How we can stop Rees's privatisation plans

The NSW mini-budget on November 11 is a full-on assault on public services and the public ownership of major assets in NSW.

Public assets to be sold off include NSW Lotteries, the waste services operator WSN Environment Solutions, superannuation fund service group Pillar, the RTA non-standard number plates business, the Australian Technology Park in Redfern, the Energy Australia building in Sydney CBD, the Harbourside Shopping Centre and the Sydney Aquarium and the Imax Theatre in Darling Harbour.

A majority supports publicly owned power, but Premier Nathan Rees's part-privatisation plan, endorsed by the ALP administrative committee on October 31 and the Country Labor Conference on November 1, has now become part of the mini-budget.

Three energy retailers — Integral Energy, Energy Australia and Country Energy — are to be sold, and the right to sell electricity on the wholesale National Electricity Market is to be leased.

The new plan, which allows current power generators, transmission and distribution to stay in public hands, is only marginally different from the unpopular Iemma-Costa plan.

Rees's plan also allows for the sell-off of sites for future power generation and for future wholesalers to be allowed to construct the new plants.

The United Services Union, which has 2000 members working for electricity retailers and has mobilised its members in defence of their jobs and for public power, has been left out on a limb as a result of a deal between the NSW ALP machine, the NSW ETU leadership (which was against the electricity sell-offs) and the Rees government.

The Rees energy sell-off plan, in which the generators remain in state hands, does not threaten the ETU membership in the power stations, but it does directly threaten the jobs of USU members in electricity retail.

There has been no public comment on this plan from Bernie Riordan (NSW ETU secretary and NSW ALP president) or the two people who were leading up the union side of the campaign — John Robertson, former UnionsNSW secretary and now NSW parliament upper house member, and Matt Thistlethwaite, the new NSW ALP secretary.

Nor has there been any discussion of the deal at rank-and-file meetings of ETU members or at UnionsNSW. USU general secretary Ben Kruse told Green Left Weekly that the "USU has been politically and industrially opposed to the sell-off of electricity and continues to be opposed to it".

Kruse also told a 70-strong seminar at the Tom Mann Theatre on November 8, organised by the Power to the People group, that the USU was the only union on the ALP Administrative Committee to vote against the sell-off. He said the committee assessed that the terms of the sell-off did not contravene the ALP's 12-point criteria regarding privatisation.

The meeting also heard from academics Bob Walker, Betty Con Walker, Frank Stilwell and Sharon Beder. PSA assistant general secretary Steve Turner also spoke about the perils of privatisation.

There was unanimous support at the meeting for Power to the People to broaden its membership and scope to campaign in defence of all front-line workers under attack in the privatisation disputes.

At its recent organising meeting on November 12, Power to the People discussed plans to build a coalition of political, community, environment, church and union groups united against the sell-offs. It will aim to bring activists together for a strategy meeting on December 3.

USU workers, rank-and-file ETU members and other workers affected by the wholesale sell-off need to mount a campaign to protect their jobs and the public ownership and control of important services and assets.

Getting rid of Iemma and Costa was a partial victory for the anti-privatisation forces, but the anti-sell-off campaign has suffered from a lack of rank-and-file involvement. It has been too narrowly focused on (and seen as a backdrop to) internal ALP decisions, thereby sidelining the 85% opposition to privatisation that can be mobilised.

Unions now need to join forces against privatisation, even where their own members' jobs are not directly at risk. We need to build a strong union and community coalition to defeat the privatisation agenda, which includes ALP rank and file activists willing to defy the ALP Administrative Committee, Greens, socialists and other progressive activists.

If union leaders put their loyalty to the ALP above that of their members' interests and the campaign, then the union rank and file must take matters into their own hands.

[Pat Donohoe is a member of the NSW Teachers Federation and the Canterbury Bankstown Teachers Association. Susan Price is a member of Socialist Alliance, an NTEU activist at the University of NSW and a member of Power to the People.]