New Zealanders vote 2-1 against government asset sales program but result symbolic only

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – More than two-thirds of New Zealanders who voted in a national referendum Friday said they oppose the government’s program of state asset sales.

The results of the poll are symbolic only. The referendum is not binding and the conservative government says it plans to carry on with its policy.

The government this year raised 4 billion New Zealand dollars ($3.3 billion) by selling 49 per cent stakes in energy companies Mighty River Power and Meridian Energy and a 20 per cent stake in national carrier Air New Zealand.

It plans next year to sell a 49 per cent stake in a third power company, Genesis Energy.

Preliminary results showed voter participation in the mail ballot was a relatively low 44 per cent. About 895,000 people voted against the sales and 433,000 in favour.

Opponents say the program is unnecessary and ideologically driven. The government argues it has helped it reduce foreign debt and allowed it to invest in hospitals, schools and roads.

Opposition leader David Cunliffe said in a statement that New Zealanders always knew the sales were a terrible idea and the government should now call off its Genesis plans.

But Finance Minister Bill English said the referendum was a “costly stunt” and opponents would be disappointed after less than 30 per cent of all eligible voters cast a vote against the sales.

The referendum was held after asset sale opponents gathered more than 300,000 signatures on a petition calling for the vote.