The proposal by Premier Morris Iemma to privatise electricity generation in NSW has been met with a campaign of opposition from unionists and community activists.
On January 16, 200 power workers at Delta Electricity's Munmorah and Vales Point power stations in the Hunter Valley voted to walk off the job to protest the plan. After an emergency NSW Industrial Commission hearing, an order was issued instructing employees to return to work.
The state Labor government announced the privatisation plan following the release of the Owen Report in September last year. This recommended that the state government "divest itself of all State ownership in both [electricity] retail and generation".
On December 10, as a result of pressure from within the ALP and from unions, the government released a statement assuring the public that "the government would lease existing electricity generators to private operators, while keeping them in public ownership".
In the same statement, however, NSW Treasurer Michael Costa made it clear that the government still intended to open up new investment in base-load electricity generation to the private sector. He said, "But the fundamentals are clear — it simply does not make sense for NSW taxpayers to pay up to $15 billion for electricity investment when the private sector can do it at no cost to the taxpayer".
Newspaper reports later revealed that the NSW Treasury was directing staff to provide consultants with financial and technical details of at least two state-owned power generating plants in NSW (Delta and Macquarie).
With regard to the sell-off of electricity distribution and retail services, Iemma said: "The state-owned companies Energy Australia, Integral Energy and Country Energy, will keep their 'poles and wires' assets in Government ownership, fulfilling their important distribution function, while their retail lists and functions will move to private operators."
In a desperate attempt to gain union and party support for privatisation, Iemma also announced a raft of "transition options" for workers in the retail sector. These included transfer payments based on their years of service for power industry employees to move over to private companies and the option for "some retail staff" to remain in their current jobs for the next three years (at which point they would be able to move over to private companies or remain with the state-owned entities).
Iemma also promised price regulation for another five years, and announced a "new Energy Efficiency Strategy, which includes a range of measures to support NSW families and businesses to reduce their energy consumption". Also announced was the establishment of a "Consultative Reference Group, consistent with the ALP platform to test the impact of the reforms".
However, these morsels were not acceptable to electricity workers and their unions. They are now planning a protest outside NSW Parliament House on February 26. Initially referred to as a picket, Unions NSW said that MPs would not be blocked from entering, as they were in the 2001 rally against the changes to workers' compensation laws. It is also unclear as to whether NSW unions will call stop work action for the rally. ALP members and affiliated unions are also targeting the upcoming NSW state Labor conference in May.
The campaign against NSW electricity privatisation was launched at a Sydney meeting of power industry workers on December 19. Participants voted overwhelmingly to adopt a raft of motions including campaign proposals (see box).
A campaign website,
Corflute signs produced by the NSW branch of the Electrical Trades Union are appearing along the main highways out of Sydney opposing the sell-off.
The campaign we need
The Unions NSW campaign has begun on the right footing. However, to win the fight it is critical that the campaign not fall foul of internal ALP factional pressures and focus clearly on the interests of NSW electricity users and workers in the power industry.
For example, while the upcoming May state conference of the ALP will be an important opportunity to vote down the sell-off, a mass-based, politically independent, union and community campaign is needed to defeat privatisation. We need to turn the 70% opposition to privatisation in the opinion polls into action.
This is especially the case since rumours are rife that ALP-affiliated unions without any direct interest in electricity generation or the broader public sector are manoeuvring for a compromise to save the hide of the Iemma government on this issue.
Compromise here will mean death to the campaign. By contrast, mass actions, including industrial stop-work action, is needed in order to send a strong message to the NSW government that workers have the power to shut down the industry if necessary.
A necessary step in the lead-up to the February 26 protest is to call mass delegates' meetings to discuss and direct the campaign, linking up with the campaigns against the privatisation of other publicly owned services.
We certainly need a clear stance from unions and politicians against privatisation, but opposition should also involve taking up the ALP's misguided love affair with "competition policy" as a means to greater efficiency in the public sector.
The campaign should take up the need for public ownership, including the control and planning of energy generation and distribution to ensure vital social and environmental needs are met.
[For upcoming campaign events see the Activist Calendar on page 23. Susan Price is an activist in the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of NSW, and a member of the Socialist Alliance's NSW Trade Union Committee. For information on the Socialist Alliance's campaign plans phone Susan on 0400 320 602.]
[Adopted by a December 19 mass meeting convened by Unions NSW.]
Electricity workers in NSW condemn and oppose the NSW government's proposal to privatise the retail section of our industry and lease the generators to the private sector.
The electricity industry belongs to the people of NSW. It is an essential service that should not be sold off to private companies. The NSW government does not have a mandate for the proposed reforms and said nothing about electricity privatisation at the 2007 state election.
They do not have the right to change this important policy and sell off assets that belong to the people of our state.
Selling and leasing the state's electricity assets will result in workers losing their jobs and Australian electricity workers' jobs being sent offshore. Families will pay more for their electricity, and services to households will be cut. Also privatisation will be bad for our environment as private companies have an incentive to sell more electricity to boost their profits.
We demand that the NSW government cease all dealings to privatise the state's electricity industry.
We commit to:
•Workplace meetings of electricity workers to endorse a campaign of opposition to the reforms; and
•Campaigning in the community to inform the public of the consequences of privatisation; and
•Holding public meetings, rallies and community events to highlight the dangers of electricity privatisation; and
•Working with Rights at Work groups throughout NSW to campaign against the proposed reforms; and
•Working with other community groups to from an alliance of organisations against privatisation; and lobbying state Members of Parliament and campaigning in targeted marginal seats to reverse the proposed reforms; and
•Working within the Labor Party to highlight the damaging effects of the government's proposal both electorally and socially.
•Unions NSW convening a meeting of public sector unions to discuss a broad public sector campaign against privatisation of government services.
We believe that the government should keep electricity in the hands of the people of NSW.