Critical days for campaign against power sell-off

May 24, 2008

With his May 15 announcement that legislation to enable electricity privatisation will be introduced into the June session of parliament, NSW Premier Morris Iemma started the countdown to the most decisive days of the struggle to date.

Iemma lit the fuse after it became clear that two Labor Members of the Legislative Council, Linda Voltz and Ian West, would support a motion from Greens MLC John Kaye requiring the privatisation to be debated and voted on by parliament (and not implemented by regulation).

Iemma's decision also came as former Liberal opposition leader Peter Debnam, a long-term opponent of power privatisation, resigned from the shadow cabinet after the Liberals finally came off the fence in support of the sell-off.

Debnam said: "I disagreed with our decision and believe we should have taken a stand against privatisation in favour of renewables. I believe … the decision was a cave-in to the government."

The NSW Nationals are also unhappy about the sell-off. Former cabinet minister and Upper Hunter member George Souros, has said he will vote against the sell-off, while Nationals leader Andrew Stoner said on May 9 that "Morris Iemma let the cat out of the bag when he confirmed he has not even considered the impact of his power privatisation on country and coastal communities".

As Green Left Weekly goes to press it seems that the Nationals will vote against the legislation.

With tension rising in his own party despite an unsuccessful parliamentary caucus vote to bind Labor's parliamentarians to the 702-107 May 3 ALP state conference vote against the sell-off, Iemma's position has been crumbling. He therefore had little choice but to bring on the fatal battle before it weakened further.

As a result the "joint campaign committee" — that was set up by the ALP conference to investigate a possible compromise solution to the conflict between the government and the ALP machine and Unions NSW — was told that the sell-off was going ahead regardless. Moreover, in contradiction with his claim that the sell-off was not privatisation but long-term leasing of energy generation, Iemma's Electricity Industry Restructuring Bill leaves open the possibility of a complete sell-off by way of a sharemarket float.

Getting the numbers

To shore up the premier's position factional headkickers Eddie Obeid and treasurer Michael Costa have been unleashed against wavering Labor MPs. According to one: "I have never seen pressure put on people like this, and I've been here 20 years."

According to commentator Alex Mitchell on "The two [upper house] Shooters Party MPs are suddenly flavour of the month with the Premier's Department and they have been invited to submit a shopping list of their wishes. The Rev Fred Nile, of the Christian Democrats, who is already a regular closet supporter of the government, will be returning from South Korea to back the government's sell-off legislation."

From the side of Unions NSW and the electricity industry unions, the main effort is now being devoted to mobilising counter-pressure on the wavering Labor MPs. The Stop the Sell-Off website is to be rejigged to allow mass emailing of MPs; electricity call centre workers will be asked to tell people ringing in to lobby their MP; lobbying instructions are being sent out via Your Rights at Work and People Power groups and new rounds of leafleting, letters to local papers and requests for meetings with MPs have also been launched.

On the industrial side a "no disconnections" policy is being prepared as a way of attacking the government without putting consumers offside. Within the ALP, local branches are pushing to bring forward preselections of local members.

The other point of pressure is the ALP Administrative Committee. While the committee has already sent a letter to MPs reminding them of their duty to abide by the conference decision, it is not yet clear how committed the committee is to actually confronting the government. Certainly, it is clear from Iemma's decision to play hardball that he calculates the committee simply hasn't the heart to provoke a crisis of government.

Sensing this weakness, a number of MPs who attended the May 21 Sydney People Power committee meeting, urged those present to spread their lobbying effort beyond MPs to Administrative Committee members.

Along with this spasm of lobbying the idea of a mass protest against Iemma's bill on the day that it is presented to parliament (in the first week of June) has been shelved. The proposal for a state-wide day of protest against the Iemma government, which was adopted by a May 15 meeting of power industry delegates, has not been discarded by unions with representation in the power industry, but its final shape is still to be decided.

Instead, June 3 will be the date of a Parramatta public meeting against the sell-off.

Plan B?

Whether the massive effort of lobbying now set in motion by the Stop the Sell-Off campaign will be enough to win (despite 85% public opposition) is not at all clear. For one, it assumes that the Liberal opposition will vote against the Iemma legislation on the grounds that the sell-off won't be conducted under the surveillance of the NSW Auditor-General.

However, such a decision by the Liberals is not at all certain. If it looks as if enough Labor MPs (another eight according to the "numbers men") decide to oppose Iemma, the pressure from corporate NSW on the Liberals to support any form of sell-off will be massive. A final vote in favour, with pro-Iemma Labor and Liberals outpolling anti-sell-off ALPers, Nationals and Greens can't be excluded.

In this scenario preparing the mobilisation of anti-sell-off sentiment to back up necessary industrial action by power industry workers becomes critical. The workers themselves understand this. The Delta Central Coast Combined Delegates resolution to the May 15 power delegates meeting in Sydney (a motion which was combined with a Unions NSW motion to form a common final public position) requested "that Unions NSW and associated unions escalate and take all possible actions in our campaign to stop privatisation, including placing charges on the premier and treasurer and if required strategic industrial action".

Winning any struggle, especially one where the stakes are as high as in the struggle against the sell-off of NSW electricity, requires planning for the worst case scenario — in the present fight a victory for Iemma's tactics of bullying, bribing and buying MPs while staring down the ALP Administrative Committee.

The union movement in NSW needs to develop its Plan B to this scenario as rapidly as possible.

[Dick Nichols is the National Coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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