Privatisation: state-wide campaign heats up

After Labor Premier Anna Bligh announced on June 2 that Queensland would be selling off $15.4 billion of the state's assets, a June 17-18 Galaxy Poll conducted for the Brisbane Courier Mail found that 84% of people opposed the move.

The same poll revealed that, three months after the recent state election, support for the Labor government had collapsed and it would now be easily voted out of office.

The June 7 ALP state conference backed Bligh's sell-off plans. Since then, only the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) has mounted a public campaign against the privatisation and has committed, regardless of who governed Queensland, to oppose the sale of public assets.

The ETU's statewide Light on the Hill campaign against privatisation kicked off in Cairns on June 22. Since then it has been working its way down the coast, before a mass rally in Brisbane on July 3.

The campaign includes workplace meetings, rallies, public meetings in regional cities, radio, as well as newspaper advertising and literature drops.

It was only after the ETU's campaign began that the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) decided to support the July 3 rally.

Socialist Alliance state co-convenor Paul Benedek told Green Left Weekly that the ETU's strong position against privatisation had shamed other trade unions and the QCU into supporting the July 3 action.

"That indicates that the pressure is there", Benedek said, "not only from the ETU but also from the community, because the community is overwhelmingly opposed to this.

"So the potential for a strong campaign is there and the anger is there in the community. But those at the top in the trade union movement, who are also tied into the Labor Party, have tried to water down that potential."

Benedek said the main challenge was to bring the combined force of the community, the ETU and the broad union movement to bear on the issue.

"The ETU has something like 80% of the population supporting what it is standing for", he said. "The rest of the trade union movement will be isolated if it does not adopt a strong anti-privatisation position."

But Benedek also sees a trap if the campaign doesn't adopt a clear, across-the-board "no privatisation" position.

"We do not want to fight this on a case-by-case basis", he said. "We do not want to fight in just one union against one particular privatisation, then have another one thrust upon us. We want to be opposed to the general principle of handing over public assets to the private sector and actually start to put the case for more public assets, for nationalisations, for bringing enterprises into the public domain for the social good rather than the bottom line. We want to deal rationally rather than gambling everything on the market only to watch the economic debacle we're seeing now."

Drew Hutton, a leader of the Queensland Greens, told GLW: "There needs to be a solid anti-privatisation coalition between the key unions and other organisations, including the Greens, which have a clear anti-privatisation agenda."

Hutton said that, in state parliament, there was no political party opposed to privatisation. The Greens will be part of the community campaign against the privatisation plan.

Like the unions, the Greens are opposed to the privatisation of public assets on the grounds that "public assets are better structured to serve the public interest rather than private profit", Hutton said.

"But we particularly emphasise that it is far easier to make a relatively painless and just shift to a low-carbon or zero-carbon economy when you've got your key assets like water, energy, transport and communications in public hands."

David White, the Socialist Alliance's national environment coordinator, told GLW that climate change was the biggest battle the world was facing at the moment and privatisation was going in the wrong direction. He agrees that the campaign to defend public assets should concern all environmentalists.

"The environment movement insists that the government take immediate and necessary measures to keep the environment under control", he said. "It loses the power to do that by handing control over to corporations."

[The "No Sell-Off" Light on the Hill rally will be held at noon on July 3, Emma Miller Place, cnr of Roma and Turbott Streets, Brisbane.]