For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

In the different stories being told about the sell-off of Mighty River Power, not even numerals mean the same thing to everyone.

If you were to go searching for a place where absolute, unarguable truth could be found, you might think you would find it in the realm of mathematical certainty. After all, we like to say that numbers - unlike certain lowly ranked National Party MPs - never lie.

Well, whilst numbers may not dissemble, numerals can be made to tell very different stories. Consider the contrasting tales spun around two sets of them this week.

The first set can be found in the anti asset sales Citizens' Initiated Referendum petition presented to Parliament back in March. At the time it was handed over, the organisers claimed that some 393,000 people had signed it. Proof positive, they said, that the public wanted its voice heard: "Irrespective of what the Government of today says, the people of New Zealand will have their say."

Well, retorted John Key, big whoopie!

It took [Keep Our Assets] over a year to do that, and they used taxpayer money. We've got 287,000 people to pre-register for Mighty River shares in a week.

Then, on Tuesday, the Clerk of the House announced that a random sample of signatures indicated that some 100,000 of these signatures - or about 25% of them - were ineligible because they didn't correspond to any enrolled voter, or contained inadequate information about the signator, or were duplicates. So the petition requires some 16,000 more signatures to force the referendum, with the organisers having another couple of months to find them.

"What a rort!" bellowed John Key;

[Labour and the Greens] have essentially rorted the system and presented a petition with 101,000 bogus signatures; either people that don't exist, made-up people, children, people not on the register.

"And what a massive fail!" chortled DPF;

I’m still staggered for now that despite spending $400,000 and having the entire memberships of the Labour and Green parties, and most unions, they proved unable to get enough valid signatures.  You could understand it if they were close to the deadline to submit – but they were not. They made a tactical decision to submit early for political posturing, and have ended up with egg on their face.

No big deal, responds Labour's Grant Robertson.

I think the reality is that in a petition like this you've got a lot of volunteers,a lot of people who are collecting signatures who've never done that before. And that's the kind of thing that will happen.

Then we come to the second set. At the end of the initial expression of interest phase of the Mighty River Power sell-off, some 440,000 people had put down their name and contact details. "Extremely pleasing!" said SOE Minister Tony Ryall. It was the "goal of the Government to achieve widespread awareness of the opportunity [to buy], and I believe we have achieved this."

Then today we learn the actual number of people who were prepared to put money down to buy these shares was some 113,000 - only about 25% of those who expressed their initial interest.

"What an outstanding result!" crowed Finance Minister Bill English. Tony Ryall thought so too; "with over 110,000 New Zealand shareholders, it will have the largest share register - by some margin - of any New Zealand company on the exchange." 

"What a disaster", retorts the Green's Russel Norman;

The multi-million dollar ad campaign has failed to con Kiwis into buying Mighty River, they want lower power prices instead.

The supposed 440,000 pre-registered investors turned out to be a figment of John Key’s imagination. The number of retail investors is only half the number who bought into Contact and less than half of what Treasury forecast.

Over two and a half times as many Kiwis have signed the petition calling for a referendum on asset sales as bought Mighty River shares - that tells you what Kiwis think of John Key’s asset sales.

So there we have it. We know with some certainty what numbers these various numerals represent (even if the 100,000-odd ineligible signatures on the referendum petition sheets are a statistical estimation based on random sampling). But what do they mean? Well, that depends on what you think of them.