Unions in tiff with Kirner
By Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — A plan to corporatise state utilities, including the State Electricity Commission, the Gas and Fuel Corporation and Melbourne Water, has been endorsed by the Kirner government's cabinet and by the Labor Party's parliamentary caucus.
The plan is opposed by the party's administrative committee, the Trades Hall Council and public sector unions. The administrative committee wanted a special state conference on the issue, and workers at the Gas and Fuel Corporation threatened to strike on May 20 and march on Parliament House.
Premier Joan Kirner said the changes would come into effect from October 1. The corporatised utilities would be run on business lines by new boards of management, would increase their dividends to the government and would have more autonomy.
Unions say the plan will lead to job cuts, higher prices and poorer service. Furthermore, they say it will facilitate privatisation of the utilities under a future Liberal government. The April 30 meeting of the THC condemned the corporatisation plan, adding, "overseas experience shows that corporatisation is privatisation by stealth".
On May 8, Kirner assured senior THC officials that her plan was actually an attempt to preserve public ownership of the utilities by ensuring greater efficiency.
The THC had threatened to convene a meeting of affiliates to plan a campaign of statewide industrial action and to reconsider trade union support for the Kirner government at the next election. These threats were dropped following the May 8 meeting, at which Kirner reportedly threatened to call a state election in June.
Several left union officials have endorsed a statement accusing the Labor government of succumbing to "New Right economic rationalist philosophy", and a private poll conducted by the Victorian ALP has found that 58% of Victorians oppose the privatisation of utilities.