\'What the hell is happening in NSW?\'

May 10, 2008

"What the hell is happening in NSW", interstate callers have been asking the Socialist Alliance national office in recent days. Many are former activists in NSW left politics, and remember with bitterness the days when "Sussex Street" (headquarters of Unions NSW and the ALP administration) could be relied upon to stifle any protest movement threatening the stability of NSW Labor in government.

And now? After Premier Morris Iemma decided to ignore the May 3 ALP state conference vote that rejected his electricity privatisation plan by an unprecedented 702 to 107, open war has broken out between the government ("Macquarie Street") and "Sussex Street".

However the conflict is resolved, someone is going to get hurt very badly. As Green Left Weekly goes to press there is a lull in the fighting, as negotiations take place between the NSW ALP's leading party officers (general secretary Karl Bitar and president Bernie Riordan) and Iemma and other parliamentary leaders.

Behind the scenes, however, furious pressure for "compromise" is being brought from ALP factional heavyweights. Yet, despite the claim of former NSW ALP secretary Stephen Loosely that "the skeleton of a solution is still present, resting on joint ownership of the generators, poles and wires remaining untouched and retail being sold", basically either the pro- or anti-privatisation forces must win.

Look at the two main "compromise" options:

•Privatising only the retail arms of the industry would raise very little income (around $3 billion) and leave the central issue of electricity generation unresolved. Corporate NSW certainly wouldn't feel any gratitude to Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa for such a miserable result.

•Floating the electricity generators but with the state of NSW retaining a majority stake won't attract the billions of dollars which Iemma and Costa are dreaming about, unless interested private partners receive guarantees (about management, staffing levels, etc.). But the more these are given, the greater the threat to jobs, maintenance standards and health and safety conditions. The end result of such "privatisation in slow motion" is there for all to see in Telstra, where the position of the workers and their unions has been devastated.

This reality explains the hysterical reaction of the pro-privatisation faction since the conference vote. Since May 3 NSW public opinion has been bashed by full-page ads, former PM Paul Keating, who stupidly lied in the Sydney Morning Herald about the billions lost to NSW state coffers since power privatisation was first rejected in 1997 and ranting former NSW treasurer Michael Egan, who wrote in the May 9 Australian "Public ownership of power … a view that is still held only in Cuba, North Korea and, it seems, Venezuela".

These and other former NSW Labor politicians and officials (nowadays all corporate types, bankers and advisers to the financial sector) are violently alarmed by the horrible thought that the democratic decision-making processes of their own party should take precedence over the appetites of the big end of town, subservience to which they call "sensible government".

So Egan wrote that Riordan and Unions NSW secretary John Robertson "must understand that you can have Labor conferences dictating what Labor parliamentarians may and may not do or you can have Labor governments. But history proves you cannot have both."

Egan and his mates are right about the stakes. A victory for the Stop the Sell-off campaign — and the 85% of people in NSW who support it — would be an enormous blow against "the natural superiority of the market". It's also why the NSW Coalition, which has been vacillating because of the unpopularity of the sell-off, has finally been forced off the fence by big-business pressure.

The privateers are concentrating their fire on Robertson and Riordan, who is also the NSW secretary of the Electrical Trades Union. All recent secretaries of Unions NSW, with the exception of NSW Industrial Relations Commission deputy president Peter Sams, have emerged to remind Robertson that his role in life is not to win campaigns (unless against the Liberals), but to reach a "satisfactory outcome" that doesn't endanger Labor's rule.

The other main point of pro-privatisation pressure is the 71-strong Labor parliamentary caucus. On May 6, the 28 Labor MPs who have accepted the sovereignty of the conference decision decided not to put the matter to a caucus vote, for fear of being placed in a minority. This was immediately portrayed by the mainstream media as acquiescence in Iemma's decision to go ahead with the sell-off.

The next move now lies with Unions NSW. The immediate job is to relaunch and scale up the campaign. A vigorous response, basing itself on the ALP conference resolution which stated that "any resolution of the matter must comply with the policy and platform of the Party", will also increase pressure on the spineless parliamentary caucus.

That response must be industrial — beginning with the next power industry delegates meeting — and moving as quickly as practicable to an all-affiliate delegates meeting to prepare support to power industry workers if and when they have to take industrial action. The May 10 State Council of the NSW Teachers Federation unanimously voted to call upon Unions NSW to organise such a meeting. Other unions should follow suit.

Mass public meetings leading to a NSW-wide day of action are another essential step in strengthening the campaign, the result of which will affect NSW politics for years to come.

[Dick Nichols is the national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]

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