Labor's privatisation plans under pressure


By Maurice Sibelle

BRISBANE — Two thousand five hundred people rallied in Brisbane's King George Square to protest the privatisation of public enterprises on August 4. Ian McLean, former state president of the Queensland ALP and secretary of the Communications Workers Union, who chaired the rally, declared: "We are here to start a campaign which will flow right round the country to stop further privatisations".

A resolution calling for nationally coordinated rallies in all major cities was carried by acclamation.

Steve Rogers reports from Canberra that the previous day the ACT Trades and Labor Council endorsed a call from the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) for a national day of action against privatisation. It also supported the Brisbane rally. The CPSU proposal called on the ACT TLC to organise a joint public rally involving unions and community organisations in the week preceding the ALP national conference in September.

These anti-privatisation actions were initiated by union officials and politicians aligned with the ALP left following deputy prime minister Brian Howe's July 13 public statement opposing the federal Labor government's plan to sell off the Federal Airports Corporation (FAC) Australian National Shipping Line (ANL) and the remaining 75% of Qantas. Prime minister Paul Keating wants to get the September ALP national conference in Hobart to endorse these privatisations. The platform adopted by the ALP in 1991 committed the government to retain 51% ownership of ANL and 100% ownership of the airports.

Howe was reprimanded by ALP national secretary Gary Gray and several newspapers quoted unnamed "ALP sources" suggesting that Howe's deputy prime ministership might not be secure. Former WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans were said to be contenders for his replacement. Subsequently the Keating cabinet decided to offer state governments $600-700 million over the next four or five years to speed up their privatisation campaigns. Cabinet has also decided to abolish Crown protection that shields some state utilities from privatisation.

The largest contingent at the Brisbane rally was from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) building division, which mobilised members from building sites in the city. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was well represented and there were smaller contingents from the Public Sector Union and the Australian Services Union.

Mick Carr from the MUA explained the benefits of a publicly-owned National Shipping Line: "ANL earns money, creates jobs, trains people, and assists the economy of this country by carrying the commodities that workers produce".

John Thompson, acting secretary of the ACTU Queensland branch, expressed a view shared by many speakers on the platform, when he said, "It's not just the trade union movement and the left of the ALP. It's now the Australian community saying clearly, 'no to privatisation'. The ACTU has a clear position. We say the Labor Party is the best government for workers. But what we do say is, if the ALP is wrong then we will say they are wrong. We will say it publicly and we have a right to say it. The Australian Labor government has a responsibility to listen to the Australian trade union movement, after all we got them elected."

Wally Trohear, secretary of the CFMEU building division, put it this way: "No-one is going to want to buy any government enterprise that doesn't make a quid. Only the profitable enterprises are going to be sold". He continued,"The purpose of this rally is to send Labor a message. We would be wasting our time if it was the conservatives in power. At least we do have a Labor government. The party is supposed to be democratic. So we have to send a message to our mates in Hobart and that message has to be — no to privatisation."

Ana Kailis from the Democratic Socialist Party addressed the rally on behalf of the anti-privatisation committee. She urged people to get involved in the committee. "We can only stop these privatisations if as many people as possible take action. We have to vote with our feet, come out to demonstrations like this, pass motions at our union meetings and take industrial action if we are to change the direction of this government. We can't expect politicians to do it for us."

Another speaker, former senator George Georges, concurred. "You can only make people listen if you become visible, vocal and you demand your rights."

Speaking to Green Left Weekly after the rally, Kailis said that the campaign against privatisation would only succeed if it was taken beyond internal ALP-faction squabbles.

"The union officials who spoke at the rally gave a lot of good reasons why we should oppose privatisation. Privatisation means more job losses at a time when unemployment remains at a post-war high. Keeping profitable public enterprises like FAC, ANL, Qantas and Telecom in public ownership allows these utilities to subsidise other public services.

"Cross-subsidisation means that services can be provided on a needs basis rather than on the basis of what is profitable. Public enterprises were built up with the taxes of Australian people and should not be sold to private profiteers. We would lose all measure of public accountability if these enterprises were sold; and of course, capitalists will only buy the profitable sectors of publicly-owned enterprises.

"But a problem with this campaign is its focus on trying to reform the ALP. The Labor right will retort: 'If we don't privatise Qantas, Telecom, etc, the Liberals will'. And they're right. There is no alternative, unless we build one. We need to build a political alternative to break the Liberal/Labor two-party con game.

"It has been done in New Zealand, where the Alliance has put up a serious political alternative to the left of Labor. In the last election, Alliance leader Jim Anderton said: 'Read my lips. We will increase taxes on the rich'. He ran on a strong anti-privatisation platform. Today he is the most popular politician in New Zealand.

"Of course, building a political alternative to the left of Labor will break the current consensus in the union movement. As John Thompson said at the rally: 'The ACTU says the best government for workers is the Labor party'. But this is a Labor government that has presided over the greatest shift in wealth from working people to the rich in the history of this country. This is a government which is committed to economic rationalism and has taken its policy direction from the Business Council of Australia, as former treasurer John Dawkins recently admitted.

"The support for an anti-privatisation alliance exists in Australia, but not much of it will be found at the ALP national conference in Hobart," said Kailis.

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