressive change can still be forged. A political party earns that mandate by telling voters what it is for – not what it is against – and why.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Agree completely Chris. Labour especially needs to come out and say what the party stands for, rather than just gripe about government programmes. Surely the last election would have shown them that leaving a policy vacuum until 6 months before the election was a recipe for disaster.

    • You would think so but I haven’t seen any evidence that they’ve learned anything since the 1980s.

  2. the enthusiasm for buying shares in the people’s assets would appear to be at least as strong as the people’s opposition to their sale.

    You didn’t mention that many of these might in fact be the very SAME people. I know that I, for one (and I signed the CIR, and am vehemently opposed to these sales), will be buying as many shares as I can afford. Not because it’s a great investment, but because as a NZ citizen I want to keep as much of this company as I can in THIS country. I won’t be selling the shares for any price to anyone. In this way, at least all the dividends I may receive will end up being spent HERE. Sure, it sounds pathetic and it is. But at least the shares ** I ** buy won’t end up syphoning any NZ dollars to overseas investors.

  3. Soundbites we’d like to see:

    Shearer: “Mr Key says that kiwis gave him permission to sell their assets when they voted for him in 2011. Fair enough. Good to see he respects what the voters want.

    We just want to make absolutely sure that’s all they voted for, so will be bound by the referendum on this one unmistakeable issue. If more vote to keep their assets in this referendum, we’ll buy them back at exactly what was paid for them. End of story.”

  4. Chris, you’ve endorsed Key’s mandate for the sales on earlier occasions.
    Nevertheless, there are mandates and there are mandates, technical and ethical.

    It is clear the National controlled government is entering into this programme without the majority support of the public for the sales agenda. A dollar for every time I’ve heard a NAct voter say “voted for the nice Mr Key but I don’t agree with the sales”.

    Nitrium is correct, interest in shares is not synonymous with approval of sales and the left should work to ensure that is made clear. Don’t expect MSM to help.

    As for Shearer’s National Lite Party response – and that of the left in general – you make good points.

    • I think Mr Trotter is acknowledging the fact that National put forward it’s policy on selling down on some of the SOE’s as a central plank of the 2011 campaign and won the right to form a Government. That is a democratic legitimacy that many on the left can’t admit to and I applaud Mr Trotter for this. I also agree that instead of wasting their time on a referendum they should state they will re-nationalise the assets . Then people can truly decide if they are for or against asset sales.

      • ” won the right to form a Government.”

        um.. no, they didnt.

        under MMP there is no rule which states that the party with the most votes gets to be the govt. Its about who builds the biggest coalition.

        And even then – once the coalition is made its only a mandate to govern. Each and every bit of legislation and policy is still subject to the democratic process.

        Whats actually undemocratic is trying to deny the public the access to the legal mechanisms to interact with parliament

  5. It’s very easy for the anti-asset sales crowd to drive down the share price. It likely involves mentioning “Mighty River Power” and “Commerce Commission” in the same sentence.

  6. Peition signers are not necessarily against the share floats. All the petition asks for is a referendum, it doesn’t compel making a choice for and against.

    At some stage of the process at least petitioners made it clear their petition was simply to register a preference for deciding on the asset policy by referendum.

    The choice indicating for or against the share floats is not until the referendum.

      • I agree, but as Chris says about election mandates you can only guess voter/signer intentions.

        And it’s futile trying to claim justification out of an election where you lost, and futile trying to claim legitimacy of a referendum that will come too late and everyone knows will be ignored.

        Greens and Labour have staked a lot on being on the right side of opinion on this leading in to the next election – and that it will be a significant factor.

        The bottom lines next year will be how the economy is doing, and whether unemployment is reducing enough. Assets will probably be an afterthought, especially if Labour and Greens don’t propose to change anything with the shares already sold.

  7. Citing the actual policies of the political parties and the level of voter support those policies received doesn’t work for the Left because in 2011 National’s clearly signalled programme of partial privatisation attracted more electoral support (47.31 percent) than the combined support of its anti-privatisation Opposition. (46.21 percent)

    Not quite, Chris.

    http://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/mandates-majorities/

    (By the way: If you take the Conservative Party into consideration – which won TWICE as many votes as did ACT – the anti-asset sale opposition action won more votes. It’s only because of MMP’s strange rules that ACT won a seat in Parliament, and Colin Craig did note.)

    • As stated to you preciously, that is not how our democracy works. We are a representative democracy. In forming a Government it matters less how much a percentage of total votes you get than the total percentage of seats you are allocated in parliament. In this the National party has enough support to push through their policies.

