There was something very sad about the debate in federal parliament around the Labor opposition's grand plan to bring Australia up to speed on internet broadband. Behind the noise and smoke of the furious jousting was the sobering fact that both sides of the House embrace the corrupt logic of privatisation.
The argument is about how to spend the proceeds of one of the biggest corporate rip-offs in Australian history — the privatisation of Telstra. The Howard government wants to keep the public cut from this historic theft in a "Future Fund" to be used as a source of long-term pork-barrelling in rural electorates, but the Labor opposition wants to use $4.7 billion as public investment in a public-private partnership (PPP)to build an $8 billion high-speed broadband network.
Experience tells us that PPPs are another device for corporate rip-offs. Think Sydney Cross-City Tunnel, Victoria's Citylink, Connex and Yarra Trams — dirty deals the lot of them. Contractual obligations to publicly subsidise the profits and guarantee the massive loans of the big corporations are built into all these deals and hidden behind the legal screen of contractual confidentiality.
The snake-oil merchants that peddle the alleged "cleverness" of PPPs should not blind us to the basic reality that even the least credit-worthy government could borrow money more cheaply than Australia's most credit-worthy corporate borrower.
In short, the public ends up paying more for a PPP than a publicly financed enterprise, whether that takes the form of tolls or regular public payments. On top of that, good public service is sacrificed to ensure the profitabilty of the project.
There is a need for significant public investment in high-speed broadband, but it should be a publicly owned and controlled network, funded by public borrowing — just like basic infrastructure such as rail networks.
Kevin Rudd's big sales pitch for a publicly subsidised but essentially privately owned high-speed broadband network covers up Labor's decision to support the sell off of what remains of public ownership in Telstra. It's another Labor sell-out to the privatisation agenda.
Society needs to invest significantly in infrastucture — not just in high-speed broadband. Even more critical is renewable energy, public transport, public health and public education. However, this need should not be held hostage to the insatiable demand for profits by the big corporations.
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