As crises linked to the reliance on fossil fuels — drought, mega fires and floods — and the crisis in the energy sector continue, the federal election in May showed how many feel about the lack of climate action electing more Greens MPs and teal independents promising real action on the climate.
The energy crisis, which hit in June, has led to the cost of electricity and gas soaring in a colder than usual winter. This is compounded by a coal sector that is crumbling and gas corporations prioritising more lucrative overseas markets.
This is the context for NSW Greens MLC Abigail Boyd calling for the energy sector to be nationalised. She wants the public to own this essential service which, she argues, would then also allow a quicker transition to renewables and affordable power.
Nationalising energy, or transferring it from private to state ownership, seems like a bold move. But the sector was in public hands not that long ago: state governments owned and controlled the entire power grid in the early 1990s.
Under pressure from the John Howard Coalition government in the mid-1990s, state governments began selling off large chunks of public infrastructure, deregulated the energy sector and privatised its parts.
While the Victorian and South Australian energy sectors were fully privatised by the early 2000s, public resistance to the energy sell-off in New South Wales meant that its partial privatisation didn’t come about until 2015.
The Michael Baird government sold half of Ausgrid to super funds in October 2016 for $16 million. It sold Transgrid to foreign investors for $10.26 billion the previous November.
While the energy sector remains in private hands, focused on profits, it will resist any transition away from fossil fuels.
Going green also has to be done in a way that does not shaft communities who rely on the fossil fuel industries for employment. Private companies cannot be trusted to ensure jobs are protected.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Greens MLC Abigail Boyd about the impact of re-nationalising the energy sector.
How would you describe the state of the nation’s energy sector?
It’s a big mess. This latest crisis has shown us once again that you can’t simply put control of essential public services in private hands.
You’re starting a campaign for the energy sector to be nationalised, as it once was. What would this look like?
We’re going to see the gradual shutting down of fossil-fuel powered stations and their replacement with renewable energy sources.
If we want to make sure that this is done, not only as quickly as possible, but also as fairly as possible when it comes to looking after workers, coal communities and everybody else, the best way is by taking back control of these companies and production facilities into public hands.
We have to right the wrongs of the past: we have to ensure that a huge chunk of the renewable energy sources is in public hands, at least as much as we require to keep the lights on in everybody’s home.
Then we need to be making the old power stations actually pay for the clean-up of their existing sites, which we know will be very expensive.
In turn, the state can step in assume those liabilities and buy those companies out for next to zero.
How would nationalising the energy sector impact the dual crises — the climate crisis and rising energy costs?
It’s important that we not just have control over the production and manufacturing side of things, but that we also have power over the retail side of things.
We know that despite this crisis and people’s electricity bills skyrocketing, when you look at the likes of Origin, they’re still making mega profits.
By removing the private intermediaries from energy retailing we can not only take control back to move to a decarbonised economy as quickly as possible, but also reduce people’s electricity bills by ensuring that we’re not allowing big companies to skim profits and pay shareholders.
Nationalising the energy system is a social democratic policy. But these sorts of arrangements have been demonised. Why?
We’ve forgotten what it’s like to have essential services in public control. We had 50 years of governments and various right-wing tabloids trying to convince us that the companies were going to come and save us.
It’s this drive towards “little government with big industry” as the way to go: privatise everything and apparently that was going to lead us to better services.
When we look back at the raw data from the last 30 years, we see very clearly that privatising these services has not resulted in a better outcome for people.
The only people who have benefited are the big corporations and their shareholders.
People have forgotten [about] the option of having something that is actually public.
The NSW Greens have nationalising the energy sector as part of its platform. But the two major parties are not taking adequate climate action because they’re in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry. How do you see us getting to the point where energy re-nationalisation is accepted?
Change always takes time. It took time to convince people — or fool people — into thinking that these sorts of services shouldn’t be public. It will take time to convince people that they should now be public.
But the role of the Greens is to start the discussion and remind people of what else is possible. Eventually those ideas filter into the consciousness of the other parties. We’ve seen that happen over and over, such as with marriage equality.
I think we need to be attacking this at different levels. One is by putting these robust policies out there. But we also really need to be working hard to tighten donation laws and laws preventing this revolving door between the major parties and the fossil fuel industry.
We need to be trying to get the fossil fuel industry out of our politics at the same time as convincing people that there’s a better way.
[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where a version of this article first appeared.]