Renewed struggles against privatisation in NSW

The struggle against the privatisation schemes of the NSW government is beginning to revive. On April 2, an angry demonstration of prison officers besieged parliament house, protesting against prison privatisation plans.

On March 28, the workers at Vales Point power station struck for a shift, after a mass meeting addressed by anti-privatisation stalwart and NSW Greens parliamentarian John Kaye and the independent MP for Lake Macquarie, Greg Piper.

On April 18, the Sydney Power to the People coalition will hold a public meeting to relaunch the campaign against electricity privatisation.

Seven months after the fall of the Morris Iemma and Michael Costa government it is crystal clear that the replacement "left" ALP administration of Nathan Rees and Carmel Tebbutt has an even greater appetite for privatisation.

The NSW budget deficit was the pretext to add state prisons to NSW Labor's privatisation wish list last November.

If the "Rees plan for electricity reform" is implemented private energy corporations will make all the key decisions, even if the power stations remain, for the time being, in public ownership.

So, if the privatisation push of the NSW government is more feral than ever, why has the anti-privatisation movement been so quiet up until now?

The answer is that the ALP party machine, led by party president and NSW Electrical Trades Union (ETU) secretary Bernie Riordan decided after Iemma's fall that the ongoing conflict between "Macquarie Street" and "Sussex Street" was doing too much damage to the Labor government.

Peace between the two wings of Labor's hierarchy was achieved in a series of classic moves: once the ETU leadership was assured that the power stations would remain "public", the party administrative committee found that the "Rees plan for electricity privatisation" suddenly didn´t contradict ALP policy anymore.

Riordan supported the proposal and the lone vote against was that of the United Services Union (covering electricity retail workers).

It wasn't that the workers, including the ETU members in the power stations, were suddenly convinced that privatisation had been defeated: meetings of power industry delegates voted against the privatisation of the retailers and the Rees plan.

For the Labor powers-that-be privatisation became a dead issue.

At the same time, Unions NSW, while continuing to pass anti-privatisation motions, put the campaign against it to sleep.

Its "Stop the Sell-Off" website contains the odd claim that "power privatisation is dead and buried after legislation to privatise electricity generators was defeated in state parliament in September", and its events calendar says that "there are no upcoming events".

Given all this, it was inevitable that the campaign would take time to regroup its forces and get moving again. Its main axis is now between the individual unions that are prepared to fight on with ALP rank-and–filers, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance, Solidarity and individual activists.

However, the 5000 strong April 2 prison officers' protest confirmed that the massive anti-privatisation sentiment in NSW can still be mobilised and made a powerful political force.

The anti-privatisation movement is beginning to pick up speed, as the policies favoured by the top end of Sydney are faithfully implemented by Rees's new cabinet. Among them is one John Robertson ("Robbo", the hero of the NSW Your Rights at Work and Stop the Sell-Off campaigns).

Making his way up the career path where so many Unions NSW secretaries (including Michael Costa) have gone before, Robertson is now Rees's minister for corrective services — charged with breaking union opposition to the privatisation of the state's jails.

[Dick Nichols is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance].

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