Growing opposition to NSW power sell-off
NSW Treasurer Michael Costa passionately claims privatisation of NSW's electricity generation and distribution is "good economics". However, there is popular opposition to the proposal — up to 86% in opinion polls.
The latest display of opposition was a January 23, 600-strong meeting at the Newcastle Panthers Leagues club. The meeting heard from Greens legislative council member Dr John Kaye and independent member for Lake Macquarie Greg Piper, both of whom noted that Premier Morris Iemma had not breathed a word about electricity privatisation before the March 2007 NSW state election.
The meeting, convened by the Newcastle Trades Hall Council (NTHC), adopted a resolution which set up a Stop the Sell-Off Hunter Committee. It pledged to organise "public rallies in support of any electricity industry workers who are disciplined by the government for failing to cooperate with the privatisation process".
The meeting called on ALP members to insist on a special state conference to debate the issue, and called on ALP parliamentarians to accept the wishes of their constituents and vote against privatisation.
The meeting was attended by Labor MPs from the Hunter Valley who oppose the privatisation. NTHC secretary Gary Kennedy attacked the two Hunter Labor MPs who support the sell-off.
The Iemma government's problem is that the proposal comes very late in the privatisation cycle that began in the mid-1980s in NSW under the government of Neville Wran. It reached a climax with the privatisation projects of Jeff Kennett's Victorian government in the mid-1990s.
Since then we have seen:
•The greatest increase in retail electricity prices in the two states that have most privatised electricity generation and distribution (Victoria and South Australia);
•Manipulation of electricity markets via uncompetitive bidding to produce the highest possible profits for the private corporations;
•A decline in expenditure in electricity generation capacity;
•Government (taxpayer) subsidisation of private corporations who refuse to take over the cost of the unprofitable parts of previously public operations (like subsidised electricity prices and infrastructure maintenance in remote regions); and
•Privatisation fiascos like Sydney's cross-city tunnel and airport rail link.
As a result, the Costa-Iemma argument that privatisation provides governments with increased income to spend on "core activities" like health, education and transport has become totally shaky.
The longer the "battle of ideas" over privatisation continues, the worse for Costa and Iemma, given the balance sheet of electricity privatisation around the world.
Enter Iemma's "consultative reference committee" on the sell-off, to be chaired by former Labor premier Barrie Unsworth.
This 10-person committee is made up of Labor MPs, three unionists (including Unions NSW assistant secretary Matt Thistlethwaite) and representatives from social and environmental groups.
Unsworth's job is to make sure that the committee sticks to the terms of reference laid down for it by Iemma: not to reject the sell-off plan, but "to ensure that job guarantees, job protection, and the price regulations happen as intended", according to the January 21 Daily Telegraph.
From the union side, the January 21 Age reported Thistlethwaite saying: "Unions NSW will represent the interests of the people of NSW, 86% of whom do not support the sell-off, on the consultative committee and continue to call on the government to stop power privatisation."
So, where to from here? First, Unions NSW must hold firm and refuse to be cowed by Unsworth (a former secretary of that body) or bamboozled by "compromise" proposals being floated by some unions without members in the electricity industry.
Second, let's see meetings in other major regional centres (like Lithgow and Wollongong), with their local ALP MPs also being grilled about their position on the sell-off.
Third, let's have full support to the unionists who refuse to collaborate with Costa's instructions to provide information to potential corporate buyers.
All this should culminate in the biggest possible demonstration against the sell-off outside NSW Parliament House on February 26.
In that way we can reduce treasurer Costa's options to zero.
[Dick Nichols is the national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance. Written in a personal capacity.]