Stop the thieves from selling our power!

August 30, 2008

An arrogant ALP state government, with only the approval of cabinet, announced on August 28 it would start selling off NSW energy retailers as well as public land to energy corporations for future power stations.

This is despite 86% of NSW residents opposing the sell-off.

Having lost the vote on the energy sell-off at the ALP conference (by seven to one) in May, and about to lose the vote in the upper house, Premier Morris Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa pulled out their "plan B".

NSW Labor spent $500,000 to recall parliament for two days (although it only sat for half a day) and tried to outmanoeuvre the Liberals by introducing an amended enabling bill into the upper house where the Greens, one Christian Democrat and several ALP MLCs had already declared they would oppose it.

Despite big business and establishment media pressure on the Liberals, they only announced their position on the vote shortly before the upper house convened.

Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell argued that, without knowing the detail of the federal government's carbon emissions trading scheme, the timing of the sell-off was wrong and that the ALP could not be trusted with the $15 billion sale proceeds.

But he made it very clear that the Liberals support the sell-off of the state's energy generation, transmission and distribution system.

While Costa and Iemma are Labor's frontrunners in this latest privatisation push, they are supported by most of their parliamentary colleagues. There are some notable exceptions, however: up to 15 MPs had said they were prepared to cross the floor despite the threats and bullying, particularly from Costa.

The struggle to keep power in public hands is far from over and power workers have since taken snap industrial action in response to the cabinet decision.

Greens MLC John Kaye is promising to introduce a bill when parliament resumes in late September designed to force a vote on the sale. He is hoping that the Coalition and "responsible Labor MPs", as well as the Greens, will "deliver the final defeat" to the sell-off bill.

While this adds to the pressure, we cannot rely on Liberal and Nationals MPs voting the right way, given their pro-sell off position. The Greens and anti-privatisation ALP MPs have contributed greatly by standing firm but to prevent the sell-off altogether public opposition must be mobilised. Iemma and Costa must be shown that the public cannot be ignored.

We need to call them to account.

The Power to the People campaign is planning a rally in Sydney on September 20. This has the potential to ramp up the pressure on politicians by mobilising opinion in a public way — as the national mobilisations of the Your Rights at Work campaign did.

The Power to the People campaign, which now includes Labor rank-and-filers, community activists, Greens and socialists, has been working to mobilise grassroots support, although to date this has been focused on leafleting and the signing of petitions. The campaign urgently needs to involve greater numbers of people and in a more active way.

It cannot be content to be a backdrop to internal ALP factional or parliamentary manoeuvres.

After the union mobilisation of 5000-8000 workers outside the opening of state parliament in February, Unions NSW has been reluctant to support more protests. While it wants to fight the ALP government's sell-off plans, it also wants to contain the damage to the ALP — a fundamental contradiction.

At the February half-day stoppage, workers carried the official "no sell-off" placards and wore the yellow T-shirts. But it was also noticeable that many had brought their own, hand-made, anti-Labor placards, reflecting the growing public disgust at the NSW ALP.

Since then we've witnessed local council corruption scandals, the arrogant behaviour of senior MPs John Della Bosca and Belinda Neal, growing unrest over education policy and the government's war on public sector workers. It is clear that mobilising opposition to the government's sell-off plans would risk an even bigger backlash against Labor — something Unions NSW want to avoid.

Limiting expressions of outrage is part of its strategy.

Nevertheless, Labor and Unions NSW couldn't then, and cannot now, contain the groundswell of anger. Labor looks set to get a drubbing at the upcoming council polls, particularly in the inner-city, which will become more Green.

But this will not be the only backlash: many workers will simply shift their support to the Liberals, even while that party promises more of the same anti-worker, neo-liberal agenda.

For the left, including ALP members who oppose the sell-off, and the Greens, the challenge is to continue to build the anti-privatisation campaign, while spelling out the pro-worker and pro-environment alternatives based on energy conservation and renewable energy.

The political positions of the two major capitalist parties will continue to shift with the wind, but the powerful corporate interests that the Coalition and Labor serve remain unchanged.

[Susan Price and Pip Hinman are members of the Socialist Alliance and the Power to the People campaign.]

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