Boo for my side. Boo!

Robert Frost once said that "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." I guess that makes me a liberal.

The National-led Government has a policy on selling minority shares in some state assets - a policy it currently is putting into practice by way of the Mixed Ownership Model Bill wending its way through Parliament. You may have heard of it ... it's been somewhat controversial, and there was a bit of discussion about it during the election campaign (before we moved on to more important things like the tea-tapes).

For National, this policy is simply a "debt-for-equity" swap that will raise capital to reinvest in things like schools and roads, which in turn will lead to more productive endeavours down the track. For National's opponents, it's an ideologically driven move that makes no economic sense and inevitably will lead to yet-more foreign control of our economy.

 Now, let's say you're of the latter opinion - you see this policy as being deeply misguided and contrary to the nation's interests. And you want to stop it; or, if you can't stop these particular sales, at least make the National-led Government pay such a heavy political price for pursuing them that future asset sales policies become untenable. Given the righteousness of this cause, anything that can help accomplish it is a good thing. Right?

That appears to be the position of the Green Party, which has acknowledged spending some $50,000 of its taxpayer funded parliamentary entitlements on hiring people to go out and collect signatures towards forcing a Citizens' Initiated Referendum (CIR) on the topic. In addition, according to this news article, it's set aside another $28,000 for assorted "sundries" associated with the campaign.

Boo, I say. Boo! Much as I like the Greens in general, and much as I admire their principled stances on many issues, this is a bad move for several reasons.

First of all, I think CIR generally are an expensive waste of time and money. So as far as I'm concerned, this is an example of spending public money on an activity designed to force the spending of more public money on something that should not happen. Which is, in my opinion, a bad thing to do.

But so what? While I don't happen to like the CIR process and think it isn't a justifable use of public funds, it is an available mechanism for pursuing political issues in the public square. And if it is available, why shouldn't the Green Party (and others ... this is not by any means a Greens-only intiative) use it? And if they are going to use it, then what's wrong with spending the funding they are given for promoting their party policies on this particular activity?

The initial problem with the Greens throwing their support behind the CIR process is that it leaves them somewhat open to charges of, if not hypocrisy, then at least selectivity. Because our last experience of CIR - the so-called "Smacking Referendum" back in 2009 - produced a pretty decisive vote against a policy that its member was instrumental in guiding through the House and into law. Yet on the day the vote's outcome was announced, then-Green MP Sue Bradford responded to it by saying: "Even a large `No' vote tonight won't be a clear mandate to the Government to act in any particular way."

(That's to say nothing of the earlier CIR votes overwhelmingly in favour of cutting the number of MPs to 99, and supporting Norm Wither's multi-pronged criminal justice measures - none of which seems to have made its way into Green Party policy.)

Now, I know what the response will be. Those examples of CIR were "bad" because they were based on ambiguous at best and misleading at worst questions. So any result coming from these examples of CIR is so tainted as to be useless. Which is why Sue Bradford then proposed a members bill to try and clean up the process by which questions are written and phrased. 

But this time the process is a good one, with a clean question: "Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?" So the result of any vote on this issue can be treated as a "a clear mandate to the Government to act" - or, rather, as a rejection of the Government's claim that the election result gives them a mandate to act on this policy.

Well. OK. But how clean is that question really? Yes, it fairly represents the Government's intention with regards these assets. But where is the mention of what the Government intends doing with the money raised from their partial sale? Doesn't the question just dwell on the negative ("do you like asset sales?") without balancing this with the positive ("do you like more spending on schools and roads?")? Wouldn't a more honest question be "do you support spending $7 billion more on infrastructure developments, funded by selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?"

My point is not to allege male fides on the part of those behind this petition. Framing an issue is a major part of politics - there is no such thing as a "neutral" or "unbiased" way to see what people "really think" about an issue. But given that the Greens have recognised this fact in respect of past CIR questions, it is (at the least) somewhat convenient for them to overlook it with respect of this one.

There then is a broader problem with a political party so deeply involving itself in the CIR process. When this was set up, it was designed to be a way in which broader civil society can send a message to parliamentarians on issues that it thinks important enough to mobilise around. (Actually, it was designed to be a sop to public outrage with politicians that might be enough to stop them voting to change the electoral system ... but never mind that for now.)

So to now have a political party effectively bankrolling the process of forcing a CIR represents something of a distortion of its intent. (I note that Labour is somewhat implicated in this as well, albeit without apparently providing the same financial muscle.) Essentially, it is turning CIR's from expressions of the views of a self-organising general public into yet another campaign tool deployed to advance the particular interests of organised political parties that are funded through public subsidies.

Now, again I foresee responses to this. The Greens are simply providing people the opportunity to sign the petition, not paying people to support the cause. If 300,000 people then sign up to it, this itself is an indication that the public genuinely do care about the issue. 

OK. That's fine. But there's still a couple of flow on consequences from this action.

First, it becomes pretty hard to rail against the influence of money in politics when you yourself are spending money trying to influence politics. For example, the Green Party's policy proposal on campaign finance reform reads:

No person or entity can donate more than $35,000 to a political party in any twelve month period. This would need to include rules to make it illegal to split up large donations into lots smaller than $35,000 to avoid this cap.

So why exactly is giving more than $35,000 to a political party to spend on trying to achieve political outcomes A Bad Thing, whilst spending $50,000 (at least) on trying to achieve political outcomes is A Good Thing? Sure, you can maybe square the circle - there's the concern about corruption, or the like - but it becomes a tougher argument to make when you have to start from the position of justifying why you should be able to do something that others cannot. 

Second, even if you achieve your goal of getting the requisite number of signatures and force a CIR vote on the issue, it is going to be tainted by accusations that it is just a Green/Labour stunt rather than a genuine exercise in demonstrating the public will. And that then hands the Government the perfect excuse to ignore the result of the vote, no matter how overwhelming. And that then makes the whole exercise a waste of time and money.
Which brings me back around to my first point. We should just dump CIR's altogether - not use them for things we like, while ignoring them for things we don't.