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“Resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive”, “overwhelming”

Bluntly, the result of the asset sales referendum could have been better for its proponents.

These are the adjectives that have been used to describe the result of the asset sales referendum: “resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive” (twice), “overwhelming” (twice), “great”. Sixty-seven percent is of course a reasonable margin. But in the context of citizens’ initiated referenda (CIRs), it’s not that impressive.

Stack it against CIRs of the past: New Zealand has had four since they were introduced in 1993. In each of those, the proponents claimed victories of 87.8%, 81.5%, 91.8% and 87.9%, respectively (ref). The asset sales referendum missed the lowest victory yet by more than 14 points. That’s more than the entire range of results before it.

The CIR votes all look like decent margins—why? It’s not surprising. It takes a mammoth effort to start one—petitioners must collect the signatures of 10% of all eligible voters in one year, more than 300,000. People don’t sign a petition just because they think the public should “have a say”. They sign it when they oppose the status quo and want that to be known. So unless you have a critical mass that both wants change and cares enough to petition, you won’t hit the threshold.

Finding one in every ten voters up and down the country is hard; many have tried and failed. Now imagine finding one in every nine, or one in every five, if you factor in turnout to the smacking referendum. Presumably actually reaching everyone to sign the petition is not that feasible. So by the time you’ve hit the 10% threshold, you should have a really good victory in store.

Of course, should is the keyword in that sentence. My criticisms of statistical fallacies make it churlish for me to pretend what I’m saying is known to be empirically true. There are probably reasonable narratives the other way; without comprehensive (and mandatory) surveys, all of it is guesswork. It’s tempting, even for me, to try to draw inferences about what the result means. My suspicion is the (relatively) low outcome just indicates that the issue is more polarized (or organized) that most, since probably a greater number of opponents actually signed the petition.

But consider the big picture. There are, at a basic level, three outputs: turnout, informal votes and the actual result. (Okay, maybe the electorate data is useful too.) There are lots more variables that go into voting. Desire to vote, hassle, stance, strength of stance, interaction with “meta-opinions” like the right to govern, opinion on the fact that the referendum is being held, and the impact of each of those on action taken. We can make inferences, but they inevitably require guesses (even if sensible ones) about how those things fit together.

This is not to say that the left should not dance in victory; 67% is not bad at all. And it is true that a majority of New Zealanders oppose asset sales—we knew that long before the referendum. But in the context of New Zealand CIRs, it’s hard to see why they seem over the moon. Compared to other petitioners in recent history, they’ve underperformed. Still a good result, but not as “emphatic”, “overwhelming” or “decisive” as they claim it to be.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. I wonder what the result would have been if, instead of merely “sell or not sell”, the question were framed such that, if sold, each eligible voter directly received, say, $1000 of the proceeds? This would amount to about one fifth of what has/will be realised by the sales, if I am not mistaken.

    14 December 2013

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