      • In forming a Government it matters less how much a percentage of total votes you get than the total percentage of seats you are allocated in parliament.

        Once again, you’re not paying attention, Gosman.

        I wasn’t referring to Parliamentary seats. I was referring to the number of votes accorded the pro-sale and anti-sale Blocs.

        I assume you can do simple arithmetic and count the number of votes each Bloc received.

        The number of seats is allocated by contempory electoral rules, which may not always reflect people’s preferences, and is dictated by arbitrary rules. (Just as, in 1978 and 1981, Labour got more sweats than National – but the Nats won more seats. They may have won those seats – but they certainly didn’t reflect people’s preferences.)

        • ” I was referring to the number of votes accorded the pro-sale and anti-sale Blocs.”

          But there is no way of knowing how many voted for a party based on the asset policy and how many had other priorities.

          Some National voters didn’t like the asset policy but overall preferred to return National to Government. Some didn’t vote National because they wanted to keep them under 50%, and some of them may have supported or been ambivalent about assets.

          And some Labour and Green and NZF voters were likely ok with the asset policy or ambivalent.

          • But there is no way of knowing how many voted for a party based on the asset policy and how many had other priorities.>

            That may be true, Pete. In fact, we don’t know ANYTHING about why voters voted.

            What we do know is that more people voted FOR parties opposing asset sales than for parties promoting asset sales. The numbers are clear on that.

        • No, you missed the point the author of this post was making.

          The trouble is the opposition is attempting to deny the National Party the opportunity of fulfilling the key aspect of their 2011 election manifesto. That is essentially anti-democratic and also a massively negative way of politicking.

          Instead of wasting time and effort on a referendum which would achieve nothing in a practical sense the opposition would be bettwer to actually define what they would do when they next get in to power.

  8. That nationalisation remains off the agenda of nearly all the Opposition parties suggests a general left-wing posture of defensiveness and negativity. These are not the qualities that inspire voters to give politicians a mandate for progressive economic and social change. Indeed, they speak of a Left that prefers to simply “wait its turn” to manage the existing neoliberal regime under which New Zealanders have been systematically stripped of just about every instrument for making a good life generally accessible.

    The ballot box remains one of the few places in which a mandate for progressive change can still be forged. A political party earns that mandate by telling voters what it is for – not what it is against – and why.

    I concur 100%. and as you pointed out earlier in your piece, the “No” campaign in 2011 did not offer a positive alternation to aset sales.

    Every so often, it behoves us to remind the Masses just WHY state ownership of strategic assets is a jolly good idea…

  9. I disagree that the referendum is somehow not a good idea. I think in a wider sense, a mandate suggests that the government has the backing of the people for this policy but it clearly does not by a wide margin. The referendum is to demonstrate the support there is for keeping state assets.
    I do not think buying shares is incompatible with wanting them not to be for sale.
    It also seems fair if the govt is selling assets to oppose this, and it is often the job of the opposition to oppose what is happening rather than promote ideas, which the Greens do quite a lot of anyway. You hear a great deal of negativity from the talk back propaganda apparatus when Labour are in power. Its okay when they do it.
    But I think sometimes we could all take your advice and be a bit more positive about the left, given the serious situation in which we find ourselves.

  10. I seriously object to the poor level arithmetic displayed in this article, and thank Frank Mackasy for correcting the misleading comment about Nat getting more votes than the “anti-privatisation opposition”. This is simply incorrect.

    Having a referendum isn’t “second-guessing the electorates intentions”. Its asking the electorate for clarification on what is wanted. This being required due to the strong indication in numerous polls that asset sales is unpopular despite National being returned to Govern (if that is what you call what they do)

    Really Mr Trotter, this is a pretty shameful presentation of Nactoid-style mangled information.

    I give you a “D” for effort
    Could you try a little harder next time please?
    Thanks

  11. A comment from The Standard:

    “Out in the malls and streets, I got plenty of signatures from Tories, even from some who volunteered that they would buy the shares when they became available. The reason was the same everytime; they didn’t think the Government had a mandate for the sales and they wanted it put to a vote.”

    Putting it to the vote rather than opposing sales was how the petition was originally sold.

  12. For many years the political-right have been whinging about people becoming dependent upon the state while failing to realise that their policies will make the entire country dependent upon the capitalists, the top 1% of the population and that dependence must, absolutely must, result in a dictatorship/oligopoly by that 1% over everyone else.

  13. the four points for nationalisation make perfect sense and would probably make sense to a large portion of the electorate as well. Labour need to start formulating a positive campaign message – otherwise we are left wondering what does labour stand for?

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