The fight to keep New South Wales electricity in public hands can and must be won. If NSW Premier Morris Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa get away with their plan to sell off the state's electricity generation capacity and its retail arms, working people and the community will get a dearer, less reliable service and the chances of the state moving to a sustainable energy policy will be reduced to zero.
Polls show up to 86% of NSW residents oppose the sell-off. If public opinion truly determined what governments do, electricity privatisation would never have reappeared on the NSW political agenda. But privatisation is there because corporate NSW and its political mates, state and federal, want it.
A huge battle is underway. The movement opposed to the sell-off would be making a big mistake if it underestimated the strength and determination of the pro-privatisation forces.
Business and political heavyweights, Liberal and Labor, have rushed to support their new champion, Costa. The NSW Business Chamber set the tone on February 8, when its CEO Kevin MacDonald declared: "The treasurer is doing the right thing for NSW — and business is backing Michael Costa 100% … If this issue is defeated because of trade union opposition — it will be game, set and match for business confidence in this government … If privatisation is abandoned, the question will correctly be asked, 'Who is running NSW — the trade unions or the democratically elected government?'"
Costa has won bipartisan support from past heroes of privatisation like former premiers Jeff Kennett, Bob Carr, Nick Greiner and Steve Bracks. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, federal treasurer Wayne Swan and federal energy and resources minister Martin Ferguson have also weighed in behind Costa.
But in this pro-privatisation chorus one voice is strangely silent — the NSW Liberal and National opposition. In the past, Coalition leader Barry O'Farrell has expressed support for the privatisation of the state's electricity retail arms, but he is mute as a church mouse in today's war of words.
The parliamentary opposition is on a hiding to nothing. If O'Farrell supports Iemma and Costa — as NSW business is strongly urging him to — he will be seen as a bit-part actor on Costa's stage, whichever side wins the fight. If he opposes the privatisation, the opposition will lose credibility with business for its political expediency but without any opponents of privatisation believing that the Coalition has really changed its spots.
O'Farrell's silence is the direct result of the growing movement against the sell-off. A strong expression was a February 16 meeting of rank-and-file ALP members in Sydney's Trades Hall auditorium, which adopted two resolutions. One opposed the sell-off in any form and the second called on "our ALP parliamentary representatives to stand up and be counted in Caucus, State Conference and other party forums against the privatisation of electricity".
The meeting heard from a range of speakers, including Mark Byrne (Public Interest Advocacy centre), Bob Walker (accounting professor at Sydney University and former adviser to the Carr government), Doug Cameron (senator-elect and former national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union) and union leaders Bernie O'Riordan (Electrical Trades Union), Steve Turner (assistant secretary, Public Service Association) and Joan Dawson (assistant secretary, Newcastle Trades and Labour Council).
Walker flayed "Costanomics" as a "form of voodoo", remarking that "doctors bury their mistakes and treasurers sell theirs"; O'Riordan pointed to the tariff increases in the recently privatised Queensland electricity industry; Turner explained that only in Queensland had private owners invested in increasing 24-hour-a-day ("base load") generating capacity; and Dawson detailed the ALP rank-and-file revolt in the Hunter Valley.
Cameron described Costa as "trying to sell the family silver through Cash Converters", according to an Ozleft.wordpress.com report.
In Wollongong on February 19 a 100-strong meeting heard speakers that included South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris, Greens MLC John Kaye and United Services Union Integral Energy delegate Mick Nemowski. In all three talks there was great stress on job losses and the impact on communities centred around power stations.
The five South Coast MLAs (all Labor), who had been invited to the meeting, gave their apologies — to hearty booing from the audience. Rorris and Kaye both emphasised that dealing with the environmental crisis required public ownership of power. The meeting resolved to mobilise the Illawarra community for the February 26 Sydney rally against electricity privatisation and to set up a Power to the People campaign group, following the example of the Hunter Valley, the Central Coast and the Blue Mountains.
The movement against the privatisation of NSW electricity is broad and growing, bringing together rank-and-file ALPers, Greens, the Socialist Alliance and other socialists, church and community leaders and many "ordinary" people.
They are all outraged that an asset that forms such an important part of the state's infrastructure is to be handed over to the profit motive, without even the pretence of consulting public opinion.
The February 26 protest outside NSW parliament house will be the next step in building the movement, but it must be followed up by grassroots organising across the state, in unions and community organisations. Any industrial action by power industry unions must receive full support.
In that way the movement can make power privatisation (and, as a by-product, Michael Costa) history.